The road less traveled

By Michael Brenton

You won’t regret getting caught in the new Northern Leelanau County Wine Loop

The familiar “M-22” diamond-shaped sign appearing in hundreds of car windows seems to be as ubiquitous as “My child is an honor student at … ” bumper stickers. Highway M-22 is a wonderfully scenic road that wraps around the perimeter of the Leelanau Peninsula, showcasing picturesque vistas of Grand Traverse Bay, neighboring Old Mission Peninsula, islands and verdant vineyards as it darts through historic villages, such as Suttons Bay and Leland.

Apparently, many Leelanau wine country visitors who start their tasting day with lofty goals of touring most of the wineries on the peninsula never make it to the northern reaches. Enter the newly formed alliance of wineries north of M-204 and encircled on the other three sides by M-22. Dubbed the Northern Leelanau County Wine Loop, member producers include (in order on the “loop’) Tandem Ciders, Raftshol Vineyards, Silver Leaf Vineyard, Leelanau Cellars, Good Neighbor Organic Winery, Gill’s Pier Vineyard and Winery, Verterra Winery, Boathouse Vineyards, Forty-Five North Vineyard and Winery and Circa Estate Winery.

The organization recently decided to host its first formal competitive judging of wines made by its members. When asked to participate, I couldn´t resist.

A consortium of 12 wine writers, sommeliers, restaurateurs, wine retailers and wine wholesalers descended upon the Bluebird Restaurant in Leland, across the street from the Verterra tasting room. We were presented with an eclectic assortment of 29 wines and ciders from the 10 member producers. The purpose was not only to recognize excellence, but to provide valuable feedback to winemakers and cider producers regarding what worked. The winery business is, after all, a never-ending process of creative experimentation while learning the intricacies of the land´s bounty. The hits outweighed the misses.

My table of four judges easily reached agreement as to our top 10, which closely aligned with the top 10 selected by the collective votes of all 12 judges. Tasting notes with judges’ comments were all turned in for evaluation by the producers (hence no detailed tasting notes for this column), but the collective votes may be instructive for wine country touring, sampling and purchasing decisions.

The winners? Leelanau Cellars 2011 Pinot Grigio (barely off dry), Verterra 2011 Gewurztraminer ( a kiss of sweetness rounding out the mouth feel), Forty Five North 2010 Chardonnay (I´m not usually a fan of Chard with a bit of residual sweetness, but this one worked), Verterra 2011 Pinot Noir Rosé (a strawberry fiesta), Forty Five North Cab Franc Rosé (for those who like just a bit more sweetness in their rosé), Gill´s Pier 2010 Cabernet Franc/Merlot (doubters of Michigan red wines must try this wine), Boathouse 2010 Boathouse Red proprietary blend (see previous comment), Gill´s Pier 2011 Riesling (just off dry and wonderful mouth feel), Verterra 2011 Chaos (a chaotic and eclectic blend with just enough sweetness to be a crowd-pleaser) and Tandem Cellars Smackintosh hard cider (5 percent residual sugar nicely balanced with tart apple acidity).

Additional favorites from my judging table included Raftshol 2011 Gewurztraminer (dry), Boathouse 2010 Dry Riesling (a little flavor explosion across the palate), Leelanau Cellars 2009 Chardonnay, Good Neighbor Organic Icy Apple Blend, Tandem Ciders Pomona and Good Neighbor Chocolate Cherry Hard Cider.

The following day, an assortment of judges traveled via shuttle to visit all the wineries to find more noteworthy juice. Some voted with their pocketbooks. Judge Lance Climie, proprietor of Reds on the River in Rockford, picked up Leelanau Cellars 2009 Reserve Chardonnay, Boathouse 2010 Riesling, Boathouse 2010 Pinot Grigio, 2010 Boathouse Red and Silver Leaf Winery 2010 Chardonnay. My pocketbook opened for Verterra 2010 Unwooded Chardonnay and 2011 Pinot Blanc (if you haven´t yet sampled Pinot Blanc this is a must-try). Hard cider fans shouldn´t miss the opportunity to stop at Good Neighbor and Tandem: Both feature an array of distinctly unique ciders varying in flavor profiles and sweetness.

Other notable wines from the Saturday tour included a 2011 Circa Mosaic (a concentrated blend made with partially dried grapes) and a tank sample of 2011 Circa Pinot Grigio (crisp and concentrated fruit), 45 North Peach Cremant (a quaffable sparkler juiced up with 25 percent Peach juice), Silver Leaf Chafia Cherry (a tasty blend of 65 percent Balaton and 35 percent Montmorency cherries), Gill’s Pier 2008 Merlot and 2010 Cabernet Franc/Merlot, and an array of wines from the brand-new tasting room of Boathouse Vineyards in downtown Lake Leelanau. As Michigan’s newest tasting room, the Boathouse has come roaring out of the gates with a nice assortment of wines and a picturesque setting on the edge of Lake Leelanau.

For more details about the Northern Wine Loop, check out its Facebook page at Also, fellow Judges Shannon and Cortney Casey of prepared a great video featuring the winery visits that can be seen on YouTube by searching “Northern Wine Loop Recap.”

Find more information about all the Leelanau Peninsula wineries at Happy touring.

In Vino Veritas