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Good wine is only a quick drive away

Published in the Battle Creek Enquirer

Every state in these United States now makes wine, although I think some states should reconsider. Not so in Michigan, however. We have a variety of wine tasting areas, including those close to home: north and east of Battle Creek.

Who knew that Paw Paw, Baroda and Mattawan are part of an area recognized by the U.S. government as an “American Vinicultural Area,” also known as an appellation? There are four appellations in Michigan: Old Mission Peninsula, Leelanau Peninsula, Lake Michigan Shore and Fennville. Move over Bordeaux and Burgundy. Forget the Napa Valley; let’s head to Van Buren County.

At this time of year, you might see the first shoots of spring as you traverse southwest Michigan in search of wineries. You should start your day trip by drawing straws for the designated driver, and everyone should indulge in a good, hearty breakfast. For once, I didn’t draw the short straw and I happily settled into “shotgun,” awaiting our day of tastings.

Our first stop was St. Julian Winery, with five locations in Michigan but headquartered in Paw Paw since 1936. Mariano Meconi moved his wine company to Detroit from Windsor and then to Paw Paw to be closer to the Lake Michigan Shore grape-growing region. He named the winery St. Julian after the patron saint of his hometown in Italy.

For 90 years, St. Julian has produced a wine for every taste. If you haven’t visited many wineries before, take the tour and see the crushing and fermentation process. We liked two medal winners, the 2011 Braganini Reserve Riesling and St. Julian Late Harvest Riesling. On April 7, you can take a two-hour class with winemaker Nancie Oxley. She’ll share a variety of Rieslings, and for $5 you can learn how and why Rieslings differ, traits of the grape, growing conditions and food pairings.

We crossed the street to Warner Vineyards, located inside a charming brick structure. Since 1938, three generations of Warners have steered the second oldest winemaking firm in Michigan. The Wine Haus was located in the historic 1898 water-works building. Inside, we took the self-guided tour and visited the Michigan version of European champagne caves. We sampled their best-selling wine called Liebestrauben, quite a sweet wine with a taste similar to the GermanLiebfraumilch wines.

We wanted to grab lunch before any more wine, so we chose the funky-looking Bistro 120 with the O’Farrell McGuire Irish Pub inside. The menu changes daily. The sandwiches were enormous and I could have been satisfied with my cup of split pea soup. I was tempted by the pecan cherry pie, but held off.

The next stop was the Cody Kresta Vineyard and Winery in Mattawan. Another third-generation winemaking family, it produces a small number of Chardonnays, Rieslings, rosés, Traminettes and other varietals.

They won for most unusual winery name, with Cody being the name of their golden retriever and Kresta representing the winemaker’s Croatian heritage. We had to try the 2011 Kresta Azure Blueberry Wine. For a fruit wine, it was drier than I imagined.

Our final stop was The Round Barn Winery, a family owned and operated winery, distillery and brewery in Baroda. The best tasting room of the trip was their turn-of-the-century post and beam bank barn originally built in 1881. For better or worse, here we switched to tasting a unique distilled spirit, DiVine Vodka. It is one of only four vodkas in the world made from grapes. Add craft brews, other distilled liquors, and the colorfully labeled Round Barn wines to the mix, and you have the makings of a well-spent afternoon.

With some 15 wineries located in this appellation alone, we had just scratched the surface when it was time to drive home. So many wines, so little time.

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