If one were to ask me where the center of the wine industry is in Michigan, I would have to immediately say Traverse City. If you were to go back in time perhaps twenty years ago, you would have not got the same response, in fact, people would look at you askance. There was some bulk wine industry left over from Prohibition, and there were pockets of some serious growers and winemakers. Back then Traverse City was the Cherry Capital of Michigan and they had a Cherry Festival every July, and they still do. Cherries permeated the entire area, and there were butchers and chefs that even created ground round recipes using cherries for a very moist burger. And naturally there were cherry pies, cherry ice cream, candies, pastries, sauces etc. It has also become a foodie haven and the caliber and quality of the restaurants even in the outlying communities have upped their game.
Wineries have taken over much of the agriculture in the Traverse City region and whole orchards have been torn out and replanted with vines. The region is on the 45’th Parallel, which is where some of the great wines of Europe are on, and this was not lost on the early pioneers. At first Cold-Hardy varietals were planted, but slowly, but surely some of the classic wine varietals have been planted and nurtured. I think Riesling was one of the first and it started off as a sweet wine, but it has evolved into a sweet wine and a dry wine industry and with great accolades, that were slow to start, but now there is greater acceptance. Now it is not unusual to find Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and Syrah wines, as well as blends and there are still some of the Cold-Hardy varietals still being marketed. Michigan is actually the fourth largest grower of grapes in the United States of America, but that also includes grapes for table fruit, jellies, jams, juice and other uses besides wine.
With Traverse City being almost a five-hour drive (legally), it is not a destination that we can easily jump into the car and go to. A curious situation has arisen over the years that we have been going there for wine. In the old days, a winery might only offer a couple of different wines and they were really thrilled to have visitors. As the number of wineries increased the dedication and passion increased, and when you did a tasting, the people manning the counters would love to discuss production information and the nuances of the wines and if you showed interest in wines the tastings might even get more elaborate with information and suggestions. There usually wasn’t even a charge for tastings, especially if you bought some wine. Then the tasting rooms started getting elaborate and beautiful, Ma & Pa Kettle were replaced by Madison Avenue. Where maybe in the old days you were poured some water and given some oyster crackers to cleanse your palette, now they want to upcharge you with cheese and charcuterie plates, if not a trip to their gourmet dining room. Some of the wineries have plastic sheets that you take a crayon and circle your five choices, so that the sheet can be wiped cleaned for the next “taster” and thankfully I take a note pad in my sport coat to record my thoughts. On top of that, I guess one of the problems with a booming economy is that the help now being hired to man the counters seem to have no idea about what they are pouring, and if you ask, God forbid, they may have to look something up or call some that is knowledgeable. Tastings are by the numbers now and for the most part it is by rote and when you stop them to take a photograph, it throws the server off of their set patter. Another curious side business is small tour busses that take people to assorted wineries with some destinations are just for a taste of wine and then on to another location, maybe it is good to keep that many drunks off of the road, as some “tasters” seem more intent on getting drunk, then tasting wine. Then there are the bachelor and bachelorette parties that are shuttled from winery to winery just to have a good time. I love the concept, but it sure is hard to do serious tasting, when the focus seems to be on the partiers, who I would venture have no interest in buying wine, just trying to get drunk on one-ounce pours. Maybe it will eventually settle down, or they will do like some wineries have already done and establish a counter or a table just for the drinkers and keep them away from the tasters and potential buyers. We went to five new wineries and two repeat wineries and my notes will be forthcoming.