Sipping pinot blanc in a former mental asylum, I’m testing my decision to drink local wine during my annual summer stay by Lake Michigan.
The whites at Left Foot Charley winery, housed in what was once the laundry of the state loony bin in Traverse City, are so crisp and savory they convince me my palate won’t suffer if, while here, I’m a “locapour”.
The word means someone who’s committed to drinking the vino of the region -- say, within a 100-mile radius to a half-day drive of wherever they are. Coined by the Globe & Mail’s Beppi Crosariol a couple of years ago, it’s become the liquid counterpart to “locavore,” the buzzword of the growing “eat local” food movement.
When I travel, I’m usually a happy locapour. On Santorini this summer, I, and everyone around me, knocked back the Greek island’s edgy white assyrtikos every night with grilled fish. I did not feel Burgundy-deprived. Of course, I only stayed for a week.
Drinking local in most parts of America (read: outside California, Oregon, and Washington State), though, used to be very tough. Not so long ago there weren’t that many wineries in states like Texas or Colorado or Michigan and quality was hit or miss. I still recall my reaction to a tasting of 100 Michigan wines here 20 years ago -- I was only willing to swallow three.
But wine is now produced in all 50 states, even Alaska, and ten have more than 100 wineries, inspiring website drinklocalwine.com. A lot of their wines are pretty good and, as with the best bottles in Michigan, many cost under $25. Reasons, in my book, to become a locapour.
At Left Foot Charley, owner-winemaker Bryan Ulbrich fills me in on northern Michigan’s wine scene before I head to the tents on the asylum’s lawn for the annual Traverse City Wine and Art Festival, which features the 22 local wineries.
He points out a relief map on a winery wall that shows two green fingers of land -- the Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas -- jutting into a blue bay of Lake Michigan. Just a few miles from where we’re standing, these narrow promontories are home to the area’s vineyards. Yellow pegs on 18 mile-long, 3 mile-wide Old Mission mark where Ulbrich sources his riesling, pinot blanc, pinot grigio, and gewurztraminer.
“We can make world-class examples of these whites,” he says, citing the sandy soil and the “lake effect” that moderates the harsh winters. Yet 2009 was a challenge, with heaps of snow and temperatures of minus 15 Fahrenheit (minus 26 Celsius).“We’re like old school Europe,” he admits, “you taste real differences in vintages here.”
At his tasting bar, crowded with weekend sippers, Ulbrich starts me off with a zingy 2009 Dry Riesling ($20) with the slatey taste of wines from Germany’s Saar region. The exotic 2009 Gewurztraminer tastes of tart lychees ($20). A very spicy 2009 Rose ($15) made from cabernet franc, millot (a hybrid grape), and lemberger, known in Austria as Blaufrankisch, is gulpably delicious.
Ulbrich produces no reds, though he consults with local wineries that do.
“I’m very harsh about the idea of reds here. I say, what’s the point? My wife says to shut up about that,” he chuckles.
The mental hospital closed in 1989 and a few years ago a developer began transforming the site’s several dozen yellow brick buildings into The Village at Grand Traverse Commons. In 2007, Ulbrich, along with bakeries, a coffee company and restaurants, moved in.
I make my way through the Mercato, a series of food and clothing shops in spaces that once housed patients, to the festival’s big tents on the vast lawn. A blues singer tests a microphone; people rush for the food; and I show my plastic wristband at the entry to the wine tent.
Ulbrich is right about the quality of the rieslings here -- many are light, German in style, with fine flavors but often not much fragrance. Chateau Grand Traverse, the first to plant vines on Old Mission in the ‘70s, pours a fruity, steely-dry 2008 Dry Riesling ($12.50).
I’m pleasantly surprised by the reds. A fragrant, berry-flavored 2005 Gill’s Pier Cabernet Franc/Merlot shows the region’s potential. Several cabernet francs remind me of Loire valley Chinons, especially the softly attractive 2008 Arcturos, Black Star Farms’ top label ($27.50). Shady Lane’s berry and plum-flavored 2008 “Blue Franc” ($23), a proprietary name for lemberger, has notes of cedar and a silky texture.
Plenty of hip experimentation is going on. Circa Winery co-owner David Bell, in owl-style glasses, long straight hair, black shirt and pants, admits, “We don’t really like riesling.” Their 2008 Requisite blends cabernet franc and pinot grigio.
While I’m certainly not giving up drinking international, there are pleasures to discover in becoming a locapour, especially during early fall. Just about every wine region will be holding a weekend tasting festival, like the one in Long Island wine country on Sept. 24 and 25. As an East Coast locapour, I’m putting it on my calendar.
(Elin McCoy writes on wine and spirits for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)