Folk often tell me, at this time of year, that they're taking a trip to Napa Valley to "really learn about wine." That's like saying that someone needs to go to Rome to really learn how to be Catholic, or to St. Andrews to get the game of golf.
People! Fie on the airfare, the expensive bed-and-breakfast, the terminally terrible traffic up and down the valley. Napa has its charms, but as a classroom, it gets a D.
Wine is now made in all 50 of our United States; in fact, each state has at least two operating wineries. Choose a nearby winery for your wine education; it has everything you need.
I live in Chicago, and although Illinois has wineries of its own, my winery classroom of late has been Michigan. It is ranked 13th in wine production in the country and is home to 100 wineries whose bottlings just get better each year. Michigan is doing all the right things; it's worth a visit to see why and how.
Chateau Grand Traverse, north of Traverse City in north-central Michigan, recently won a gold medal for its 2011 Dry Riesling at the San Francisco Chronicle's 2013 wine competition. In a wine world that includes Napa Valley, that is a very high mark.
Not only is Michigan a convenient place to learn about wine, it's a worthy one. All the important things that premier winemaking places such as Italy or Spain learned about in the 1970s and 1980s are on public display in Michigan today. All you have to do is go there and watch, talk to Michigan grape growers and winemakers and learn.
What's even better is that the state's top winemaking regions are, by and large, stunningly gorgeous, especially in peak vacation times; the grape growers and winemakers are largely young, hip and energetic; and the other major food groups of wine travel — eating, drinking and sleeping — are in place and top-notch.
Drive to the top of the Old Mission Peninsula outside Traverse City in order to open the textbook on Michigan winemaking. There lies an invisible but very significant line, the 45th degree latitude north, halfway between the equator and the North Pole.
At the tip of the peninsula, you will stand in the center of a band, from about the 50th to 30th degree latitudes, that circles the globe like a necklace strung with some of the world's great winemaking regions. To name but three in the Northern Hemisphere, they are Bordeaux in France, Piedmont in Italy and our own Columbia Valley of Washington and Oregon. (Ditto for the Southern Hemisphere's similar stretch embellished, for example, with New Zealand's Central Otago region.)
All the benefits that nature can give a grapevine shine within this band. Northern Michigan (a bit more luckily than the winemaking areas of southern Michigan) polishes them all: a lengthy, slowly ripening growing season; plenty of sunshine; mild, warm days, and crisp, cool nights. Michigan also sports large bodies of water that modulate temperature extremes, making for regularly gentle grapevine budding, flowering and ripening.
About half of Michigan's fine wine grapes grow in the northern half of the state, along the Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas. You literally can think of each of these fingers of land that jut into Lake Michigan as a turned-on-its-axis Rhine River for their success with riesling, or Right and Left Bank Bordeaux for increasingly winning cabernet franc and other red grapes. Clearly they are not (yet) equal to these prestigious and historic winemaking regions, but they are very similar to them, sharing characteristics such as soil types, weather patterns and — increasingly — skill in grape growing and winemaking craft.
As a wine professional and teacher on wine, I'm impressed with the lessons about wine that Michigan offers. I've visited the state's winemaking regions and tasted several vintages of its wines.
From my experience and perspective, the degree of pooh-poohing done by non-Michigan wine-erati over the wines of Michigan is inversely proportionate to the progression in quality of those same wines.
My tasting notes tell me that, as a class, northern Michigan white wines are exceptional, compared even with their counterparts in more illustrious winemaking regions of the world, especially in riesling and pinot blanc.
I see enormous potential for the making of high-quality, cool-climate red wines, especially with pinot noir and cabernet franc.
And in my long experience with the world's winemakers, I rarely have met as exceptional a group of winemakers and wine and food professionals, old and especially young, who are as articulate, passionate, knowledgeable and proud as those I have met in Michigan.
To learn more about wine and winemaking, go there; see, hear, taste for yourselves.
For more about the wines of the Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas, visit lpwines.com and wineriesofoldmission.com. For general information on touring Michigan wineries, go to michiganwines.com and michiganbythebottle.com.
For a guide to the wines and winemaking of Michigan, replete with visitor information, see the magazine Michigan Wine Country, from the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council, readable online at michiganwines.com.
Bill St John has been writing and teaching about wine for more than 40 years.