We are thrilled to welcome Dorothy J. Gaiter as a regular columnist for the Grape Collective. Ms. Gaiter conceived and wrote The Wall Street Journal's wine column, "Tastings," from 1998 to 2010 with her husband, John Brecher. She has been tasting and studying wine since 1973. She has had a distinguished career in journalism as a reporter, editor, columnist and editorial writer at The Miami Herald and The New York Times as well as at The Journal.
Left Foot Charley
While walking to the subway after a recent wine tasting, I noticed in the tasting booklet that I’d missed some wines from Michigan, a dry Riesling and Blaufrankish from a peculiarly named Left Foot Charley winery.
My regret grew deeper that night when we emailed a friend who had once worked in Michigan to ask what he knew about it. He told us that the winery was located in Traverse City in The Village at Grand Traverse Commons, a sprawling residential and commercial development that used to be the Northern Michigan Asylum for the Insane. Neighbors had told him that when it was an asylum, townspeople could hear patients screaming on occasion.
Talk about wine with a story! Turns out, the wines had more going for them than just an unconventional location. Each bottle that we later tracked down and tried was outstanding. The dry Riesling displays an astonishing balance of ripe grapes and mouth-tingling, juicy acidity, with a prickliness that is rare in American Rieslings.
The Blaufrankisch was a real treat, too. This expression of one of Austria’s most famous red grapes (also known as Lemberger) was crisp, with hints of blackberries and pepper. It had a lightness, a hallmark of the best. (The 2012, from the same footprint, will be released soon.)
“Charley” is winemaker Bryan Ulbrich--he looks a little like Charlie Brown, I was told—and when he was little, had an inward-leaning—well you guessed it. Left Foot Charley began in another space in 2004 when Ulbrich was given Riesling as payment for saving another winery’s crop. Looking for a “unique” permanent home, he and his wife found it in 2007 in The Village, one of the country’s most extensive historical restoration efforts. They’re in what used to be the asylum’s laundry.
The winery sources grapes from 18 vineyards, varieties better known in Austria and Germany, but which thrive in cool-climate northern Michigan. The Village’s developers envisioned a project with housing, restaurants, clothing and art stores, bakeries, coffee shops, and a winery. Thus, Traverse City’s first urban winery came into being. Ulbrich likes to say that by being close to town he’s “brought terroir to the people.”
The winery has since grown to around 6000 cases and is located in the former Northern Michigan Asylum for the Insane in Traverse City, Michigan. The urban environment has served to bring the terroir to the people. LFC is a Michigan version of an Austrian Heuriger - a place where aromatic and flavorful wine is an everyday event. This OMP vineyard is at the southern edge of Old Mission Peninsula. The plants are digging into very dense clay and gravel packed layers. The site is warm and tends to produce small clusters that struggle in the sparse conditions. The Antrim Vineyard is a silt dominant site. It sits on the Kalkaska shale and is going to be a significant site as it ages. The Leelanau sit is amid the Sleeping Bear Dunes and carries all the bright fresh acidity we expect from sandy soils.