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Joel's Blog

Monday, 05 October 2009 20:00

Fenn Valley Ice WineWhen it comes to Michigan wine prices, ice wine usually rises to the top.

Last year's trophy-winner for Best Dessert Wine, Brys Estate's 2007 "Dry Ice", weighs in at $70 for a 375ml half-bottle. Black Star Farms' 2007 "A Capella" Riesling Ice Wine -- which Barack Obama served at the White House earlier this year -- tips the scales at a whopping $92.50, according to the winery's website.

Price tags like these mean that most of us can only afford to pour ice wine on special occasions -- if at all.

Now, along comes Doug Welsch, proprietor of Fenn Valley Vineyards. Last Friday, Welsch released his 2008 "42" Ice Wine -- this year's Best Dessert Wine at the Michigan Wine Competition. (My necessarily-brief blind-tasting note from the trophy round judging consisted of a single word: "WOW!")

The winery price? $15 for 375ml. Not surprisingly, they're calling it "The Ice Wine Everyone Can Afford". 

"It's blowing out of here," Welsch told me. Tasting room manager Molli Young confirmed that she sold 20 cases over the weekend, just to walk-in tasters.

At that rate, it's a good thing they still have almost 900 cases left to go.

WTF? Yes, you read that right. While most wineries calculate ice wine inventories with an eye dropper, Fenn Valley bottled an eye-popping 918 cases of the trophy-winning "42", named for the latitude at which the grapes grew.

Welsch filled in some of the details. Lake Michigan Shore grower Dan Nitz supplied the grapes, which Fenn Valley employee Glen Greiffendorf picked in December*, when their sugar content hit 38% and nighttime temperatures dropped into the teens.

Carefully pressed while still frozen, each grape yielded just a couple of drops of ultra-flavorific, super-sweet juice. Welsch bought that raw juice and turned it into wine -- with 18.9% residual sugar to accompany its 10.4% alcohol.

But why so cheap for a trophy-winning ice wine? Welsch said some special circumstances let him halve his usual $30 to $35 ice wine price -- still low by Michigan standards.

The major reason: the cost of that raw juice. Because Nitz didn't have a buyer for his Vidal grapes, Welsch negotiated to buy more than 4000 gallons of  juice at the end of the season, paying less than half the normal price. Even after selling a majority of the finished wine to another winery, 900 cases remained -- enough to let Welsch drop the price in order to grease sales.

That's the opposite of typical ice wine marketing strategy, which seeks to maximize profits on each bottle of a very limited supply.

Welsch doesn't say those other ice wines are necessarily overpriced. He pointed out that grapes left on the vine to make ice wine may yield just 20% of the juice that the same vineyard would provide if they were picked during the normal harvest season.

But he does observe that ice wines made from Vidal always cost less to produce than those from Riesling -- and can therefore sell for less.

"It's about the base price of the grape," Welsch explained.  "Riesling is probably going to cost two-and-a-half or three times the price of Vidal."

Although he's also made Riesling ice wine in the past, Welsch doesn't feel the finished product reflects that varietal cost difference. "With ice wine, it's more about how it's made than what grape it's made from," he said.

Meanwhile, the quantities available are allowing Fenn Valley to pursue a second unheard-of strategy for Michigan ice wine: wholesaling some of those 900 cases to retailers. At last count, more 40 individual retailers statewide -- but no major chains -- had put "42" on their shelves.  Welsch expects them to sell it for $16 to $19 to savvy customers who understand just what they're buying.

Bottom line: right now, you and I have a unique opportunity to stock up on a trophy-winning ice wine at an unlikely-to-be-repeated fraction of the price of its peers.


*Greiffendorf reserved a small portion of that Vidal juice for his own use; the  resulting home-made ice wine took the overall trophy as the single best amateur wine at this summer's Indy International Wine Competition.

Friday, 18 September 2009 05:58

Here's a new wine web page we'd never see in Michigan.

On it, you'll find a list of Chicagoland restaurants where diners can BYO, complete with addresses and corkage fees.

That's right. People can actually walk into restaurants in Illinois or New York or California with a bottle of wine and, if the restaurant concurs, ask the server to pour it with the meal. It's a practice both consumer and business-friendly, encouraging folks to eat out far more often than we otherwise might.

