Winemaker to open first ‘urban winery’

TRAVERSE CITY – Bryan Ulbrich is turning "wine country" on its head. The local winemaker is bringing the grapes and the barrels and the bottles to town.

Ulbrich, the winemaker at Peninsula Cellars since '98, is bringing his Left Foot Charley operations to The Village at Grand Traverse Commons and in doing so is creating the region's first urban winery.

"Essentially it's a winery that's off the farm," said Ulbrich, about bringing the agriculture and the wine-making process into an urban setting, a new trend seen in big cities, particularly out west. David Creighton, promotional agent for the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council, said the Ulbrichs' plan to open the winery in a city setting is certainly a first for this region and one of the first in the state.

What the Ulbrichs are doing, he says, is distinctly different than the majority of wine-making licenses issued to people in cities, in which they buy wine concentrate and then reconstitute it.

"That is something we're decidedly not in favor of," Creighton said. "Bryan is using locally grown fruit. This is great. The council is strongly in favor of the relationship between the agriculture and the wine-making process," adding an urban location makes the winery more accessible to more people.

Bryan and Jennifer founded Left Foot Charley in 2004 and used that year's Old Mission Peninsula grapes to create its first release, a Dry Riesling. Its city digs are slated to open in July 2007 in Building 53, the former laundry facility for the Traverse City State Hospital. In addition to the wine-making operation, the building will also house a tasting room and sales.

"We're hoping to bottle the current vintage at the new building," he said.

The Ulbrichs originally considered building a typical chateau-style building on the peninsula for their winery, but it just didn't feel right, said Ulbrich. Rather, they wanted to do something unique to this area, yet very common in European wine-making regions.

"In Europe, most wineries are in town, part of the fabric of that town," Ulbrich said. "It doesn't have to be a special trip to a winery."

It's that idea, as well as support for the redevelopment of the former state hospital grounds, that landed Left Foot Charley in the city. Ulbrich said they've always been attracted to existing buildings and finding new uses for old structures.

Ulbrich described Building 53 as perhaps the most non-descript, architecturally uninteresting structure amongst a collection of 19th century, Victorian-Italianate buildings. But as a building designed to handle a lot of liquid, Ulbrich said it's perfect for making wine. The brick building was built in 1956 and is just over 15,000 square feet. The winery will comprise two-thirds of it.

Without the nearby grape vines to help give background to the wines, their personalities will come through in the story-telling style of their makers.

"The story of the vineyards is told through the wines and through the vintages," said Ulbrich.

And it's a story that started with Left Foot Charley himself, a character the Ulbrichs created from a moniker Bryan earned as a kid when he frequently tripped over his left foot. For the last two years, Left Foot Charley wines have been produced in a facility not open to the public and available at select area restaurants, markets, and through www.leftfootcharley.com.

Ulbrich has clearly established his winemaking reputation with his white wine vintages and has been recognized with awards in regional, national, and international competitions for the last several years. In fact, since 2000 he has vinified over 30 percent of Michigan's top trophy awarded wines at the Michigan Wine and Spirits Competition.

In Michigan, "we can grow some of the most interesting, age-worthy, fragrant Rieslings in the world," Ulbrich said, adding that the same is true for Pinot Blanc, Pinot Grigio, and Gewurztraminer. Left Foot Charley will also soon be producing its first red.

Ulbrich, who began an apprenticeship with Peninsula Cellars in 1996 and two years later became the winemaker, will be resigning his post in May. Bryan's sister, Emily, who has been involved with wine-making at Peninsula Cellars since 2001 and is the assistant winemaker, will fill her brother's shoes. BN

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