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Monday, 20 September 2010 20:00

I spent "A Day in the Vineyard" last Sunday, leading a group visit to three southeastern Michigan vineyards / wineries, in cooperation with Michigan Agritours. We were out to sample ready-to-pick grapes from the vine and watch freshly-crushed juice all abubble in its fermenters.

Memo to self: To instantly grasp the relationship between the flavor of grapes as an agricultural crop and their value-added vinous offspring, NOTHING beats chowing down on a healthy handful of Gewurztraminer at Glaciers Edge Farms. Just remember to spit the pits; these ain't no Thompson Seedless.

Then it was on to the cellars and tasting rooms of Sandhill Crane and Chateau Aeronautique to sample their wines -- all decent, a few very good.

Finally, back on the bus for the run home, and the inevitable question I'd been dreading:

"Those wines were great, better than we'd expected. Where can we buy them?"

Tonight I'm speaking at a dinner in Grand Rapids that features wines from Brys Estate and Gills Pier. Sometime after dinner, I expect the same question.

"Where can I buy them?"

For the top wines in the state, my answer is invariably the same: "You'll have to visit the winery, or order them from the winery's website."

Which, to all but the most dedicated consumers, means they'll never taste those wines again.

There's a connection between that fact and the articles from Dan Berger and the LA Times on MichWine's front page that bring up the disrespect Michigan wines get from residents of their native state. If consumers can't easily find and enjoy Michigan's top wines, then most of us will judge Michigan wines by those we're able to find: in the neighborhood supermarket or party store.

And most of those aren't the wines I'd like our state's industry judged by, even if they do represent some of our largest producers. After all, we don't critique California's wine industry based on labels like Gallo, Franzia and Two Buck Chuck.

By now, I've heard every standard responses a hundred times. Most of Michigan's best wines come in tiny quantities that couldn't go into widespread distribution. Many of the best wineries are small and relatively inefficient, and could never afford the discounts required to sell at wholesale.

None of these are wrong. They all have validity.

Still, as I get ready to walk into Grand Rapids' University Club for tonight's dinner, I can't help but wish I could point the folks I'll meet tonight down the street to buy a bottle of 2008 Chateau Aeronautique Cabernet Franc Reserve or 2007 Gills Pier Cabernet / Merlot.

Our Michigan wine industry's reputation would be much the better for it.

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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.