Unlike those states, Michigan's laws in this area remain particularly neanderthal. As "Ask the Wine Geek" recently detailed, BYO is basically illegal in all restaurants here, a couple of loopholes excepted.

Like most Michigan beverage statutes, this reflects the power of Lansing lobbyists and political contributors, rather than any rational approach to regulation. Otherwise, it's hard to explain why I can legally drink my own wine in a licensed hotel restaurant -- but not at the place next door.

Fortunately, the number of BYO violations that come to public attention wouldn't fill a tastevin. And I'm certain -- but can't prove -- that even those few aren't due to restaurants behaving stupidly -- for example, by letting 18-year olds walk in with six-packs, or opening three bottles for some inebriate who subsequently rams a police car on the way home.

No, BYO violations generally arrive as "complaints" -- i.e. a restaurant down the street drops the dime on its competitor. Most typically, the guy who paid a pile for a license to sell wine at three times what he paid for it snitches on an unlicensed neighbor who's quietly providing glasses and a corkscrew for customers who walk in with a bottle.

Like most wine lovers, I've benefitted over the years from restaurants, both licensed and unlicensed, kind enough to let me bring a semi-licit cellar bottle or two to celebrate a special occasion. I try not to abuse their kindness, since these restaurants take risks that indicate they value both my patronage and discretion.

So why would anyone want to publicize who they are?

Beats me. But in the last few days, a number of Michigan social media folks have been atwit with the names of their favorite local BYOs. Some of those names are even being broadcast by folks who ought to know our state liquor laws.

They're not doing these restaurants any favors. By publicizing them, they're setting the stage for complaints by their competitors, and subsequent visits by the LCC, if they're licensed, or the local constabulary, if they're not.

So do you know a great little place that lets you enjoy a carried-in bottle with its well-prepared food? Great, enjoy it. By all means, share the name with a few wine loving friends so they can enjoy it too -- and help to keep the restaurant in business during these tough times.

And then, please shut up.

Tuesday, 08 September 2009 03:35

People who run wine competitions around the U.S. must wish they never heard the name Robert Hodgson.

Robert Hodgson
Robert Hodgson
Hodgson, a winery owner and retired professor from Cal State University (Humboldt), recently embarked on a new career: statistically debunking the reliability of wine competition medal awards.

Earlier this year, he published a study in the scholarly Journal of Wine Economics (who knew?). He concluded something that many winemakers and critics have long suspected: which medals wines get at competitions depends at least as much on who does the judging as on the wine itself.

Over four years, Hodgson tested 65 panels of judges at the California State Fair Wine Competition by slipping three samples from the same bottle into large judging flights.

The results? Fewer than half of the panels consistently gave the same wines the same medal. In one extreme case, a panel rejected two samples of a wine and awarded the third a double gold.

Individual judges performed far worse than the groups. Just 10% of them consistently voted the same medal to the same wine.

Last week, Hodgson stomped his other foot. In a new article that's lighting up online discussion groups nationwide, he examined over 4000 wines entered in 13 major wine competitions. His devastating indictment:

The probability of winning a Gold medal at one competition is stochastically independent of the probability of receiving a Gold at another competition, indicating that winning a Gold medal is greatly influenced by chance alone.

Among 2440 wines entered in more than three competitions, 47% (1142) took at least one gold medal. For those, like me, who frequently question the medal madness, that number alone calls the entire process into question.

Wherever Hodgson looked, he found inconsistencies. Among them:

  • 84% of the 1142 gold medalists received no medal at all in at least one other competition. In other words, one panel's top wine was rated sub-par by another.
  • Not one wine that entered four or more competitions received gold medals at all of them
  • Of 375 wines that entered five competitions, 132 (35%) won a gold medal somewhere along the way. But just six took gold at three competitions, and none at four or more. And 98% of those gold medalists also got a bronze medal or no medal at all in at least one other competition.
  • The median correlation between results at any two of the 13 competitions: 0.10. The high correlation: just 0.33.

Hodgson drew three conclusions:

  1. There is almost no consensus among the 13 wine competitions regarding wine quality.
  2. For wines receiving a Gold medal in one or more competitions, it is very likely that the same wine received no award at another.
  3. The likelihood of receiving a Gold medal can be statistically explained by chance alone.

