Wine firsts for region this fall: female winemaker, organic wine

For the first time in northwest Michigan wine industry history, a woman is in charge of winemaking- and she's taking over at the top.

California native Nichole Birdsall has taken over winemaker duties at Leelanau Cellars, the state's largest winery, succeeding Shawn Walters who moved to Forty-five North. She comes from Bonterra Vineyards, part of the Fetzer family of vineyards, where she was organic winemaker for six years. Her career includes a decade of wine industry experience, including stints on the bottling line and as crush supervisor at Korbel Champagne Cellars.

"It is a growing wine region with great potential," Birdsall said of choosing Michigan.

Leelanau Cellars general manager Tony Lentych said Birdsall's move endorses the potential of Michigan wines.

"I doubt that she would have left California if she didn't truly believe that," Lentych said.

With more than 80,000 cases bottled last year, Leelanau Cellars' annual production is about half of the 180,000 cases that Birdsall's last employer, Bonterra, produced annually.

But the winery's trend is toward growth. Leelanau Cellars surpassed St. Julian for Michigan's No. 1 producer title last year. The winery's production has climbed rapidly, with 2006 Michigan case sales double that of 2004, according to Michigan Liquor Control Commission data. Leelanau Cellars is also expanding into other states, adding Indiana last year and Ohio and Illinois this year.

Lentych wouldn't say whether organic wines are in the works at Leelanau Cellars, taking advantage of Birdsall's background.

"But for now we are beginning to move toward appropriate and sustainable practices in our vineyards," he said.

Beyond being the first female winemaker in northwest Michigan, Birdsall is believed to be the first female non-owner winemaker in the state.

Go to any grocery story and you'll see the evidence that consumers are seeking organic produce more and more often. Organic wines, however, are still a niche product. But one Leelanau grower thinks exploitation of that niche could be the best insurance of an agriculture future for Leelanau County.

Stan Silverman, owner of Good Neighbor Farms, a certified organic farm in Northport, has grown organic grapes since 2003. This year he's going to try his hand at turning a limited crop of pinot gris into organic wine.

His difficulty isn't in growing the grapes, but in finding a non-chemical way to stop their fermentation. Most winemakers use sulfites. For organic status, that's not an option. Silverman's got a few other techniques up his sleeve, but it won't be easy.

"In making the wines, we've got a real challenge," Silverman said. "I guarantee we'll make at least one bottle, and it'll be the first bottle of certified organic wine in this region."

His fallback could be a wine made with organic grapes, but Silverman's a purist. He plans to continue planting organic grapes-he'll be up to 10 acres next year-and wants to produce an organic ice wine by 2010. He'll also be selling his organic hard cider, Spirited Apple, to local restaurants this year for the first time.

"On a personal level, I believe in it," he said.

But he's also practical, and wants to farm as efficiently and profitably as he can. Providing a sought-after product is one way to do that.

"If Leelanau County became the organic hotbed for the Midwest, every farm up here would do well," he said.

Lastly, there's been more sightings of Charles Shaw in northwest Michigan. Shaw is the name behind the infamous "Two Buck Chuck" wines sold at Trader Joe's stores-though it's his name only. Shaw ran a winery in California's Napa Valley in the '70s but later sold it to Bronco Wine Co. (coincidentally, where Birdsall once interned.) Bronco began using the Charles Shaw name for the Trader Joe's line of ultra-economy wines, which earned the moniker "Two Buck Chuck."

Back to today's story: Shaw now lives in Chicago and has explored re-entering the wine business in Michigan for some time. A 2004 wine trade publication had him starting a winery in Allegan County. A year ago he told me he'd been interested in the Old Mission Peninsula schoolhouse that is now Peninsula Cellars' tasting room, but now favored sites in Allegan and Benzie counties.

This time around he was rumored to have bought property in Leelanau County. But Shaw told me "it didn't work out," though he was still interested in both the northwest and southwest regions. He was planning another trip up north in mid-September, and hoped to complete a deal by March, he said. Stay tuned.

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

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