April 3 2013 12:00 AM

Traverse City winemaker has a reputation for top-notch wines

Photo by Michael Brenton
    The route to making great wine can follow many paths. For many, the path begins with successfully navigating through the coursework of enology and viticulture programs at a university. For others, the path is defined by hard work, an eagerness to learn and an intuitive sense for making great wine. The latter is the path followed by Bryan Ulbrich, a northern Illinois native who was wrapping up a master’s degree in American Indian law and policy in Arizona 20 years ago when the wine bug hit. 

    In 1995, Ulbrich briefly served as a tasting room server at Chateau Grand Traverse in Traverse City before taking an apprenticeship under Lee Lutes at the nearby Peninsula Cellars. Lutes departed not long afterwards to become the winemaker at Black Star Farms and the rest is history. Ulbrich became winemaker and general manager at Peninsula Cellars on Old Mission Peninsula, where he quickly established a reputation for creating top-notch wines. 

    By 2004, the drive to establish his own winery took hold and Left Foot Charley was born. (The name comes from his childhood tendency to stumble over his left foot). Ulbrich’s penchant for charging headlong into uncharted waters began anew with his plan to establish an urban winery and tasting room in the abandoned laundry facility on the site of the old Traverse City State Hospital (formerly Northern Michigan Asylum), now known as the Village at Grand Traverse Commons. 

    Ulbrich established a state-of-the-art winery with unique storage vessels such as imported oval shaped stainless steel tanks — all the better to allow the lees to spread. The tasting room is efficiently laid out, airy, open and inviting, with a view into the winery. The site is a one-stop gourmand delight; Ulbrich’s neighbors include other delectable destinations such as Higher Grounds Trading Co., Mi Farm Market, the Underground Cheesecake Co. and a tasting room for Black Star Farms. Left Foot Charley presents frequent wine and food events and offers the opportunity to sip wine and enjoy cuisine on its open patio.

    While at Peninsula Cellars, Ulbrich created wines that were winning gold, double gold, best of class and best of show in major competitions. That history continues at Left Foot Charley. Ulbrich contracts with growers from around the area who will grow the grapes to his exacting specifications. The proof is in the pudding — or in this case, in the bottle.

    While eager consumers await release of wines from the superb 2012 Michigan vintage (to be discussed in future columns), a recent tasting of some of Left Foot Charley’s 2011 wines demonstrated that there is no reason to defer gratification. The Riesling was soft, lush and fruity, but still well delineated and just off dry. The 7th Hill Riesling will be pleasing to the sweet tooth crowd. It displays extremely ripe fruit and mouth filling flavors. The Pinot Gris was soft, rich and concentrated with a spicy component to the nose.  

    While at Peninsula Cellars, Ulbrich made a mark with Gewürztraminer from the Manigold Vineyard. Now, he has been able to arrange for the planting of additional vines in Manigold Vineyard so he has a continuing opportunity to secure fruit from that site. The 2011 wine represents the first harvest from the new portion of the vineyard. Future harvests (always dependent on weather, of course) should only get better as the vines mature. This wine is broad, complex, viscous and has just the right flavor balance — the unique Gewürztraminer flavor profile without going over the edge into bitterness. The 2011 vintage is not only excellent, but screams of promise for the future. 

    The lone red tasted was a Blaufränkisch (aka Lemberger), which was remarkably smooth and balanced, with earthy aromas and barely perceptible tannins. Somewhat Barbera-like, it is a good example of what is happening with northern Michigan red wine.

    But can Michigan wines age? The question is far too general to answer, because of the nuances of vintage, wine making style and storage conditions. But our tasting panel —which included a sommelier, the wine maker, a wine buyer, a wine distributor and myself — were stunned by two wines made by Ulbrich while he was still at Peninsula Cellars. First we pulled the cork from a 2002 Peninsula Cellars Manigold Vineyard Gewürztraminer. Ulbrich noted that 2002 was a great all around year. He recalled that the fruit was picked at about 23.6 Brix (percent sugar content), fermented to 1 percent residual sugar and bottled at 14.3 percent alcohol. This wine displayed a giant bouquet and was smooth, balanced, floral, and palate coating. The fact that the bottle was stored since birth in a temperature controlled environment undoubtedly contributed to current quality, but it was amazingly fresh and satisfying.

    Similarly, we sampled a 2002 Peninsula Cellars Cab Merlot (75 percent Cabernet Franc and 25 percent Merlot) produced from fruit grown in the Hogsback Vineyard on Old Mission Peninsula.  This is a three-acre vineyard on a spine like ridge, cropped to produce low yields.  This 10-year-old juice was still bright magenta colored with a huge nose and overtones of shaved cedar, violets, blackberry, peppercorn and cigar box. It looked and presented like a young red wine, but with the resolved tannins, fine grain acids and complexities of age. What a treat.

    In Vino Veritas

    (Michael Brenton is president of the Greater Lansing Vintners Club. His column appears monthly. You can email him at brenton@lansingcitypulse.com)