Blogger Joe Roberts (1 Wine Dude) has since lobbed a few grenades in Hodgson's direction, calling his statistical analysis "pseudo-science" and "bordering on being totally irresponsible".

One major issue: lumping together 13 competitions may illuminate inconsistencies among them, but obscures whether those inconsistencies exist simply because the study compares some competitions that do a great job picking top wines with others that don't.

Meanwhile, other wine writers like Alder Yarrow at Vinography are saying "I've always told you so" when it comes to wine competitions.

Around here, the advice has always been: Drink what you enjoy, or get advice from folks whose palates you trust. Always keep in mind that most competitions exist for wineries to use as marketing tools, not for consumers to trust as buying guides.
Monday, 31 August 2009 20:00


Michigan rosé flight

You don't often see the word "epiphany" in a blog post.

But last Saturday, for the second time in two weeks, I watched group attitudes toward Michigan wine evolve just as notably, if less publicly, than at Harding's Cab Franc Challenge.

Let's set the stage. Every summer, a couple of wine-loving friends throw a tasting bash they call their "Wine Cellar Reduction Party". OK, the name's hokey. But during a tightly-scripted evening that can last longer than a Rich Rodriguez football practice, our generous host-cum-impresario trots out flight after superb flight for his oenophiliac guests.

A printed wine list guides us through the evening's excess. Some bottles are "interesting", recently procured, while cellar gems can have 20 years or more on them. During the evening we invariably play a raucous round of "guess what's in the brown paper bags".

In other words, this is a tough, wine geeky crowd that wouldn't have taken Michigan wine seriously even a few years ago.

Wine Cellar Reduction menuHence the epiphany when our hosts put out last Saturday's tasting list. Along with usual suspects like Kistler Chardonnay, 1990 Pichon-Baron and 1970 Taylor Port appeared three flights of Michigan wines: one rosé, one Pinot Noir, the third mostly Cabernet Franc. (Click the thumbnail to see the list in a readable-sized window). 

It would be nice to report that 2007 Brys and 2 Lads Cab Franc blew away the 1986 Cheval Blanc.

Nice, but inaccurate. It wasn't even close.

But it was fascinating to observe a group of serious wine lovers taste and discuss flights of serious Michigan wines that most had never tried.

Consternation prevailed over the rosés. This crowd primarily prefers its pinks bone dry, and many (but not all) of Michigan's showed significant sweetness. The two French in the flight appeared closer in style, if not quality, to group norms.

One infallible indicator -- which bottle empties first? -- pointed to Forty-five North Pinot Noir and 2 Lads Cab Franc rosés as the favorites. The former bottle disappeared into the house, never to return; the latter's unusual style caused its level to drop precipitously even as it elicited multiple comments, not 100% flattering, about its dark color.

Then, as if on cue, Wyncroft owner / winemaker Jim Lester showed up in perfect time to crash the Pinot Noir flight with -- surprise! -- his just-bottled 2007.

That wine -- dark and dense, but surprisingly elegant -- set the crowd abuzz. Debate ensued over whether it was more Oregonian or Burgundian, which Lester silenced by pronouncing it Michiganian. Another favorite, more fruit-driven, came from Shady Lane -- the only other 2007 in the flight.

Finally, a mixed flight of Cab Franc and other Bordeaux grapes, with two Lester add-ins: Fenn Valley's 2007 Meritage and his own 2002 Shou Bordeaux blend, from magnum.

Several bottles drew positive notice, starting with Fenn Valley's -- along with some regrets over artifacts from its American oak aging. Bowers Harbor's 2005 displayed the softening benefit of extra bottle time, while 2 Lads and Brys wowed with their usual medal-winning panache. Wyncroft again stood out from the crowd, showing both its age and Bordeaux-like qualities to advantage.

No, things didn't go downhill the rest of the evening (except for a Chilean Syrah...). Almost every top Bordeaux drank magnificently, offering silent feedback as to where, despite Michigan's vast strides, our wines stand in the world pecking order.

