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Verterra Winery And My Quest For Jim Harrison


Long ago and far away, when many of you whippersnappers were still drinking wine out of Evenflo baby bottles and I was scarcely old enough to listen to Negro music, I headed up to the Leelanau Peninsula to search for my then-literary idol, Jim Harrison.

At the time, Mr. Harrison had only published a handful of novels and was still a Northern Michigan landmark instead of a Hollywood wonk-eyesore; inevitable stylistic comparisons were made between him and Hemingway.

Even so, then as now, my reading preferences leaned toward Harrison, and in fact, Warlock and Sundog were foundations of my fantasy to pursue fiction as an occupation.

My success in that venture should be glaring, as you are reading a wine blog instead of a NY Times bestseller.

Anyway, my quest for Harrison himself bore more fruit. Like any good literary groupie, I’d have loved to have shot the shit with old Ernest, but by the time I was born he’d already left his hypothalamus on the cove molding of his Ketchum foyer. However, I had been assured by the alcoholic intelligentsia that Jim Harrison—a native son of Grayling, Michigan—could be found in a specific Leland bar more nights than not. So up I went, my ticker fluttering and flip-flopping, no doubt expecting that Harrison would embrace some random downstate teenager, take him under his wing, edit, spell check and rewrite his heartfelt drivel, then set him up with a publisher and find him a local girl to boff.

Hey, it could happen.

Instead (cutting to the chase), I found him in a state which I believed to be half-tanked (I could be wrong), trying to scam on barfly chicks (I could be wrong), playing an odd billiard game called bank pool (I could be wrong; maybe nine-ball) and received a quick, cursory, courtesy-free brush-off (I’m not wrong).


Seriously, children?? I’m getting mileage out of that friggin story to this day.

But, What Does This Have To Do With Verterra Winery?

The Bluebird—the bar where this all happened—is owned by the same dude that owns Verterra, Skip Telgard.

In fact, I like to believe that the entire vivacious Verterra venture, which includes Skip’s partner Paul Hamelin, winemaker Shawn Walters and consultant Doug Matthies, was conceived right there at the hundred-seat Bluebird bar over a growler of Good Harbor Fishtown White.

But I might be wrong.

However it happened, it happened right; the winery’s first vintage won seven medals at the Michigan Wine and Spirits Competition and last month, the next one took Pacific Rim Wine Competition’s Best In Class for Pinot Blanc 2011 and Chaos White Cuvée 2011—a category that required unanimous ‘ayes’ from the judges. To ice that cake, Verterra’s Dry Riesling 2011 won a gold medal at the same competition.

Trust me, vineyards that have specialized in riesling for decades aspire to take home gold at the Pacific Rim.

Taste Amid the Ghosts of Sweeny Todd, Bill Dauterive, Figaro and Floyd The Barber

As a Latin contraction, Verterra translates into ‘true earth’—unless, of course, you happen to speak Latin, in which case it really doesn’t. More like ‘spring earth’.

But, that’s no biggie. The Verterra tasting room is the biggie.

Ensconced within a 1927 building shell that originally housed S.R. Gains’s tonsorial parlor (Latin for barbershop) and a Jim Harrison-approved pool hall, the short-board maple flooring and funky-looking borrowed-brick exterior has the place oozing with the alluvia of D.I.Y. history. Within, manager Jeff pours through the award-winners with expertise and aplomb (Latin for flyness), pointing out, amid his schpiel, that one of the most unique and exciting things about Verterra is that it is family owned and operated.

Now, that’s worth a column in itself, because if me and my family—extended or otherwise—ever opened a winery together, the only exciting part would be the 911 domestic violence calls and the only unique thing about it would be how quickly it closed.

But holding it together quite remarkably is Paul Hamelin, his wife and son Geoff, crediting (in this order) Shawn Walters and the true earth—especially the trio of magnificently productive vineyards from which Walters draws his fruit.

