A Brush with Michigan Tradition and a Look at Something New
The legacy of Len Olson now gone 5 years, is in the hands of his son, Gunner Olson while Bill Schopf litigator and Music Box Film distributor has built a new state of the art winery nearby.
Ironically, we were on our way to Chicago and thought it would be good to catch up on what a couple of Chicagoans were up to in Baroda Michigan. We had been hearing that after Len Olson’s death, that his son who had moved from Chicago to assist him at Baroda Founders Wine Cellars was making some very special wines. I couldn’t believe it when we drove up and noticed Len’s date of death to be 2014. It’s hard to believe that this cornerstone of the modern Michigan wine industry was no longer with us and how time flies! We had also heard that Dablon Winery and Vineyards winemaker Rudy Shafer and assistant Jason Porter were also making some excellent wines in the rolling hills just southeast of the town of Baroda.
At Baroda Founders, we were met by DeVino James and Gunner Olson. They caught us up on the recent history of Baroda Founders and gave us additional information on the many twists and turns that Len’s life had had on then up and coming winemakers in the area. Most notably, Rick Moersch and Mike Merchant who worked with Len at Tabor Hill in the early days shortly after Len had founded Tabor Hill in the early 1970’s and became synonymous with the quality wine emergence of today.
DeVino poured us a flight of both white and red wines to get us started. The 2016 Baroda Founders Dry Riesling $18 showed nice generous clean citrus-like fruit which felt round and smooth in the mouth even at this level of dryness. The finish was equally round and generous with a nice juicy honey crisp apple nuance at the end. For old time sake (while at Tabor Hill, Len Olson is generally credited with the popularization of the Demi-Sec style in Southwest Michigan) we had a splash of the Luce Del Sol (RS 1.5%) $14. The winery describes it as similar in style to French Vouvray which, though I would agree to some extent, to me it shows lots of very appealing white pear and apple and less of the lime flavors that normally permeate Vouvray. Whatever one experiences, this is a really nice wine that balances the slight sweetness with enough fresh appetizing acidity for it to dance on the palate leaving a clean fresh impression and nothing remotely cloying. I forgot to ask the cepage, but, my guess would be mostly Riesling with some bright crisp Vidal to give it that apple orchard SW Michigan essence. Next, we tasted the Lake Side Breeze Demi-Sec (RS 4%) $15. Though a bit sweeter than the Luce, it is just about the same as far as balance on the palate, again, with ample crisp acidity to keep the palate very fresh and compelling. The added sweetness is most noticeable regarding a much more emphatic apricot-like fruit aroma that stays with it to the finish. We tasted all three of the dry reds starting with the 2013 Pinot Noir $20. Though typically less tannic and lighter than Cabernet based wines, it is nonetheless rather supple and stays fruity with just a hint of earth on the palate through the finish. The 2011 Cabernet Franc $30) is a bit heartier though still pretty soft and supple. Considering the age and oak regimen (24 months in French Oak), it is surprisingly bright with pure plumy red fruit extract dominating. The winery seems to think it will age gracefully which, seems credible considering that it is already eight years old and showing no signs of age. 2011 was a year with ample acidity and shallow fruit flavors in Southwest Michigan, so, the fact that is has very ample fruit and balance bodes well for the future. Another aged offering is the 2011 Married in the Vineyard (Cabernet Sauvignon / Cabernet Franc blend) $30 shows similar vigor with surprising ripeness and fruit for a 2011. The addition of Cabernet Sauvignon adds a nice dollop of chocolate-like character making the oak a bit more visible though in no way obtrusive. Again, the wine is certainly ready to drink, but showing no signs of slowing down.
As a bit of an afterthought, we tasted a couple of other wines that we thought our nieces and nephews might enjoy. Oh Hell Yeah! Red (RS 3.1%) $12 is unabashedly grapy though not too sweet or possessing too much of the foxy smells and flavors that can make sweet grape wine unpleasant. It seemed like the perfect wine to send to our relatives in Louisiana. Alice immediately thought of our nieces upon tasting First Kiss (RS 3.1%) $14 which combines Merlot with chocolate in a fairly subtle way with berry highlights and a fairly persistent finish. Again, it is sweet tasting but not over the top or cloying. Perhaps the real gem here among things not exactly in the fine wine category is the South Haven made Blueberry Mustard. Talk about a home run with twisted pretzel sticks, this is it!
Arriving at Dablon Winery and Vineyard, we couldn’t help but notice that this is not exactly a winemaking shack out in the woods. Clearly, some real thought and expense went into the situation of the vineyards and winery with no short cuts. Due to some rather severe winter weather the past few years, they have head pruned the vines almost to the ground leaving only a couple of one year canes to tie up to the wires. According to Meredith George, the Tasting Room Manager, this method just about guarantees that there will be very little winter kill and, surprisingly, seems to insure setting an adequate (though not abundant) crop. This does make sense because grape vines really have a lot of vigor and can grow like weeds if not severely pruned. I’m guessing that this method probably eliminates the need for a summer pruning or late summer fruit and canopy thinning. At Vineyard LeRoux and Kamphuis Vineyards, we spend most of the summer pruning, pruning and pruning. We’ll have to try a few plants to see if this might not work well in our situation.
In the tasting room, we started with 2017 Dablon Vineyards Estate White Blend (Chardonnay and Pinot Gris) $27 which sees minimal oak and bears similarity to Chablis or Aligote for the Francophile. Certainly it shows citrus notes with a light but not meager dose of apple and lime. Next, we moved on to the red 2016 Producers Cut (Merlot / Cabernet Franc / Malbec) $36 which initially comes across as pretty light, yet builds in the glass. It has some nice exotic spice scents with some somewhat composty (yes, that is a good wine characteristic) nuances. Their 2016 Malbec $38 is much brighter and more focused on fresh red fruit than some of its brooding, black-red cousins from France and Argentina. Though not tannic, there is ample texture to carry the wine nicely into the dry finish. We felt that the 2016 Syrah $26 might be the standout among the reds. The nose really offered a Northern Rhone-like scent and remarkably deep black red color. The fruit component is extremely pure with multiple layers staying alive into the finish. 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon $31 is a good representative of Michigan Cab starting with currant / black grape aromas and finishing with a nice slice of sweet oak and cherry cordial in the finish. With the 2015 Estate Red Blend (Cabernet Sauvignon / Merlot / Malbec / Petit Verdot) $50, one anticipates the appealing deep red color’s promise. The penetrating black fruit aromas and rich mid-palate linger well into the finish ending with a nice bright crisp fruity finish. The blend of various ages of new, used and neutral oak allows the winemakers to bring in a very balanced subtle oak nuance. If there is a winery style, it certainly shows itself in the bright red fruit purity throughout their range of wines.
Being that I often write about wine value in terms of quality / price or bang for the buck regarding $7 wines from Costco, Aldi and Meijer, it may surprise you that Alice and I actually buy Michigan wines in this price range. Yes, the fact that all of the Michigan Vintner wines sell in the $10-$13 range may seem like a contradiction, but, in fact the wines reviewed above do offer something to justify the price. When traveling or when entertaining guests that may not be aware of Michigan’s fine wine industry, you can certainly trust that a bottle of Founders or Dablon will create a stir, a surprise and not embarrass you. In fact, if you don’t mention the price, you are likely to get rave reviews from your guests. Isn’t that what it’s all about?
Enjoy in Good Health,
A Brian Cain, the Michigan Vintner