Michigan wine group celebrates winners
Few wine events do more to celebrate the multitude (not to mention quality) of Michigan wines than the annual Gold Medal Wine Reception in East Lansing.
Held the week following the results of the Michigan Wine Competition, the soiree Thursday at the Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center fetes winemakers and their medal winners, but also provides an opportunity for restaurateurs, sommeliers, retailers and consumers to sample the best in Michigan reds, whites, roses and sweet wines, as determined by an impressive panel of judges.
“It’s a great way to celebrate what’s going on the industry,” said Holly Balansag, winemaker and co-owner at Sandhill Crane Vineyards near Jackson. The winery has participated in the competition the past 15 years, since opening for business.
“It’s nice to have the contact with other wineries and taste their wine,” said Balansag, who will be attending Thursday’s reception. The eight-acre winery won five medals, including two golds, this year. “It’s also good for the general public. Consumers want to know what you’ve won and what you’ve entered. It’s a great marketing tool.”
Despite such accolades, the future of the event, now in its 15th year, looks murky, thanks to sweeping changes to the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council, which subsidizes and organizes the competition and the reception. The panel is being revamped as the Michigan Craft Beverage Council, to also represent the exploding craft beer and spirits industries. Those changes, at this time, come with no additional funding, leaving little money for marketing and promotion.
“We are uncertain what will happen next year,” said Karel Bush, executive director of the wine council, a panel that has been charged with promoting and supporting the wine grape and wine industry the past three decades. “This year at the competition, we were talking to one another about this -- that this could be the last competition and reception. We let the judges know what was going on. The response was overwhelming. They don’t want to see this end either.”
Bush said two wine industry groups have expressed interest in taking over the competition and reception, but no concrete plans have emerged. Both events are a huge undertaking, requiring months of planning, organization, inventory and storing of wine, and an army of staff and volunteers.
“This competition is incredibly well run,” said Madeline Triffon, a master sommelier who has been among the competition’s judges for more than 20 years. “It could be a model for other competitions, just in terms of how it’s administered. The level of judges alone is very high. It’s something I look forward to every year -- it’s so useful to the trade, to restaurants, to retailers, to everyone.”
The Gold Medal Wine Reception was organized years after the launch of the Michigan Wine Competition, which wrapped up its 41st year last month. Following the annual judging, the council found itself with leftover bottles of wine. Initially, they were poured at industry events, but the idea of a reception emerged and was organized with help from the Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center, where it’s been held every year.
“It’s been a wonderful way to congratulate these wineries,” Bush said. “It brings a great awareness to all of these great wines. This is the best place to try every style of Michigan wine you can imagine.”
Gold medals were awarded last week to a wide variety of wines, from bone-dry reds to sweet dessert wines. Overall, 55 of the state’s 145 wineries entered 413 wines into the competition, open only to wine produced from Michigan grapes and other fruit.
Dozens of gold, silver and bronze medals were awarded in various categories, ranging from dry red and dry white to dessert and sparkling wines. At the end of the day, after hours or sniffing, swirling and spitting, the judges presented the top honors, Best of Class Awards, to nine wines from a group of 95 gold medals, which includes 27 double gold.
“Across the board, there were wonderful wines,” said Triffon, who is director of wine events for the Plum Market chain. “The level of quality is high, and frankly, there were some semi dry reds and hybrid whites that were excellent. These are wines that are largely sold out of tasting rooms and wine clubs -- up north -- to find out they’re turning out so well is wonderful.”
This year also marked the first in which the competition offered a trophy for ice wine -- believed to the be first and only ice wine trophy in the United States. It was also a notable year for the recently established Tip of the Mitt AVA (American Viticultural Area). Twenty wines from the region were entered, with 17 earning medals, including six hybrid grape varietals.
At Thursday’s reception, the Best of Class Award winners will be paired with foods created by the chefs at Kellogg center. Attendees can also taste the gold and silver medal winners, as long as supplies last, and mingle with wine owners and vintners and others in the industry. About 300 people attend each year.
The impact of the competition and the reception is evident, even among those relatively new to the industry.
Just ask Connor Dennis, who was among last year’s attendees and whose North Arm Noir was voted Best of Class in the dry red category. His family-owned Walloon Lake Winery near Petoskey has been in operation just five years.
“For us, (the award) was pretty huge,” said Dennis, whose winery is in the Tip of the Mitt AVA. He won three medals this year. “It was huge to have a wine at that level out there. It made a huge difference for us, got our name out there. People came in the tasting room the very next day asking about it. It was great exposure.”
Despite the uneasiness about the future of the summer wine events, the celebration Thursday will go on, and hope endures.
“I can’t speak highly enough about Michigan wines,” said Triffon, who notes the West Bloomfield Plum Market stocks some 150 Michigan wines. “I can’t imagine not having these events … they’re not broken or struggling. They just need support …
I’m just going to say I’m looking forward to next year.”
Greg Tasker is a Michigan-based freelance writer.
Michigan Gold Medal Wine Reception
5-8 p.m. Thursday
Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center
219 S. Harrison Road, East Lansing
Michigan Wine Competition
The Best of Class Awards
Ice Wine: Chateau Grand Traverse 2016 Riesling Ice Wine
Dessert: St. Julian Winery Solera Cream Sherry
Sparkling: MAWBY Sandpainting
Dry White: Verterra Winery 2017 Dry Riesling
Dry Red: Mari Vineyards 2016 Bel Tramonto
Semi-dry White: Aurora Cellars 2017 Medium Sweet Riesling
Semi-dry Red: Lawton Ridge Winery 2017 AZO Red
Fruit: St. Julian Winery Sweet Nancie Peach
Rose: Left Foot Charley 2017 Blaufrankisch Rose
For a complete list of medal winners, visit michiganwines.com/docs/Competition/2018-medal-winners-by-category.pdf.