6 Michigan wines recognized with national award

Greg Tasker
Special to The Detroit News

Six Michigan wines won top honors in the annual Jefferson Cup Invitational, considered among the most notable wine competitions in the country.

 Three white wines from Aurora Cellars, a family-owned boutique winery on the Leelanau Peninsula, garnered Jefferson Cups, the highest award in the invite-only competition. Aurora’s winning wines were its 2020 Dry Riesling, 2020 Grüner Veltliner and its 2020 Medium Sweet Gewurztraminer. Those wines competed in the white vinifera wine category (Old World grapes such as Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio).

“We are honored and thrilled to have received such prestigious awards from the highly recognized and respected Jefferson Cup competition,” said Taylor Simpson, sales, marketing and distribution manager for Aurora Cellars and Good Harbor Vineyards, both part of Simpson Family Estates. “Receiving multiple Jefferson Cup awards shows what teamwork between our winemaking and vineyard team can create. They work incredibly hard throughout the entire year and to see their efforts recognized on a national scale is validating.”

Besides those accolades, the Simpson Family wineries also won multiple gold and silver medals for various red and white varieties. Two other wineries — from Kansas and Missouri — also won three Jefferson Cups. It’s unusual for any winery to win three Jefferson Cups in any given year, Doug Frost, the competition founder and director, said.

Aurora Cellars earned national recognition for its wines.

 The other award-winning Michigan wines were: 2019 Le Caban Riesling from Left Foot Charley in Traverse City (white vinifera wine); 2020 Braganini Reserve Traminette from St. Julian Winery in Paw Paw (white non-vinifera wine); and Honeycrisp Ice from Two K Farms, also on the Leelanau Peninsula (fruit, dessert and fortified wine). About a dozen Michigan wineries won medals in the competition as well.

Aurora Cellars previously won two Jefferson Cups in 2019, for its 2016 Blaufrankisch and its Brut Rosé, a sparkling wine.

“Being able to have repeated success in a competition as highly regarded as The Jefferson Cup serves as a fantastic reminder to wine aficionados nationally of the high quality wines we are capable of producing in our region,” said Drew Perry, who is winemaker at both Aurora Cellars and Good Harbor. “We have a unique set of circumstances in our corner of Michigan that allow us to grow and shape wines that highlight their fullest varietal potential. Our strength as a region has always been in aromatic white varieties. Here we can grow and create wines that are not limited by our climate, but rather express character and aromatics that are enhanced by it.”

Unlike many wine competitions, the Jefferson Cup Invitational is not open to every winery willing to submit an entrance fee. Instead, the wines are selected for evaluation, based on tastings, information from judges and other competitions. The intent is to honor the “best of the best” from all of America’s wine regions. Trophies are awarded to wines made from both vinifera vines (Old World grapes) and non-vinifera vines, which flourish in more extreme climates in the United States.

The 2021 competition included 750 wines from 27 states. Judges are brought in from all around the country. Thirty-four wines captured top honors. Although California is often expected to dominate competitions, the Jefferson Cups were won by a multitude of states, including Colorado, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New York and Texas.

“In most other competitions there is ‘open’ seating and California represents 90 percent of the entries. As a result, it usually captures 90 percent of the honors,” Frost said. “What we are doing is following Mr. Jefferson’s example and allowing every quality-wine producing region in America a place at our table. Each year we select wines from across America.”

Bryan Ulbrich, owner and winemaker at Left Foot Charley, noted Frost has worked hard to open the minds of wine consumers about the diversity of wine being made in the United States. The nature of the Jefferson Cup competition — invitation only and its attention to diversity, as well as being a fundraiser for AngelFlight Central, which provides free flights to people in need of health care or for humanitarian reasons — makes the award an honor, he said.

“We don’t enter a lot of competitions but we support the fundraising and internal purpose of this competition,” Ulbrich said.

Left Foot Charley’s award-winner was made with a good portion of grapes from the Seventh Hill Farm on Old Mission Peninsula, outside Traverse City. It’s the same vineyard that produced another Jefferson Cup for Left Foot Charley in 2019: 2017 Riesling Seventh Hill Vineyard.

“It’s kind of cool to see the fruit from that vineyard get that recognition,” Ulbrich says, noting the vines are about 20 years old. “I think it makes a statement about the vineyard’s history and the way we grow the fruit and produce the wine.”

Wineries across the state have regularly garnered medals and top honors in the Jefferson Cup Invitational. St. Julian received a Jefferson Cup in 2019 for its 2018 Braganini Reserve Traminette. Two K Farms garnered two cups that year: for its 2017 Riesling and non-vintage Rosé. Brengman Brothers, on the Leelanau Peninsula, earned top honors for its 2017 Riesling Ice Wine. The Invitational was not held in 2020.

“It’s a recurring theme in Michigan wine,” Left Foot’s Ulbrich says. “When Michigan wines are placed in blind tastings against other wines, they really shine. It shows that we can consistently stand at the same table with anybody and the wines will speak for themselves. It’s rewarding and feels like we’re getting somewhere.”

Frost said he’s a big fan of Michigan wines, particularly the aromatic white varieties.

“I feel strongly that anyone who has had the opportunity to taste those wines in an unbiased setting will find them among the most compelling wines American wineries are making,” he said.

The Jefferson Cup Invitational was founded in 1999 in honor of Thomas Jefferson, according to a competition news release. Jefferson fathered the U.S. Constitution, helped champion the international concept of human rights and was a seminal figure in America’s cultural, culinary (including wine) and agricultural history.

Michigan’s Jefferson Cup winners

Aurora Cellars

2020 Dry Riesling

2020 Grüner Veltliner

2020 Medium Sweet Gewurztraminer

Left Foot Charley

2019 Le Caban Riesling

St. Julian Winery

2020 Braganini Reserve Traminette

Two K Farms

Honeycrisp Ice