Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Lake Michigan Wine Shore Trail - Day 3

After a night at the New Buffalo Inn and Spa (cute place, just not quite all systems go, even after 16 years), enjoyable and uneventful. We planned on making breakfast, but discovered the suite kitchen had no frying-type pan (see what I mean about not quite all-systems go?), so we headed down to Rosie's, just down the main road towards the lake. I wouldn't say that the food or service was outstanding, but they're open early, the local police eat there, and it's not overly expensive. Not a bad option for the area. After breakfast, we walked over to the beach, and this is what greeted us:

Pretty amazing, right? It was cold and windy, but the air was fresh and clean, and very few people around. Great walk to start the day.

We headed back to the cottage, fingers crossed, and were rewarded with the porch light beckoning us home. Power was on and our plans were back on track. We waffled between 4,5, or 6 wineries, but took the safe route by opting for 4, 2 pairs of wineries close to each other. The first pair took us to Paw Paw, which consisted of a commercial strip of the typical fast food outlets and so on.

Warner Vineyards turned out to be neither vineyards nor winery, but rather a tasting room next door to St Julian Winery, making it very convenient. Apparently, in the early 1990's, the winery burned down, so the wines are made and bottled at Fenn Valley, a winery north and west near the lake. The tasting house is done in a "champagne cellar" motif, consisting of fake bottle vaults within a heavily-stuccoed interior, with heavy wood accents throughout. It was at Warner that we realized that this day, Saturday, was going to be VERY different, as there were many, many people wanting to taste wines. The previous day we had often been one of a few or the only customers.

Tasting was quite an experience, with a crowded facility staffed by a server that may or may not have been hitting the wares that day. Riesling ("Fruity, floral aromas with a hint of sweetness."), Traminette ("spicy flavors"), Cabernet Franc ("Powerful rich, intense blackberry and cherry fruit characters with a hint of vanilla"), Veritas ("Latin for "Truth". Big and soft with the right balance of fruit and flavor."), Mello Red ("Wonderfully fruity with superb character and balance."), Sangria ("Delightfully fresh and fruity, our sweetest red wine." -- incredibly, almost too, sweet), and Port Dessert Wine ("Deep ruby red color and fantastic aromatic properties") were some of the wines we tried, all decent or better, with the sweet wines being very sweet and dry wines very dry. Not much middle ground.

Warner's neighbor, St Julian Winery, is clearly an industrial bottler, with huge warehouses and nary a vine in sight - they purchase all their grapes, using growers in the surrounding area. St Julian's tasting options are interesting, in that they have both a free option (6 choices) or a 5 for $5 of their "Reserve" collection. I went the free route and Laima opted for the other, so we really got a good sampling:

Mine: Riesling (“juicy tropical fruits”), Simply White (“peach, citrus, honey and melon”), Simply Red (“dark cherries, wild berries, raspberries with a bit of plum”), Catawba Wine (“mild berry, fresh fruit taste”), Michigan White Champagne (sweet citrus aromas…apple-like flavors”), and Catherman’s Port (“currant, black cherry, caramel and chocolaty aromas”). I really wanted to try the Founder’s Pride, but at 20% residual sugar, even I thought it might be too sweet.

Laima's: Pinot Gris (“pineapple, fresh lime and citrus peel aromas”), Traminette (“mango and lemon zest aromas”), Cabernet Franc (“creamy vanilla-scented oak, currant and brambleberry flavors”), Blanc de Blanc (“shades of toast weaving through pear and honeysuckle flavor”), and Blanc de Noir (“clean and crisp, emphasizing berry fruit”).

Though the winery and surrounding area were disappointing, the overall tasting experience was pretty good. There is a St Julian tasting room just off I-94 in Union Pier, so you can save yourself a drive by stopping there instead. Both St Julian and Tabor Hill have multiple tasting venues, though Tabor Hill is pretty enough to make the drive worth it.

After a somewhat disappointing morning (not the wines, but the wineries weren't particularly attractively located), we had higher hopes for the final pairing, as their website photos placed them in hilly, vine-laden sites.

Karma Vista Vineyards is the rock star of the wineries we visited, with a slick, music-themed tasting room set amidst gorgeous endless rows of grapevines. A raucous crowd greeted us as we entered, standing at least 2 deep and enjoying many glasses of wine. The initial shock had us wondering whether we even wanted to stay, but we were in no hurry, so we bided our time before squeezing in at the end of the bar.

