Napa flaunts its Cabernet Sauvignon. Australia showcases Shiraz; Argentina makes Malbec. And Michigan has its... ?
Terry Stingley: Looking for Michigan's identity
That sets Terry Stingley's teeth on edge. He says it's time our state created an "identity wine" -- a varietal that leaps to mind wherever wine lovers hear the word "Michigan".
What's more, he thinks he's found it: Cabernet Franc. And he's hard at work on a project to put his boss's name and money where his palate is.
Stingley's the head wine guy at Harding's, a Kalamazoo-based grocery chain. Although he's lived here just two years, he's turned into a Michigan wine fanatic.
Want proof? His flagship store stocks nearly 200 Michigan wines, which he terms the state's largest selection -- though Traverse City's Blue Goat might call him out on that.
Unlike most wine buyers, he doesn't wait for sales reps to walk in the door with samples. Stingley stalks wineries statewide, relentlessly road-tripping to taste from barrels and nurture relationships with winemakers. That's one reason you'll find wines like Brys Estate's "Signature Red" and Contessa's "Tres Tenores" on the shelf at Harding's -- and few other places.
Stingley also Thinks Big. And right now, what occupies his thoughts is how to turn Cab Franc into Michigan's "identity wine".
"Everyone looks for a region's top grape," he explained. "They know that Argentina and Malbec are synonymous."
Visions of the 1976 Paris Challenge, which put Napa Cabernet on the world map, clearly dance before his eyes. "Now it's Michigan's turn," he said. "We've got the juice. These winemakers are on fire. There's a window of opportunity, and we just need the world to pay attention."
Stingley is nothing if not enthusiastic. If the world doesn't pay attention, it won't be for lack of effort on his part.
With strong support from his boss, Tim Harding, Stingley will commandeer downtown Kalamazoo's hoity-toity Park Club on August 20 for a first-of-its-kind "Michigan Cab Franc Challenge". A panel of judges, just now being recruited, will taste and rate samples of premium-quality 2007 Cabernet Franc from around the state.
The winner receives -- what else? -- the Harding's Cup. Like its
Stanley analogue, Stingley plans to engrave the cup with each year's winner and rotate it to victorious wineries at future Challenges. (One's mind boggles at visions of St. Julian's David Braganini taking an Yzerman-like victory lap around the judging room with the Harding's Cup held aloft.)
Eighteen wineries have already committed to participate in the hastily-organized judging, among them such Cab Franc heavyweights as 2 Lads, Brys, Forty-Five North and Domaine Berrien. A still-undetermined number of winemakers plan to attend the public tasting and Park Club dinner to follow.
To keep judges' palates honest -- and gauge if Michigan Cab Franc is, in fact, ready for the world stage -- Stingley plans to plant a couple of ringers in the tasting from Chinon in France's Loire Valley, a cool-climate region where Cab Franc reigns supreme. He's yet to make clear what happens if -- as in 1976 Paris -- a foreign wine walks off with top honors.
He picked a great vintage to launch the Challenge. Over the last
few months, I've tasted a lot of 2007 Cab Francs, just now coming onto
the market. It's not puffery to say that, as a group, they represent the
best red wine vintage Michigan has ever produced.
What's less certain is whether Harding's can pull off a judging worthy of Stingley's concept in such a short time frame -- the right format, the right wines, the right judges. Stingley says they can; I'm keeping a skeptical eye cocked.
And one other question remains. 2007 represents an unquestionably exceptional vintage for Michigan red wine. Would Michigan winemakers -- or the folks at Harding's -- want
to lay claim to Cab Franc from years like 2006 or 2004 as the state's "identity wine"?
UPDATE 7/18/09: Terry Stingley announced the first three judges for the Cab Franc Challenge: Patrick Fegan, director of the Chicago Wine School, Detroit-area importer Jean-Jacques Fertal, and Michigan-based Master Sommelier Claudia Tyagi.
As yet, the Challenge has no web presence. Those interested in more information or attending the public tasting and dinner to follow can contact Terry Stingley, firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet him @thewineguru.