Now, anybody who knows Walter’s work knows that he could make award-winning wine out of the cladophora algae in the Grand Traverse Bay, with the advantage of his solid rep (based on his seventeen years of vintership in Michigan), he doesn’t have too. So impressive is he both as a technician and an artist—he’s been called (somewhat belatedly) the guy who can finally put Michigan on the world’s wine map—that his skills are in demand at wineries throughout Leelanau and Old Mission. The fact that he’s hauling down medals for each of them—so many that gold no longer seems an element precious enough to do these wines justice—he’s maybe into X-kryptonite territory by now—proves that his purple thumb print is pressed with equanimity upon the foreheads of his patrons—(English for patroni).

Of course, as Galileo did for theMarchese del Monte and the Grand Duke of Tuscany; as da Vinci did for Cesare Borgia and as Michelangelo did for Lorenzo de' Medici, Verterra’s owners find their social status insanely improved by their association with Shawn and his magic-touch wines. Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but they do get to sit and gloat before awestruck wine writers such as I, who may not perch upon the same belletristic throne as Jim Harrison, but whose eyes, at least, track.

Tasting Notes:

Among the Verterra wines we sampled was Reserve Red, 2010 (around $25), a blend of cab franc, merlot and syrah, steel fermented separately and aged in half-American/half-French oak ‘stave barrels’ (frankly, I’m not sure what other kind there is) and blended post-malolactic. The results—laced with blackberry and supple with spice (anise and cinnamon, to my palate), tamed tannins and long in the finish—took a gold medal at the 2011 Michigan Wine & Spirits Competition.

Also, the Chablis-modeled Unwooded Chardonnay, 2010 (about $16) was fermented in steel and shows citrus, apple and tropical fruits on a forward nose, solid, integrated acidity and a crisp finish. As Shawn points out, the vineyard is young, and a few more years should show what this popular varietal can do in Leelanau.

Dry Gewurztraminer, 2011 (about $18) is part of a tiny, 187 case lot. The web site claims ‘we get tired of saying the full name’ and refers to it not by its Cliff’s Notes version, ‘gewurtz’ but by the Cliff’s Notes version of Cliff’s Notes: ‘Gwertz’. It leans lightly to the floral side of the palate, but not too much—Walters harvests early to avoid the over-saturation of classic Alsace rose petal/Turkish Delight flavors. It’s a wise move considering that the only real drawback to this delightful varietal is that its ‘strength of character’ can be so pronounced that it dominates everything with which it comes in contact. That’s why it is inevitably recommended as a match to spicy cuisine: Like X-Kryptonite, whose whose radiation and odor can imbue Earth-based life-forms with temporary superpowers, gewürztraminer and, say, incendiary Bengal curry, can grapple without a clear dominator.

The Bluebird on My Shoulder is Also on the Wagon??

So, the last time I stopped by The Bluebird, I noted that nearly the entire staff was too young to recognize Harrison Ford let alone Jim Harrison, so I didn’t bother asking.

On the way out, however, I noted a hostess of such venerable maturity (that is notLatin for old, damn it) that she’d probably recognize Benjamin Harrison.

So I inquired after the crusty, lazy-eyed poet, sharing my erstwhile pilgrimage to seek him out, to which she replied, ‘Oh, back then, lots of young people did…’

Great. Being herded into a category with a thousand other silly little twits with the same goddamn story really made my night. On the other hand, she shared the news that Harrison still stops in when he’s in town. Now 74 years old and phlebotomizing gravitas, having proven himself an author able to hold rank with literary giants like Faulkner, he has apparently grown sedate and comfortable in his discerning dotage.

She insisted that he sat quietly and enjoyed a drink-free dinner: A plate of fried whitefish—the house specialty—casting his weird, solitary eyeball toward neither Farmer’s Daughter, pool table nor arsenal of booze bottles.

That’s what she said, anyway. But she might be wrong.


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