Indiana and Michigan aren't known for their wines, but local vineyards are producing good grapes and drawing crowds to their tasting parties.
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As summer changes to fall, grapes are changing into juice.
And even in Indiana and Michigan, winemakers are busy.
We do not make the world's best wines, but Lake Michigan breezes and fertile soil mean that we can make some pretty good wine from grapes grown near the border between Indiana and Michigan.
Both states are touting their wines. Both have wines winning medals at the prestigious Indy International Wine Competition.
But the key thing is that because of proximity, you can both taste and experience the wine without making a long trip.
For the last several years, friends have organized a bike trip on Labor Day weekend to Michigan wineries. We've been in southwestern and southcentral Michigan. And I would just point out that every year, the biking distance seems to expand. This year, we biked more than 60 miles in two days as we visited three places.
But whether you bike or drive, you can go to a winery, get a sip or two of a number of wines, and buy what you like.
Here's how it works:
Most wineries offer tastings. Some charge $5 for six or more wines. Some wineries, including Lawton Ridge and Cody Kresta west of Kalamazoo, give the $5 back if you buy a bottle of wine. At Domaine Berrien Cellars near Berrien Springs, you get it back if you buy three or more bottles. Since instituting that, 25 percent of the customers now buy at least three bottles, according to owner Wally Maurer.
As you taste, you hear about the grapes and the vintage. There's talk of how much oak a wine has and whether the flavors work. You don't have to say that the wine tastes like charcoal or lead pencil to fit in at one of these tastings. You just have to be able to say whether you like something.
You munch on crackers. You may buy some bottles. But whether you do, this is the best time of year to visit a local winery.
It's harvest season. Since early September, Indiana and Michigan winemakers have been harvesting grapes and starting the process of turning them into wine. That could attract flies, but it usually attracts wine drinkers.
Maurer said their tasting room is busiest in September and October. “It's a great time to come out. It is busy. People have to be patient,” he said.
And though the apple and peach harvest is bleak this year, the wine harvest isn't. The “spring curveball” of frost after warm temperatures didn't harm the grapes as much as it could have because the vines grow secondary fruit and because the hot, dry summer got the crop that was there very ripe. This year is behind only 2010 as one of the best growing years on record, he said.
Before you go to an Indiana or Michigan winery, don't expect the best dry red wine you've ever had. White wine drinkers are more likely to find a traminette or riesling that they like than someone finding a big Cabernet that is balanced.
Sweet wines and ports are easier to produce because you can hide flaws with sugar, according to Dr. Frank Piaskowy, a Goshen resident whom I consider a wine expert.
Dessert and even ice wines from Michigan are usually pretty good. I like the port and sherry that St. Julian is producing, though I'm not a huge fan of their wines.
Rieslings and other wines are getting more refined, and thus getting better, in our part of the world. You can find more information at www.MichiganByTheBottle.com or there is an app for that in the iTunes store.
Sweet wine drinkers won't have a problem, but he's liking some of the drier stuff he's finding.
He's touted Fruit Hills Winery & Orchard in Bristol, where David and Michelle Muir are harvesting some of their first grapes this year and using juice from other Michigan vineyards.
“It's going. It's getting better,” Dave said, noting that he's learning how to make better wine.
Piaskowy said he likes the reds and whites coming out of Free Run Cellars, 10062 Burgoyne Road, Berrien Springs, Mich. Some of the family members associated with Round Barn are doing some smaller batch wines under that label, he said. He's also liking some of what Huber is doing from southern Indiana and Wyncroft near Buchanan.
Before you head out to taste wine, whether it's in Michigan or at Gateway Winery in Goshen, I'd call ahead to find out the hours, plan a route and plan to be safe if you take a vehicle.
You can often take your own food to a winery, however you get there, and often get to hear the stories of the winemaker.
Aside from the businesses, winemakers in and around Elkhart County will soon be busy. About 75 customers order grapes from Dominic and Sarita Cataldo of Elkhart.
Because of immigration from winemaking areas like Greece and Italy, a number of families still make their own wine. About a dozen years ago, the Cataldos started ordering grapes for others and now get about two semi-trailer loads of grapes, much of it Cabernet. The grapes are being picked and will arrive in the coming days, after which people will crush and press and let the wine work over the winter.
It's another way in which people can participate in traditions and mark the seasons.
Autumn is here. That brings some bounty, even in a summer of odd weather.
I'm hungry. Let's eat.
Marshall V. King is news/multimedia editor and food columnist for The Elkhart Truth/eTruth.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, 574-296-5805, on Twitter @hungrymarshall or via Facebook.