Michigan wines awarded medals in new event

Greg Tasker
Special to The Detroit News

    When Paul Brady opens his wine shop and bar in New York’s Hudson Valley this fall, he’s hoping to have a couple of Michigan wines available to pour.

    Brady, a sommelier and former food and beverage manager for well-known New York City restaurants, has long been familiar with Michigan wines and earlier this month served among a panel of judges evaluating wines in the first-ever Judgement of Michigan.

“I’d love to feature some Michigan wines,” says Brady, who grew up in Grosse Pointe and recalls having Michigan Rieslings available to his New York restaurant customers in the past. “There are several wineries in Michigan that are at the level that they could exist in big metropolitan markets outside Michigan.”

That’s the kind of response organizers of the Judgement of Michigan were hoping for. A successor to the defunct Michigan Wine Competition, the evaluation earlier this month brought in an all-new, more diverse set of judges. They included restaurateurs, distributors, sommeliers, wine retailers, national writers and social influencers from around the country.

Like in the past, wines were judged by category according to variety and style. But this time each wine was judged individually, on its own merits, and not against others in the same category. Gold, silver and bronze medals were awarded. Double Gold was the highest honor. 

In all, the judges awarded eight Double Gold, 33 Gold, 58 Silver and 76 Bronze medals. Some 360 wines were submitted by about 55 wineries.

The event’s planning committee asked the judging squad to be brutally honest during the evaluation. Using the UC Davis 20-point scale, the judges only awarded medals to wines that deserved recognition, organizers say. About 50% of the wines were not awarded any type of medal; in the last Michigan competition, only 8% of the wines were not given medals. 

“A few people were disappointed that their wines came away with no medals, but we had asked the judges to be as objective as possible in awarding medals to wines that really deserved them and to not award ‘participation medals,’” says Gina Shay, who is vice president of the Michigan Wine Collaborative, one of the partners in the new judging event. “There was a lot of discourse during the judging — judges were taking their job seriously in understanding the wine composition and varietal typicity for our climate, requesting repours if necessary.”

Lee Lutes, head winemaker at Black Star Farms and treasurer of the Michigan Wine Collaborative, says the evaluation, held at Lake Michigan College in Benton Harbor, had challenges but received positive feedback from judges and participants. 

Lee Lutes, head winemaker at Black Star Farms and treasurer of the Michigan Wine Collaborative, says the evaluation of Michigan wines, held at Lake Michigan College in Benton Harbor, had challenges but received positive feedback from judges and participants.

“Part of the reason to do this evaluation — we’re trying not to call it a competition — is to get others involved from outside the area who can spread the word about Michigan wines,” Lutes says. “That’s especially important for a small wine region like ours that is relatively unknown on a national or global scale.” 

Black Star Farms, which grows grapes on both Old Mission and the Leelanau peninsulas near Traverse City, won a Double Gold for its Arcturos Winter Harvest Riesling and 11 other medals for a variety of wines. Wineries from all over the state garnered awards.

“We asked judges to have an open mind, to base their evaluations on what they know or might sense about these wines from a stylistic standpoint,” Lutes says. “There were judges who did not have any familiarity with Michigan wines. It’s a little give and take … our Rieslings are standing up to others in the world .. but our Pinot Noirs and Merlots are unique in a lot of ways. Judges tend to shift accolades to bigger, bolder, brassier reds .. but when you can get people in who can appreciate what we do … these wines can be beautiful.”

To that point, Brady recalls the judges buzzing about a Merlot they found especially pleasing: Shady Lane Cellars Merlot, which was awarded a Gold medal.

“When people think about Merlot, they’re often tempted to compare the wine or grapes to benchmark regions but you have to remember there are things Merlot can do in a cold climate like Michigan or New York,” he notes. “This Merlot was delicious in the best way. It was a light, juicy Merlot, like a Beaujolais-style wine. "It was not a medium-plus bodied wine from a warmer climate but judges need to consider different regions can do different things and these wines can be equally as good or better." 

Phil Keeling, social media manager and writer for Wine Folly, left the evaluation with a new appreciation for Michigan wines. 

“Overall, I was really impressed with wines that I didn’t immediately associate with Michigan. Cabernet Franc and fortified styles come immediately to mind,” says Keeling, who lives in Georgia. “ I’m really glad to have tasted Michigan wine: there’s some serious quality here that needs to be seen more widely.”

Consumers and others in the wine and hospitality trades will have a chance to sample the most highly-rated wines from the Judgement of Michigan later in the year. The Michigan Wine Collaborative is planning a series of showcase events across the state.

The Judgement of Michigan

Double Gold winners:

Black Star Farms, Arcturos Winter Harvest Riesling

Cherry Creek Cellars, Cabernet Sauvignon

Forty-Five North Vineyard and Winery, Afterglow (a blend of Riesling and Vignoles)

Lemon Creek Winery, Gewurztraminer

Petoskey Farms Vineyard and Winery, Frontenac Blanc

St. Julian Winery, St. Julian Solera Cream Winery

Verterra Winery, Pinot Blanc 

Verterra Winery, Late Harvest Riesling

For a full list of medal winners, visit michiganwinecollaborative.com/judgement-of-michigan-results/