by CLIFF AND NANCY HILL
The dreaded “lake effect” that results oftentimes in heavy snows and brings dismay to most people, at the same time, is embraced by the Lake Michigan lakeshore vineyards and wine makers of Michigan. Their proximity to Lake Michigan and its prevailing westerly winds across 50 miles of open water, even in winter, provides temperature modification that protects the vineyards’ grapevines from winter damage. Because of this “good side” of the lake-effect phenomenon, Michigan has become a real player in the winemaking industry.
Recently we learned that, for the first time ever, U.S. wine sales topped France. Americans bought more wine overall in 2010 while at the same time practicing moderation by consuming only 2.6 gallons per capita as compared to 12.2 gallons a year for the French. This was great news to Michigan winemakers.
We, your reporters, consider ourselves wine aficionados who, in embracing the “Pure Michigan” concept, only purchase and consume wines that are produced in Michigan. As with farm produce, we strive also to think locally.
So on a recent Saturday evening after a short 60-mile drive, we arrived at Fenn Valley Vineyards just east of Fennville. We were there to support and partake of the annual Pre-release Winemaker’s Dinner hosted by Doug Welsch, Fenn Valley’s owner and winemaker.
In the setting of a gourmet meal, we were given the opportunity to experience six pre-release wines in the very best way possible: with paired food courses. What a setting it was! We found ourselves in the company of 132 wine lovers as we settled down to an educational evening of superb food complemented with the perfect wine variety.
With white linen napery, 22 round tables each seating six were resplendent with fresh tulip floral pieces, fine china and silver settings, along with rows of six wine glasses radiating spoke-like from the table’s center. The wine glasses, to each person’s right, were matched to and to be filled with the wine being served with each of the meal’s six courses. But before even being seated, guests mingled and were invited to enjoy the tasting of sparkling wines (both dry and sweet) as they began to know one another while grazing from a table laden with crackers and an array of local cheeses and a variety of fresh fruit.
What followed was a meal fit for royalty. Chef Christine Ferris and her ever- attentive wait staff served us six courses composed of: thyme shortbread with goat cheese and chives, chilled mango soup, spicy Asian scallops on coconut rice, smoked duck breast on mixed greens with dried cherries and cherry-balsamic dressing, slow roast lamb with huntsman sauce cassoulet and roast Brussels sprouts, ending with vanilla bread pudding, caramel sauce, and grilled pineapple. On the plate with this wonderful dessert was a single orchid bloom—Cliff, being Cliff, promptly ate the orchid also. A perfectly paired wine was served with each course.
Beginning at 6 p.m. and ending around 10 p.m., what a leisurely evening it was! Along with the superb food, service and wine, we met and enjoyed new friends. We judged from the ever-escalating and laughter-laden background noise that increased throughout the evening after each course that everyone present had a wonderful time.
Begun by Bill Welsch (Doug’s father) in 1973, Fenn Valley Vineyards has grown to be one of the pre-eminent vineyards of West Michigan. Bill was a true modern-day pioneer who was unafraid to explore the unknown of growing grapes in Michigan and producing truly fine wines.
Today, carrying on that tradition, winemaker Doug Welsch not only has produced 24 award-winning wines but also has a mission of “educating customers on the fine points of wine” and “a place to gain that education informally.” Toward that end and to further the “wine experience,” Fenn Valley hosts a year-round schedule of destination events at the winery. Wine and food-paring concepts are shared with customers and guests at the winery or during five yearly scheduled winemaker dinners. Add to that an annual chili cook-off in January, pre-release tastings in March, a summer wine festival with outdoor tastings and live music, and periodic Saturday “girls” afternoons out with a food demonstration by a chef leading to a brunch paired with appropriate wines. Also offered are cellar tours and perhaps the most popular of all, vineyard tours—some as long as 1-1/2 hours.
Long ago, Doug envisioned on-site tastings to make the connection between grapes and the wines they produce. This required the unprecedented task of obtaining state certification of the vineyard’s entire acreage. Fenn Valley Vineyards is the only winery in the state of Michigan now holding that certification. He smiled broadly when he said, “I own what must be the world’s largest tasting room.”
Perhaps one of the finest October Saturday afternoons we have ever spent was aboard a “People Hauler” pulled by a vineyard tractor driven by Doug himself to various locations throughout the vineyard, where different varieties of wine-grapes were grown. With the sun warm and the smell of fall in the air, Doug uncorked a bottle of wine (or two) at each of the various stops throughout the tour. This way, first hand, we could taste the varietal wine that had been harvested from that location in the vineyard the previous year. We heard from a man who truly loves his calling as a winemaker—a food chemist who understands where flavor comes from and how to develop it.
Wouldn’t a riverside wine-tasting venue be a great addition to the eclectic mix of Rockford businesses and fine dining establishments? Might one already be in the works…
Meanwhile, you don’t have to travel far to find a great wine experience. Fenn Valley Vineyards & Wine Cellar is located at 6130 122nd Avenue, near Fennville. For more information about scheduled events please visit www.fennvalley.com or call (800) 432-6265.