It’s closer than the Napa Valley, you can buy dinner for less than $100 (with a side of marina view) and the wine flows like water. Only an hour and a half outside of Chicago, Michigan’s Wine Country has more wineries and vineyards than you can count (especially after a few tastings). Complete with typical vacation activities – antique shops, beaches and marinas, water-view dining, Harbor Countryf fosters a relaxing, easy weekend for a girls’ trip, couples getaway or family vacation (though we don’t recommend bringing the kids if wine tasting is your thing).
If wine tasting is your thing? April is Michigan Wine Month and Fruitful Vine Wine Tours, with pick-up locations in New Buffalo, St. Joseph and Stevensville, offers a unique and enjoyable guided tour to four local wineries, one of which includes a microbrewery. This past weekend I visited the area with a group of friends and we stayed at the Marina Grand Resortin New Buffalo, which was every bit as charming as we had hoped it would be. The Vino-Coach tour begins at 11:30 a.m. and accepts groups of approximately 12 people at a time for an intimate setting with plenty of opportunities to ask questions of your knowledgeable and informed wine expert-tour guides.
The tour itinerary varies from day to day based on customer feedback, current events and tour guide preference. While some of the wineries were ready and equipped for the group tour, others were more crowded and required a bit of a wait. If you’re already an certified sommelier, you might not find the tour to be as informative as wine newbies will, but if you like discovering new wine and grape varietals, you’ll enjoy the tour.
Our first stop, the family-owned Gravity Winery, is one of the newer to the area, offers wines made from 10 varieties of grapes. With 30 acres of vineyards that produce about 200,000 pounds of grapes annually, Gravity offers wine made from 10 of those grapes and sells the rest to other local wineries. For their tastings, they offer wine flights that contain a selection of up to four red and white wines paired with chocolate or cheese, respectively. Highlights here included a Pinot Noir that offered the perfect blend of oak and fruit, as well as ‘Ollie’s White’ – a white blend with mango and pineapple notes, aptly named for the family’s dog.
The second winery on the agenda, Lemon Creek Winery, has over 150 years of grape growing experience and offers over twenty eight different wines made from nineteen different estate grown varietals. White drinkers will love the ultra-affordable ’09 Kerner, a balanced wine with a fruity aroma, stone fruit flavors and a crisp finish. Anyone who prefers red will like the ‘08 Meritage, an earthy, full-bodied wine with hints of chocolate and cherry.
At Tabor Hill Winery & Restaurant there was a lot going on – almost too much, between the adjacent bar, wine shop and grand tasting room that accompanied a number of tour groups at once. The property offered elegant scenery and a nice array of wines, although a lot of the varietals we sampled were on the sweeter side. The highlight here was undoubtedly the signature Cherry Wine, made from the Michigan grown Balaton Cherry. Though I wouldn’t recommend this for drinking due to its super-sweet factor, it would be excellent reduced to a sauce to top a cheesecake or your favorite vanilla ice cream.
The final stop, Round Barn Winery, Distillery and Brewery would be a great place to spend an afternoon, even without participating in a guided tour. Appropriately named for the sprawling white barn on the property, the winery offers weekly wine tastings, seasonal festivals, winemaking classes and guided tours. Visitors can also enjoy microbrews and a few favorite wines, which included the soft, dry Lake Michigan Shore Pinot Gris and a Gewurztraminer with hints of allspice, honey and vanilla.