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Tuesday, 10 March 2009 06:05

Image Several months back, David Creighton wrote how Michigan might benefit from a scheme like Ontario's Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA). I'll second this suggestion -- and add one reason beyond those David mentioned.

Some backgound. Ontario's VQA exists to raise the quality level -- and the public image -- of wines made from higher quality local grapes. VQA wines are "verified to confirm their origin and tested to ensure they meet a rigorous set of quality standards." Wines that meet these standards -- which include a taste test -- are allowed to slap a VQA label on their bottles. Those that don't, aren't.

Ontario wine consumers have learned from non-stop marketing efforts that VQA labels appear on the best wines their Province produces. To be sure, more than one mediocre VQA wine has crossed my palate -- but never a truly bad or defective one.

Back to Michigan. David pointed out two important qualities a Michigan VQA might include: only certain grape varieties would automatically be eligible, and the addition of sugar (chaptalization) would be prohibited or severely limited.

To these, I'll add a third: Just as every Ontario VQA wine must contain 100% Ontario grapes, a Michigan VQA label would instantly tell the consumer that a Michigan wine is, in fact, a Michigan wine.

This is the Michigan wine industry's dirty little secret: how many wines made and sold by Michigan wineries contain, in whole or part, juice from non-Michigan grapes. And how many wineries go out of their way to blur the distinction.

Let's take one point off the table: there's no reason Michigan wineries shouldn't bottle and sell wines from out-of-state fruit, if that fits their business plan. One of my favorite California Pinot Noir producers contracts for grapes from Oregon vineyards. Top-tier California winemaker Paul Hobbs, like Chateau Chantal's Mark Johnson, flies to Argentina over our winter to make Malbec.

But these folks are up-front about what they're doing. The Pinot Noir guy clearly labels his bottling as Oregon wine, not "Sonoma Cellars".

Paul Hobbs doesn't call his Mendoza Malbec "a taste of Northern California".

And Chateau Chantal, to its credit, doesn't hide Johnson's Argentine Malbec behind a geography-free label identical to its Michigan wines, but puts the "Lujan de Coyo" appellation front and center on an entirely different label.

Why does the blurring of identity matter to our state's wine industry, and what does it have to do with the need for a Michigan VQA? Read the rest in Part 2 .

 
Monday, 02 March 2009 20:00

Last week, members of Michigan's wine industry got together at Crystal Mountain to discuss - well, things that interest winemakers and winery owners. Along with seminars, sipping and shmoozing, several items surfaced worth passing on to Michigan wine fans. Among them:

Winemakers range from enthusiastic to near-giddy over the quality of the 2007 red wines they're bottling and / or releasing over the next few months. Those I tasted from bottle affirm their judgment; Dan Matthies of Chateau Fontaine was offering small pours of his unreleased Woodland Red. It's classic cool-climate red: elegant, balanced and chock-full of primary fruit flavors that's started to knit together and put on some weight since I last tasted it just after bottling in early fall. But definitely has a way to go...

No such enthusiasm was heard in most quarters about the wet (south) and cold (north) 2008 vintage; two winemakers told me that they'd turned their entire 2008 Pinot Noir crop into rosé.
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Rick Coates, former marketer for the Leelanau Peninsula Vintners, is authoring a takealong guidebook for visiting state wine country, titled The Glovebox Guide to Michigan Wineries.  It hits bookshelves on April Fools Day, published by the University of Michigan Press (and already available for pre-order from Amazon -- but not at Michigan-based Borders). In addition to usual-suspect type information -- maps, phone numbers, tasting room hours -- Rick plans to include an assortment of features to help travelers make the most of visits to wineries and time spent in wine country. MichWine's review copy is already reserved.
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At a time when few other state industries can boast their kind of double-digit growth, Michigan wineries are warily starting to flex some political muscle in Lansing. Over the next year, look for a push on several consumer-friendly legislative initiatives to extend wineries' marketing reach. Among the possibilities:

  • Farm Market Licenses would allow wineries to set up mobile tasting rooms to offer tastes and sell wine directly to consumers at licensed farm markets that offer local agricultural products. Several other states, including California and New York, already let their wineries do this.
  • Horizontal ownership would let multiple wineries jointly own and share the operating costs of facilities such as warehouses and tasting rooms, making it more affordable for them to reach customers directly at additional locations.
  • Distillery tasting rooms. Several micro-distillers operate in industial-zoned areas that don't allow tasting rooms. On tap: a bill to let distilleries, like wineries, operate off-site tasting rooms, apart from their production facilities.