But that's not the point. The evening's clear take-away: a group of serious tasters found they could seriously enjoy a group of Michigan's better wines. And that development is unlikely to reduce any of our cellars in the years to come.

Wine Reduction Party

Monday, 24 August 2009 20:00

Winemakers Cornel Olivier and Coenraad Stassen
South African-trained winemakers Cornel Olivier of 2 Lads and Coenraad Stassen of Brys with their awards
A faint whiff of sour grapes permeated the air after the Michigan Cab Franc Challenge awards ceremony last Thursday.

Unsurprisingly, it seemed to originate near the tables where the southern winemakers were gathered. Their wares had been roundly trounced for bragging rights by their up-north colleagues, both at the Challenge and two weeks earlier, at the Michigan Wine Competition.

"Sure, they can do that in an unusual vintage like 2007," sniffed one southerner about Old Mission's winning Cabernets. "But let's see what kind of wine they make from 2008." 

"They're not varietally correct," said another. "And certainly not Michigan-style."

Across the room, Terry Stingley of Harding's Markets, whose fertile brain conceived the Challenge and Harding's Cup trophy, was spinning his theory of how Brys Estate and 2 Lads, separated by just a few peninsular miles, swept the three top awards against all comers from around the state.

(That sweep was even more lopsided than most bystanders realized; 2 Lads' regular-release Cab Franc nabbed the Challenge's unannounced fourth place.)

"Terroir," said Stingley, not one to shy from the grand pronouncement. "This is the start of the concept of terroir in the state of Michigan."

Of course the unusual 2007 vintage and Old Mission's terroir played their role. But so did a less-noticed factor: both Coenraad Stassen of Brys and Cornel Olivier of 2 Lads trained as winemakers at South African universities -- Stassen at Elsenburg, Olivier at Stellenbosch -- before they took internships at Old Mission wineries and decided to remain.

As Challenge judge and Master Sommelier Claudia Tyagi sagely noted, "It speaks to the wisdom of Chateau Grand Traverse and Chateau Chantal that they were involved in the work/study programs that brought Cornel and Coenraad here."

Coenraad Stassen's license plate Family ties to South African wine make me a less-than-objective observer. But visits to Cape wine country regularly demonstrate the engineer-like rigor with which South African wimemakers learn to approach their craft, especially their near-obsession with sanitation.

Winemaking legend André van Rensburg of top-drawer Vergelegen -- much-admired by Olivier -- requires employees to shower and don clean scrubs before they can enter the winery. You'd think he was prepping for an operation, not a fermentation.

The backrooms at both Brys and 2 Lads reflect a similar obsession, albeit slightly more moderate. As Olivier once told me, "I spend half my time as a janitor."

By virtue of their formal training and South African experience, both winemakers came prepared for Michigan to hand them an atypically long, warm growing season like 2007.  The wines they made that year may not be "Michigan-style" -- but that's because the vintage wasn't, either.

But not every Michigan winemaker brings their broader perspective to the table.

"Every harvest is different, one from another, here in Michigan, unlike South Africa where the growing season is pretty much the same each year," Stassen told MichWine for a 2007 article, right around harvest-time for the trophy-winning Brys Artisan Cab Franc.

"As a result, in South Africa you can make a half decent wine without that much effort. Here, if you are sharp, it drives you to learn more and provides a challenge. Your winemaking style is much more influenced by whether you had a cool or warm growing season."

"I got my backbone in South Africa and I love a challenge."

Last week's results are a little bit about the vintage, and a little bit about the terroir

But they're a whole lot about the guys who make the wine.


A hat tip to Terry Stingley and Tim Harding for letting media folks sit in on the Challenge judging, start to finish. Both Dianna Stampfler of Promote Michigan and Shannon Casey of Michigan by the Bottle joined me to blog, tweet and photograph the goings-on from what we dubbed the "media table".

Admittedly, major time blocks at wine judgings are deadly dull to non-combatants, even those with a wine geek mindset. But the organization and judges' professionalism impressed those of us with observer status. Except for one corked bottle that might have been detected before pouring, the process went off without a glitch.