Service was a tad rushed, as expected, and the pours were noticeably stingier than at other tasting rooms. The positive is that we drank much less than we might have, but it was also difficult sometimes to really taste the wine with the scant sip offered. The list: ʼ09 SoCo Grigio ("bright citrus and pear flavors"), ‘09 Riesling (“a touch of sweetness. incredible aroma and flavors of pear and tart apple’), Starry Starry White (“semi-sweet blend”), Gunzan Rose (“flavors of cranberry and cherry”) Cote d’Loma (“softer fruit finish comparable to a classic Bordeaux blend”), Ryno Red (“a semi-sweet blend of hybrid red varieties Foch and Dechaunac”) Watusi Red (“a concord base with big grape jam flavors”), ‘08 Stone Temple Pinot (“bright cherry flavors”), ‘09 Cha Cha Chardonnay (“nice light lemon finish”), and the ‘09 Syrah (“deep burgundy color, black cherry and licorice flavors”), their first vintage. Since I picked the sweeter whites and reds and Laima pretty much the opposite, we got a good cross-section of their wines. My favorite was the Stone Temple Pinot Noir.

As we were leaving, we noticed that there was some sort of Corvette convention happening; that, or Detroit's most glamorous sports car was the vehicle of choice of the wine cognoscenti that day.

This is a place I'd like to return to some day, with more time to appreciate the vineyards and the wines, perhaps chat with the proprietors a bit. It just felt rushed and crowded that day.

A bit of lucky happenstance found us at the Chocolate Garden, a truffle-maker near our next destination, Contessa Wine Cellars. The Chocolate Garden is set up similarly to a wine tasting room, with a bar dispensing three tastes of their truffles for $2.50 (oddly enough, the truffle-tasting payment had tax added to it, but the subsequent purchase of truffles did not - hmmmm.....). We each chose 3 truffles (dark chocolate coffee bean, dark chocolate mint, milk chocolate hazelnut, darkest dark chocolate, salted dark, and another that slips my mind), with the darkest dark chocolate our favorite. Again, very crowded, with too little space for the amount of people who wanted to taste. For them, maybe not a bad problem to have, at least initially.

Just up the road we ran into our Corvette friends (or a whole other band of Corvette drivers) at Contessa Wine Cellars. Similar to Karma Vista, the tasting room is atop a rise, overlooking vineyards and orchards in all directions. Multiple decks offer plenty of space for drinking, eating, and viewing outside, and the day was almost warm enough to partake.

Once again, the tasting room was packed, but we found a corner to slide into and set up shop. We had multiple servers, as it appeared that they all took off at random times to do something different across the road - not a bad thing, but a bit disconcerting. On tap were the Pinot Grigio 2010 ("citrus and peaches on the nose, with light and crisp tropical flavors on the finish"), Chardonnay Barrel Select 2009 ("aged in French Oak barrels"), Divino ("a blend of Riesling and Chardonel - light, crisp, refreshing"), Bianco Bello ("French-American blend is semi-sweet and full of floral aromas"), Cabernet Franc 2010 ("rich peppery dance on the tongue"), Tre Tenores 2009 ("barrel select full-bodied Bordeaux style"), Rosa d’amore ("the perfect balance of fruit and tannins"), and the Lago Rosso ("a hint of sweetness and lots of berry flavor on the tongue"). My favorite was the Tre Tenores, might have been the best of all the reds we tasted, in my opinion.

Our one quibble with the Contessa experience was that the tasting room seemed fake, almost like a shop on Disneyland's Main Street, but that is probably just a question of design taste.

We tried to check out the dining options listed in the Wine Trail planner as much as possible, and opted for Schu's Grill and Bar as our dinner destination. The first several miles off the freeway are through a depressed neighborhood, but things start to brighten up the closer to the lake you get, with a charming downtown atop the bluff on the other side of the river.

Schu's is a typical bar and grill in terms of decor, though raising the bar above the dining level is a nice touch. Apparently the restaurant is a favorite of wedding attendees, who come in between the ceremony and reception - we must have seen 3 disparate groups while we were there.

One of my favorite things, a flight of drinks (in this case, beer) was my choice, supporting craft breweries of the area (I had the Bell's Oktoberfest, the Pier Cove Porter from Saugatuck Brewing Company, and the Scotch Ale from someone, slips my mind now).

We started with the Stuffed Portabella - the mushroom was stuffed with a creamy herb boursin cheese, baked to golden brown, and they were amazingly good, a really great beginning. For dinner I tried the Chicken Pot Pie, while Laima went with the ribs. The pot pie was adequate, a smallish serving (which is healthy, though disappointing), while the ribs seemed endless, along with some great seasoned french fries.

Schu's Grill & Bar on Urbanspoon

Schu's was a nice place to have dinner, with decent food, nice wine and beer selection, good service and fair prices. Probably the best thing about the restaurant is its location, overlooking Silver Beach and Lake Michigan. After dinner, we took the opportunity to walk down the stairs to the shore and out onto the jetty, before climbing back up for the trip home. St Joseph looks like a place to return to, perhaps on the weekend when the farmers' market is in full swing.

For the intro, read Day 1 and Day 2.


  1. Wine and chocolate tasting - what an awesome day:)

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