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Less consumer-friendly, but probably necessary: a possible legislative proposal to formally legalize tasting fees at wineries. Technically against current Michigan law, some wineries get around it with a variety of subterfuges -- from requiring the purchase of a tasting glass to inclusion of small food items for which the winery can charge. A few wineries simply ignore the law and collect a fee, particularly for their pricier reserves or ice wines. 

More on this in a future post.
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I got to taste the best Michigan wines we can't buy during an after-hours bash hosted by Chateau Chantal. Ann Arborite Bill MacDonald -- owner of an Old Mission Peninsula vineyard and three-time winner of the state fair's home winemaker competition -- shared bottles of his 2007 Pinot Meunier and 2008 Lemberger Rosé. Although neither varietal is exactly a household name, both wines were killer. The good news: the previous week, Bill also surfaced at MSU's Winery Establishment Conference, designed to help potential Michigan winery owners. So there may be some young MacDonalds in our future...
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Traverse City-based appraiser Michael Tarnon told a seminar that Northern Michigan land prices had gone through a "bubble" but were returning to earth. The primary reality-check, according to Tarnon: can owners still run a profitable winery considering what they pay for their vineyards? He pointed to the failure of any of the three Leelanau wineries currently on the market to sell as one indication that they were "overpriced". One silver lining; during the current downturn, vineyard property is holding its value better than general agricultal land.

 
Thursday, 19 February 2009 07:50

Rae Lee LesterRae Lee Lester, President and co-owner of Wyncroft Winery with her husband, Jim, died on February 6 at age 56, after battling cancer for more than four years.

That's how any obituary might begin. But those who had the opportunity to share a glass with Rae Lee know that a genuine force of nature has departed Michigan's wine world.

Rae Lee was a whirlwind of words and motion, possessor of a fabulous tasting palate, never at a loss for an opinion or bon mot and always at home with the bawdy quip. Jim tells the story of a Pinot Noir tasting at which she was the only female in the room. After several less-than-inspiring wines, a better sample caused another taster to enthuse, "Now there's a wine that's got balls" -- to which Rae Lee immediately silenced the room with the zinger, "No, this is Pinot Noir. It's got tits."

She and Jim met when she was 16, married at 20, and remained full partners for more than 35 years -- both in their winery and their life. Their shared passion led them to create Wyncroft, with the goal of becoming the first winery to make world-class wine from Michigan grapes, and they proudly proclaimed it as Michigan's smallest winery.

Between the two, Rae Lee was the visionary who kept her eye on the overview, the long-term philosophy. She came up with the Wyncroft name, along with the concept that the winery should operate without a tasting room, selling its wines only by the case to a mailing list.

Yet she wasn't above getting her hands dirty -- far from it. During Wyncroft's first couple of years, before they had wines to sell, Jim held an outside wine sales job to keep them afloat financially, while Rae Lee farmed the vineyard on a daily basis -- pruning, tying and weeding the vines.

The mere fact that they were partners didn't mean they always concurred. As Rae Lee repeatedly said, "If the two of you always agree about everything, one of you is unnecessary."

Jim and Rae Lee Lester
Jim and Rae Lee Lester, 2007
For example, whenver I tasted their wines with Rae Lee and Jim, she'd try to goad me into commenting on the Chardonnay -- never a particularly difficult task -- knowing full well that she and I shared a stylistic preference for far less oaky, buttery versions than Jim preferred to make.

Once she'd elicited my opinion  she'd turn to Jim with an "I told you so!" glint in her eye. And this was one battle she seemed to be slowly winning; Wyncroft's last couple of Chardonnay vintages are decidedly throttled-down from those that preceded them.

But it never bothered Jim when she was right. In fact, one of the precepts behind their relationship was the strength of their mutual respect: they would only act when they came to agreement on a course to follow. While that could make their decision-making lengthy, it kept their partnership strong.

Above all, Rae Lee believed in the healing, soothing power of good food and wine. During the Michigan Wine Industry Annual Meeting a couple of years back, I remember coming back to their place at Crystal Mountain after one long session. While other owners and winemakers wandered in and out and Jim popped some corks, Rae Lee -- already well into her illness but still in constant motion -- turned out a stream of mouth-watering dishes from the chalet's tiny kitchen, despite our protestations of "Enough!" 