Thursday, 20 August 2009 12:34

Please refresh periodically for updates. Pictures: Bottles ready to taste. Patrick Fegan of Chicago Wine School.  Importer Jean-Jacques Fertal.cftasting.jpg.jpg

5:35 PM Live from Kalamazoo's Park Club. All six judges are here -- 22 Cab Francs ready to taste!

5:42 PM Judges just told that a total of just 85 acres of Cab Franc are planted in the state. They think the first CF grapes were not planted until 1990 or 1991.

5:45 PM First flight going in front of the judges -- six wines

5:57 PM Judges tabulating the scores on the first flight of wines. They will pick the top two wines from each flight to go into the final round -- a third if judging is close.

6:02 PM No questions or serious debate in this flight; Wines 1 and 3 clear winners. Both will both go into final round. First flight glasses being removed.

6:16 PM Now onto second flight -- 5 wines. Organizer Terry Stingley says that each of the wines being tasted tonight is 100% Cab Franc, no blending. Why am I dubious?

Patrick Fegan judging

6:25 PM  Scoring separately with no discussion, five of six judges picked the same wine in this flight as the best. That's pretty impressive. Second place wine also a clear winner. The judges are real pros, and things are going very smoothly.

6:29 PM Flight three now being served; six wines. Dianna Stampfler from Promote Michigan just sat down next to me at the media table and is trying to get online.

6:33 PM Just replaced one corked wine with a fresh bottle.

6:43 PM Judges' scoring all over the lot on this flight, and no one is all that fond of any of them except the first-place finisher. Sent the second-place wine into the finals with a distinct lack of enthusiasm.

 6:50 PM Final preliminary flight being served; five wines. Swirl, sniff, sip, spit. Repeat.

Jean-Jacques Fertal

7:02 PM Now scoring final preliminary flight. Some slight confusion getting scores recorded. Again, a clear first place and not much enthusiasm for any other.

7:08 PM Short break in the action while the final flight gets poured. Eight wines, the top two from each of the four preliminary flights. Been joined at the media table by Shannon Casey who's tweeting @michbythebottle.

7:10 PM Debate breaks out on whether to judge final flight on current drinkability or ultimate quality. They decide for current. I disagree -- but I'm not judging today. That's a serious issue here, because so many of the wines from this vintage are really tannic and backward.

7:15 PM YUM! Media table just got perfectly broiled baby lamb chops from the Park Club. Too bad the judges can't try them yet -- would ruin their palates! They're now tasting the eight finalists.

7:35 PM Indecision strikes!! Panel narrows eight finalists down to five wines; can't go any further. Will retaste all five. Short delay.

7:40 PM Discussion with a couple of the judges over methoxypyrozene (SP! -- green bell pepper flavors) in Cabernet Franc. Others find is much less objectionable than I do. To me, it's defiicient grape-growing -- failure to get them fully ripe. Several judges say it's a natural component, to be expected in the grape.

7:55 PM Now ranking final five wines.

8:05 PM WINNERS  -- not yet announced here! #3 -- Brys Estate; #2 -- 2 Lads Reserve; #1 Brys Estate Artisan Series


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Need to Know


Early results from an experiment by Chateau Margaux's Paul Pontallier indicate that screwcaps may age red wine better than natural cork -- plus eliminate any risk of corked bottles, as reported in The Drinks Business. 


The 2011-2 mild weather was healthy for Michigan's vineyards, but it's played havoc with state winemakers who leave grapes on the vine in hopes that they'll freeze for the production of icewine, reports AP writer John Flesher.


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.


Warming climate may help cooler grape-growing regions -- like England -- but could damage places like Napa, writes jounalist John McQuaid in Yale's environmental magazine.


Western Farm Press reports that Cornell Prof Miguel Gomez is studying how smaller wineries can jointly create a successful cool-climate wine region. He'll look at emerging areas in Michigan, New York and Missouri.


Here's one for some Michigan entrepreneur to try! A just-opened Long Island outlet mall store will sell nothing but New York State wines. Starting inventory at Empire State Cellars: 400 labels from 150 wineries.


Want a refresher about Michigan wine history and potential? Get a quick two page cheat-sheet by Layne Cameron in Western Farm Press, and make some allowances for the MSU-centricity (the author's employer).

Links to wine news from Michigan and elsewhere. Use the Contact Form to let us know what should be here.


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.