Wine column | Wine Culture

In a sommelier's words: Evaluating the wines of Southwest Michigan

If you travel the I-94 corridor west from Detroit toward Chicago, you pass by signs directing you to wineries as you near Jackson and Kalamazoo. The Kalamazoo area westward is the oldest wine region in the state, but does not get near the publicity it deserves, but that issue is evolving.

In an effort to educate winemakers in the Southwest Michigan region, and get consumers involved, Master Sommelier Ron Edwards, who lives in Charlevoix, and Mike de Schaaf of Hickory Creek Winery in Buchanan in Southwest Michigan and the Michigan Grape Society, with help from Michigan State University, invite wineries in the region to submit wines for a blind evaluation by experts. The wines are tasted blind with benchmarks from world-famous regions in the flights.

I did not attend the sixth annual Southwest Michigan Wine Evaluation, but Ruth Ryberg, a Certified Sommelier and Certified Specialist of Wine, did, and wrote a report on her experience. Ruth runs her own consulting firm, Don’t Whine Do Wine, and teaches wine appreciation at Lake Michigan College.

Here’s her report — and it’s worth saving for your next trip across the state:

From Ruth Ryberg:

Ruth Ryberg (Image courtesy of Ruth Fyberg)

Ruth Ryberg (Image courtesy of Ruth Fyberg)

On Tuesday, February 5th, the Michigan Grape Society and Michigan State University sponsored the 6th annual Southwest Michigan Wine Evaluation. The event placed Michigan wines in first place in 7 out of 11 categories (or flights), in a blind tasting evaluation. Three Master Sommeliers, Kathy Morgan, Ron Edwards, and Brett Davis, officiated at the judging. So in order to better understand the event, let’s start with some obvious questions…

What is a Sommelier?

By definition, a Sommelier is a wine steward or waiter in a restaurant who has charge of wines and their service. However, the achievement of Master Sommelier, of the Court of Master Sommeliers, is the top accreditation in the wine and service industry (so the definition of wine steward doesn’t quite hit the mark). There are only 127 Master Sommeliers in North America and just over 200 globally.

For a better understanding of some of their positions, our three Master Sommeliers have worked as taster, commentator, contributor, consultant, mentor, judge, educator, and Wine Director, (for over 20 World class restaurants collectively). In addition, Ron Edwards has worked with the Weather Channel hosting events to grow business relationships. Kathy Morgan has offered her expertise for leading wine publications such as the Washington Post, Food and Wine Magazine, as well as the BBC and WUSA TV. Brett Davis is part-owner in 3 restaurants in Louisville, Kentucky, some nationally acclaimed. Our judges are experts in the global wine industry.

What is the Michigan Wine Evaluation?

Originally conceived as an educational opportunity primarily for growers, the annual event has become a destination for growers, winemakers, industry professionals, and those with an intense interest in wine. Beginning at 8:30 a.m. and finishing just before 5 p.m., wines from Lake Michigan Shore were swirled, sniffed, tasted, gargled, (and yes, spit). Wines were poured “blind”, (so no one sees the label). Each Master Sommelier evaluated and led a discussion on findings. Possible flaws such as oxidation, “corked” and over-cropping were discussed, and a score was given to each wine. In each flight, a “winner” emerged, based on quality, balance and “varietal correctness”.

What is Varietal Correctness”?

Ron Edwards explained varietal correctness as “a world scope expectation.” For example, people who drink Chardonnay want the wine to taste like a Chardonnay. Though there are many different styles of Chardonnay, if you order a California Chardonnay, you expect buttery, nutty, apple spice characteristics. The same goes for Cabernet. If you order a Cabernet to have with your filet, you expect a bold, rich red wine with cassis, black cherry overtones, and an acidity that will compliment the rich meat. Mr. Edwards further explained that, “we need to take the ‘likes’ out of the equation. First concentrate on the quality, balance and harmony, then decide if you like it. It’s not our job to tell you what you should like, but to find the best, most sellable representation, (of the varietal)”.

So how did the Michigan wines do?

Wines were tasted in varietal groupings called flights. In this blind tasting, Southwest Michigan wines outscored so-called “benchmark” wines from other wine regions in 7 out of 11 flights. The best Southwest Michigan wines in their respective flights were:

 Karma Vista Winery 2011 Soco Grigio (Pinot Gris) — Pinot Gris/Grigio flight

St. Julian Wine Co. Braganini Reserve 2011 Dry Riesling tied with Lemon Creek Winery 2011 Riesling — Riesling flight

St. Julian Wine Co. 2010 Chardonnay — Chardonnay flight

Free Run Cellars 2011 Dry Gewurtztraminer — Gewurtztraminer flight

Tabor Hill Winery 2011 Rosé — Rosé flight

Gravity Winery 2011 Lemberger — Lemberber flight

Round Barn Winery 2010 Pinot Noir — Pinot Noir flight

Lemon Creek Winery 2010 Shiraz — Syrah/Shiraz flight

Domaine Berrien 2010 Merlot tied Karma Vista 2011 Moondance Merlot — Merlot flight

Cody Kresta 2010 Cabernet Franc — Cabernet Franc flight

Domaine Berrien Cellars 2010 Crown of Cab — Bordeaux Blend flight

Lemon Creek Winery 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon — Cabernet Sauvignon flight

So what did we learn?

All of the flights tasted showed promise. Some wines could compete on a national if not global level. Kathy Morgan said, “It was an honor to be here! I think the wines showed great, especially the Syrah!” First time panelist, Brett Davis concluded, “You have great fruit here! You can’t make a good wine with bad fruit! Let the fruit speak. I’m impressed!” And referring to the wineries of Southwest Michigan Ron Edwards concluded, “You are on a path to becoming a great region!”