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by Jim Lester
Co-owner / winemaker, Wyncroft

Imagine this: you hand a poor-quality steak to Wolfgang Puck and say,

Jim Lester
Jim Lester
"Wolfgang, make me a great dinner using this meat. I want to see what a great chef you are!"

How do you think he would respond? My guess is that you might even learn a few new words in German!

But suppose he doesn't laugh and tell you to get lost, and instead decides to humor you. What would you find on your plate from this great chef? A perfectly prepared, beautifully presented, lousy steak!

A winemaker, likewise, can never be better than his grapes. Great wines can only be made from great fruit. So the first concern of a winemaker who aspires to make great wines is to understand how to produce great grapes. And who better to undertake growing the best fruit than the winemaker himself!

Of course it's not quite that simple to turn visions into reality. How does one know what grapes to plant and where to plant them? It seems self-evident that one must grow only the varieties of grapes which are responsible for the world's greatest wines. Then it’s necessary to understand what soils and climates are best for those grapes to reach full potential. And, finally, one must learn how to farm them properly.

"We'll get lower yields than California or even France, but that translates into richer flavors and higher quality – which can command a price."

When I arrived in southwest Michigan from Washington State in 1976, I saw fruit farms everywhere. Since I grew up on Yakima apples, peaches, and apricots, I noticed that the Michigan fruit were much smaller than my home state's – but, oh, what intense ripe flavors! I was tasting great fruit!

A few years later, when I became interested in fine wine, my experience with other Michigan fruits suggested that intensely flavored wine grapes could grow here. Using France as a model, I compared weather data and soil from southwest Michigan with Bordeaux and Burgundy, home of my favorite wines.

Here are my conclusions. On the plus side:

  • Southern Michigan is further south than all of France, near the 42nd parallel which intersects the Pyrenees Mountains of Northern Spain and Rome, Italy.
  • Since we are further from the ocean, our spring comes later, but our fall is longer.
  • Our growing season is a bit longer than either Bordeaux or Burgundy, and we have more heat unit accumulation. This makes Michigan a more reliable area for attaining full ripeness.
  • In the southwest, areas of mineral rich stony clay left by the glaciers of the last ice age are similar to the soils of the best sites in Europe. These  stony clay soils are found in a ridge of hills just 5 to 10 miles from the lakeshore. The high ground provides excellent sun exposure, while the low areas give excellent air drainage on frosty spring mornings.
  • The  proximity to Lake Michigan creates a "lake effect" microclimate that moderates winter lows and summer highs, while the abundant lake effect snow insulates the vines against the extemes of Michigan winters.

Yet we also face some serious challenges that France doesn't have:

  • Our winters can be much colder, damaging the buds that carry next year's fruit and reducing our crop.
  • We have weeks of muggy humid and hot weather, which favors the growth of several mildews and molds that attack the vines and fruit.

But necessity is our mother of invention. We can accept that we'll get lower yields than California or even France, but that translates into richer flavors and higher quality – which can command a price.

"Think of Michigan's Southwest as Bordeaux and Burgundy, while the Traverse City area is the Loire, Champagne and the Rhineland.

While many microclimates and  soils along the lakeshore still wait to be explored,  we have enough experience now in Traverse City, Fennville and Southwest Berrien County to draw conclusions about wine styles and grape varieties. The Southwest has the warmest summers, allowing us to fully ripen late varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon. Looking to Europe as an analogy, think of Michigan's Southwest as Bordeaus and Burgundy, while the Traverse City area is the Loire, Champagne and the Rhineland.

It's only relatively recently that Michigan winemakers took aim at producing world-class wines. Previously, hybrid grapes making inferior wines were the standard. Most of the new generation of wineries, like Chateau Grand Traverse and Wyncroft, have committed to focus entirely on Europeean grape varieties.

We believe that the future of our industry is to aim high, for top quality that can command a good bottle price. Our intention is to produce compellingly rich, complex, age-worthy wines which can be directly compared to their classical French counterparts. We believe Southwest Michigan has the soil and climate to produce world-class quality.

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KIM'S SECRET STASH

Recently-deceased Korean dictator Kim Jong Il was a wine geek (and reputed alcoholic) with a 10,000-bottle cellar, according to ex-Slate wine columnist Mike Steinberger. Kim earlier gave up Hennessy Cognac on doctor's orders.