She somehow sensed that, with sufficient good food and wine in front of us, both she and we could forget the troubles of the day and take our pleasures from the moment and the company.

Rae Lee, I take a great deal of pleasure remembering the moments spent in your company.

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Jim Lester advises that there will be a memorial and celebration of Rae Lee's life at 3 PM on Saturday, February 28, at the First Unitarian Church of South Bend, 101 East North Shore Drive, South Bend, IN 46617.  All who would like to attend are welcome.

 
Wednesday, 21 January 2009 09:16

Here's one more New Year resolution down the tubes. The one about no more posts on wine shipping.

Thing were going well until President Obama (damn, that sounds good) got on the radio to announce implementation of strict new rules against a revolving door between government jobs and those as paid lobbyists.

That's when I lost it.

Now comes term-limited former Michigan State Representative Barbara Farrah. MIRS news service put things succinctly yesterday:

Farrah To Join GCSI

Former Rep. Barb FARRAH will be joining the staff of multi-client lobbying firm Governmental Consultant Services Inc. (GCSI) beginning in February.

Farrah, a former community outreach and local government official before being elected to the House in 2002, was term limited out of office last year.

"We are delighted to have Barb join the GCSI lobbying team," said GCSI Partner Michael HAWKS. "Barb earned the respect from both sides of the political isle through her many legislative accomplishments. She will be a great advocate for our clients."

Farrah, of Southgate, served in the House as a Democrat representing the 13th District.

Those who followed the retail shipping dustup late last year are familiar with one particular "legislative accomplishment" of ex-rep Farrah: she introduced the House bill to ban all wine delivery by Michigan retailers. Then, switching hats to her role as Chair of the Regulatory Reform Committee, she ramrodded the bill through her committee the following morning with exactly 15 minutes "notice" of the mandatory public hearing. Needless to say, no potential opponents were in attendance.

To close the circle: one of the largest clients of GCSI -- Farrah's new employer -- is the Michigan Beer and Wine Wholesalers Association (MBWWA), behind-the-scenes movers and sole beneficiaries of Farrah's bill. They also footed a slightly different bill last winter: for Rep. Farrah to attend their annual meeting in sunny climes far south of Michigan.

Let's spell this out: Farrah's next paycheck will come from the same pockets she helped to pad in her last job as a short-time elected lawmaker just two months ago.

To be clear, I don't know of any specific impropriety or quid pro quo deal between Rep. Farrah, her future employers, and that employer's major client. Maybe they simply said to themselves, "Damn, that was quite a legislative accomplishment. Since she'll be out of a legislative job come January, maybe we should hire an employee like that."

But such inappropriate-appearing conduct by officeholders emits a massive Lansing-based stink. And it goes a long way toward explaining why few people respect Michigan's legislature, and take far less seriously than they might the endless "we're going to change" bloviations of the Governor who signed the shipping ban into law -- another multi-term recipient of MBWWA campaign largesse.

On the day when the state's unemployment rate hit 10.6%, Michigan citizens and businesses might welcome elected officials who appear to pay less attention to their own employment prospects and campaign coffers than to another quote of President Obama, this from his inaugural address, "Our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests ... – that time has surely passed.”

 
Friday, 05 December 2008 06:16

This morning a friend phoned to see if I'd join him on a jaunt to Chicago to pick up some older wines he'd bought there, and bring them back to Michigan.

Almost simultaneously, an email arrived from a plugged-in Michigan wine guru, riffing on why Michigan retailers weren't more actively opposing the wine delivery ban. "Their attitude has been if this becomes law, we won't follow it because there will not be enforcement -- not enough personnel in LCC to do it. Out-of-state retailers may or may not ship in and that does not matter to them."

That's the elephant in the corner of the retail delivery squabble. Delivery bans are like other laws contrary to the public interest, passed at the behest of small but politically powerful groups. Once folks realize a law can't be defeated legitimately -- but also can't be properly enforced -- they simply decide to ignore it.

By coincidence, today's the 75th anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition -- when the Detroit River resembled a Canadian whisky pipeline. That's the kind of ignoring I'm talking about.

Not unlike 2008, when most wine lovers can tick off several ways to get wines into Michigan if they aren't available for sale here.

