Sunday, October 21, 2007

Northern Michigan Wine Extravaganza

It's a Michigan thing--go up north, see the fall color, and do wine tastings at a half a dozen vineyards or so. The Leelanau Peninsula, also known for its cherries, is becoming more and more recognized for its wines.

There's several dozen wineries up there, including one run by Madonna's Dad. No way to see them all in a day, really, so you have to pick just a few and find yourself a designated driver to really enjoy the experience.

The leaves were great. The wine experience was mixed.

If you never been wine tasting, the first thing to know is each tasting room has a different vibe. Some, like Shady Lane, are rather elegant, with a backyard patio for you to enjoy your tastings. Some, like L. Mawby are hip and edgy, with witty sayings plastered all around and irreverent wine names, like Sex. (Insert your own sex joke here)

I can't forget to mention Boskydel winery, which is run by a curmudgeon who makes some mighty fine, yet inexpensive, wine, that he sells out of a shop a little bigger than a dorm room.

Black Star Farms, one of the more famous wineries in the area, is the exact opposite of Boskydel. To accommodate the large volume of tasters that come in, the tasting room is one big bar, and the floor is easy-to-clean concrete. Then they have a smaller, carpeted tasting room for the "good stuff," ciders, ice wines and fruit cordials.

And that, right there, sums up the problem with wine tastings in Michigan these days. Two years ago, when I went on my first wine tasting, nearly everything was free. Black Star was the only place that charged you for your samples. The other places assumed let their wines speak for themselves, and that you would buy something you liked. They assumed you cared

Now, everybody follows the Black Star model, or something similar. At Black Star, you pay for your own glass, for $5, and you get to taste the basics. Once you have the glass, you get to keep it, and can come back next week, or next season, for free. However, you have to pay extra for their "good stuff," as I stated above.

The other model is the "wine flight" model. You pay between $3 and $5 for four wines (give or take) and a little snack on the side (usually crackers with goat cheese or fish pate).

Now, I'm all for snacks with wine, but a wine tasting it is not. And it kinda ruins the real experience for people who actually like to learn about wine and taste different things.

My first wine tasting ever, was more than five years ago at a place called Bel Lago,. We got to try as much as we wanted for free, and the person pouring actually talked about what the wine tasted like. This Riesling tastes like flowers, she said, and I could taste the flowers (and hated them, but at least I could taste them). Now, compare and contrast this oaked Chardonay with this one that was fermented in steel barrels. Taste the difference? What do you like? What don't you like?

With the new model, it's all about economics. They figure most people aren't serious wine drinkers--they're just up there to get trashed and to have a good time. They don't value you as a consumer, so they can't trust you to buy anything, thus the paid tastings. No one tries to educate you about the wine--they only tell you the name, and any awards its won to try to impress you. And nobody spits.

And I didn't spit either. I wasn't up there for a fine wine experience--I was up to see some old friends and enjoy the company and the weather. But even though I enjoyed it, I still need to criticize the lesser points of the day. I'd like to see more places go back to the older model, where they actually teach you something about wine, and trust you, instead of being focused on the line-out-the-door-of-the-tasting-room and their own Bottom Line.

Whitefish pate be damned.

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