Michigan’s top grape is on a roll; construction delays two Leelanau wineries

Later this month, hundreds of auto industry movers and shakers will gather at the Grand Traverse Resort for the annual Management Briefing Seminars. In what many might consider a vast understatement, given the state of the industry, the 2008 event's theme is "Transcending Turbulence."

Meanwhile, three Michigan winemakers are just back from what may emerge to be an event of equivalent importance to their industry: the second Riesling Rendezvous in Washington state. There was no official theme, but as far as Michigan is concerned – and borrowing some alliteration from the carmakers – Toasting Triumphantly might fit nicely.

Riesling is the state's top wine grape by multiple measures. Growth is a key indicator. It's been planted on more acres than any other varietal since 2003. Between 2005 and 2006 alone, the number of Riesling acres planted statewide swelled five-fold.

That growth is coinciding with a rising consumer interest. Admittedly, Riesling – which is working against an old perception that it's only a sweet dessert wine – barely registers on the scale when considered against varieties like Chardonnay or Merlot. According to The Nielsen Company retail sales data, 2007 U.S. sales of Riesling accounted for just 1.5 percent of the case volume in stores that provide sales data. However, that's a 98 percent increase in Riesling sales over 2006.

Most important for the statewide industry, Michigan is turning heads for the wines produced from the white variety most often associated with Germany but which also thrives in Michigan's cooler climate. In particular, dry styles that go well with food and capitalize on the consumer's desire to "pair" wine and food are gaining attention.

"Riesling wants to grow here. It's meant to be here," said Sean O'Keefe of Chateau Grand Traverse, one of those who attended. Riesling was first planted in northern Michigan by O'Keefe's father, Ed, and still constitutes 80 percent of the winery's sales, Sean O'Keefe said.

"It's the one grape variety that is regularly allowing Michigan to take a national spotlight," said Lee Lutes, winemaker at Black Star Farms and another participant. "It has more pedigree and it has more consistency and more of a quality dynamic than anything else that's produced."

A key task at the conference was establishing a uniform sweetness scale Riesling producers worldwide could use on labels as a way to help customers better understand what's in the bottle they're buying. Chateau Grand Traverse already uses a 1-5 scale, O'Keefe said. But the task is getting producers across the U.S., Canada, the European Union and Australia to agree on a simple system.

"It would help people find buying Riesling easier," Lutes said.

Adam Satchwell of Shady Lane Cellars and president of the Leelanau Peninsula Vintners Association, rounded out the Michigan trio at the event. "All these years I've been hearing Riesling is the next big thing, and I think it's finally happening," he said.

Construction issues have delayed the opening of two new Leelanau County tasting rooms this summer. Forty-Five North, owned by Indiana eye surgeon Steve Grossnickle with Shawn Walters as winemaker, was aiming for a July 4 opening of its tasting room, a relocated, reconstructed century-old barn moved in boards from Wyoming, Mich. While all five truckloads of wood have finally made it on site to Lake Leelanau, the barn is not yet reassembled, said Cindy Curley, tasting room manager.

They're making do by hosting tastings on weekends only in their production room. The Friday-Saturday-Sunday operation started the Fourth of July weekend with nine wines being served. Curley said she hopes that the reassembled barn will be ready for Forty-Five North visitors by fall.

Meanwhile, protracted construction delays at nearby Circa Estate Winery have led owners Margaret and David Bell to switch builders. The longtime grape growers started work on their winery last year, and now hope to open their tasting room later this month. In the meantime, winemaker Margaret Bell has bottled and stored her '06 and '07 vintages at Bel Lago. She's philosophical about the delays.

"It's a little hiccup," she said. "Stuff happens in life, and you roll with it."

Cari Noga has covered Michigan's grape and wine industry since 1999. Read her blog at www.michgrapevine.com. Send news and column ideas to her at cari@michgrapevine.com.

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