Simply passing a law doesn't alter the inconvenient fact that Michigan residents will still need wine delivered to parties and weddings -- and see nothing wrong with asking a retailer to do it. Or that 90% of the wine labels sold in the US aren't available through Michigan's distributor cartel -- and people see nothing wrong with looking elsewhere for those products.

In other words, bad laws create their own lawbreakers.

Politically savvy types warned me not to bring up this particular elephant. They said that rubbing lawmakers' faces in the reality that people might blow off the bad laws they write can offend the political ego -- and make them even more likely to pass those laws, just to show they can.

I'm also advised that this argument might be used as political ammunition to brand pro-delivery folks as a bunch of scofflaws.

Knock yourselves out, but nothing's further from the truth. Given his druthers, my buddy would prefer to save the drive to Chicago and pay to have his older wines delivered to Michigan, even if that means shelling out for our state sales tax. Most retailers sleep better knowing they're above board when they deliver a couple of cases to a customer, even if the LCC isn't going to catch up to them.

But they won't blindly obey senseless regulations that clearly serve no public purpose beyond protecting the high-donating wholesaler lobby. Any more than wholesalers themselves obey the rules about pouring tasting samples for retail buyers, or travelling with open sample bottles in the car.

So we may have to relearn another lesson first taught during Prohibition: when government flouts the public will to make something illegal, that won't  stop people from doing it  -- but it definitely prevents government from being able to properly regulate or collect taxes on it.

 
Monday, 01 December 2008 20:00

A Michigan journalist with whom I correspond emailed yesterday that she tries "to avoid opinion on subjects I'm covering" -- a reference to my undisguised bias in the state's wrangle over retail wine delivery.

Sorry, but that's a load of malarky. Not to mention self-delusion.

The notion of "objective" journalism got a lot of play during the election, usually in reference to how reporters should handle wildly inaccurate attack ads. The argument frequently went this way: Candidate A says the sky is blue; Candidate B says it's green. Does a responsible journalist need to quote both candidates equally and root around for an opinion from an "independent expert" to contradict Candidate B, or can she simply stick a head out the window and report that Candidate B is making a false claim?

Since I cut my journalistic teeth during the highly-politicized Vietnam / Watergate years, arguments from both camps resurface pretty easily. Traditional journalists claim to strive for "objectivity" -- or at least to constantly monitor and attempt to mask any personal opinions or observations that might influence their writing.

Critics of traditional journalism -- and I'm one -- maintain that's an impossible task, because every element of the journalistic process contributes inherent bias to the finished product, even if the writer is unaware it's happening. So the best course is not to go to pains to mask a point of view, but to put it out there for the intelligent reader to draw her own conclusions. Just don't try to claim it's "fair and balanced".

Let's say you write about wine for a mainstream publication. Your employer likely determines the types of things you write about. A business publication will cover wine business issues, a lifestyle publication the winestyles of the rich and famous. Inherent but unstated in each: What We Cover is Important and Worthwhile. The inevitable result: a pro-business gloss over the former, and a pro-glitzy-consumption bias in the latter.

But that's just the start. Editors assign articles to reporters, while columnists and bloggers pick their own topics. They may call it "news judgment," but it's a major source of bias, reflecting how one person interprets what's important. If a columnist decides to cover a winery's expansion plans instead of its vineyard workers' living conditions, that reflects an opinion, even when masked by words like "newsworthy". Worse still: if the columnist isn't even aware what she excludes every time she selects a topic, because her mindset doesn't cause her to consider "worker living conditions" as a potentially legitimate column topic.

Then there's content bias. Stories -- especially columns and feature articles -- seldom "write themselves". Journalists make judgments at every step, and they're rarely objective. Should an article about banning retail wine delivery focus on the LCC claims about controlling out-of-state shippers, or the small Michigan-based Winebuys.com that would be put out of business by a delivery ban? Do you base this decision on what's most important to understand the controversy, or what makes the best "read" for your audience? What happens to the balance of a piece when an important player doesn't return your phone call, or says, "No Comment."

Journalists make decisions every day based on such real-world situations. Some turn out lots better than others. But let's not pretend that any of us can "avoid opinions" that -- consciously or unconsciously -- end up shaping our journalistic product.

Michigan's battle over retail wine delivery draws pretty clear pro-consumer and anti-consumer lines. Maybe it's unobjective and opinionated, but I'm willing to stick my head out the window to say which is which.

 

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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.