LAKE MICHIGAN - It was uncannily quiet as I entered the unlocked hilltop villa at the entrance to Tony Ciccone's vineyard and winery. At the long bar, I was soon sipping a glass of buttery, slightly oaky chardonnay, poured by Danielle Kelly, the "wine-tasting girl" from Leland village on the shores of Lake Michigan.
Behind her was a framed portrait of Tony's daughter, Madonna, and several bottles of "limited edition" Madonna wine, and reflected in the long mirror was a cross fixed on the wall.
Tony was helping with the harvest in his 80-acre estate. "Mario, her youngest brother, works here," Kelly added helpfully. He was also helping with the harvest.... It was just Kelly, the long bar, and me.
I WAS on a solo cycling tour of the Leelanau Peninsula wine trail in north-west Michigan. The Ciccone winery, a few miles south of the arty village of Suttons Bay, is one of around 20 on the peninsula, which offers the greatest concentration of wineries in Michigan.
It sits on the 45th parallel that cuts through some of the world's greatest wine-producing areas, including Alsace, Bordeaux and Burgundy in France, and is surrounded by lake water, giving it a moderate year-round temperature.
The third-cloudiest US state, Michigan has 65 commercial wineries and the clouds and the Western breeze also have a moderating climatic influence. With the peninsula's hills helping to ward off frost, and what award-winning winemaker Shawn Walters called a "rocky, sandy, loamy soil," it is thriving as a wine-producing area.
Kelly took me through five wines, including a 2006 dolcetto.
"Tony is the only winemaker in the state that grows it [the dolcetto]. It's a popular Italian wine - possibly it's for his Italian roots. He goes for dry and fruity Italian-inspired wines."
An engineer for General Dynamics for 40 years, he and his second wife, Joan, established the vineyard on a former ski hill overlooking Grand Traverse Bay in 1995, and planted European grapevines in part of the 80-acre property. The handcrafted wines are bottled on site and have won more than 40 medals.
"Madonna comes about once a year," Kelly said of the pop megastar. "She's been in the past and served [customers]."
I had flown into Traverse City, known as the cherry capital of the world, on a cold, late autumnal evening a few days earlier, having transferred from Chicago, 300 miles to the south.
On the 20-mile trip further north, my taxi driver, Will, warmed me up with his description of the witches' brew from Leelanau Cellars in Omena before dropping me at Korner Kottage bed and breakfast in Suttons Bay. A 1920s craftsman-style clapboard cottage, it was run with a warm attentiveness by Jim and Linda Munro, plus the occasional toe-lick from their Portuguese water dog, Nestle Quik.
The following day, after breakfasting on Jim's "famous" homemade granola plus fresh fruit pieces and yoghurt, followed by Ebleskivers - maple syrup-topped pancake dumplings filled with cherries soaked in liqueur - I was picked up by 69-year-old bike merchant George Bennett from Leland.
A sailing buff, George had two golden retrievers, Port and Starboard, who larked around in the back of his doggy-odoured 4x4 en route to Geo Bikes. Having battled through his 100-plus selection, George picked a 21-gear bike with handlebars like a deer's antlers before driving me to the Good Neighbor Organic Vineyard and Winery - the trail's northernmost outpost.
Along the undulating Eagle Highway, maples displayed their reddish-brown and yellow leaves among the light green-leaved aspens and poplars and the darker green pines and firs. Further on were sweet and sour cherry trees and apple trees.
THREE MILES south of Northport, Good Neighbor's winery is part-owned by Stan Silverman - one of several Jews involved in the peninsula's wine scene. The region's sole certified organic winery, it uses only certified organic grapes, grown without synthetic pesticides, herbicides or fertilisers, and with no sulphites added.
The process entails crop rotation and using "green" manure and compost plus biological pest control.
I had brought my padlock from London, and
(pointlessly) locked the bike outside the kitchen-cum-tasting room. Not a soul was in sight. Inside, Stan served me a small sample of hard cider and the same warmed up with sugar.
A former financial adviser, land developer and art gallery owner, farm owner Stan had been drawn to wine-making by his cider-making lawyer, Tim Haring.
"I have five or six acres of grapes and will be putting in five to six acres more over the next couple of years," Stan said. "I also have 20 acres of apples, an acre of lavender and an acre of assorted berries. The rest [32 acres] is wood, because you want to achieve a balance with nature. We have tons of deer and coyote, so ecologically it will be a rich environment."
The vineyard completed its first apple pressing in 2007 and opened the following spring. Stan said: "We produced 800 bottles of hard cider from the 2007 harvest and about 40 cases of [pinot gris and riesling] wine. By 2012, we'd like to be producing a little over 1,000 cases of wine a year. We'd like to stay nice and small and very hands-on."
ACCORDING TO Jill James, who served me next at the family-owned Gill's Pier vineyard and winery on the way back to Suttons Bay, the purity and prevalence of the water are key to the quality of the peninsula's wine.
"We sit on 20 per cent of the world's fresh water [in the five Great Lake states] Most of the winemakers don't have to have irrigation because of the lake-effect - there's always dew and good rain."
The conditions are ideal for creating lush riesling wines, and Kris and Ryan Sterkenburg, who moved from Wisconsin to set up the winery in 2002, will be adding two acres of riesling, regent & dornfelder grapes in 2010 to Gill's Pier's four acres of vineyards, which currently produce 2,000 cases a year.
"Riesling is becoming a signature grape for the region," Jill said. "We have a high acidic soil which gives a good balance, so you get the crisp, clean finishes."
The Sterkenburgs are helped in the vineyards by their children, Samantha and Jacob; and, along with other wineries in the region, they have fun names for some wines - Ankle Biter and Just Unleashed, which hinted at a dog-friendly owner, being a couple of examples (The book Wine Dogs, which popped up at a vineyard later on, pays homage to the industry's four-legged friends).
The following morning, after Nestle Quik had licked my toes goodbye, I set off along a chilly Duck Lake Road for the Forty-Five North vineyard and winery - set in a 100-acre former cherry farm - which opened in summer 2008.
"Would you like some mulled apple [wine]?" asked Kimba Burleigh, a friend of the winery manager, Cindy Curley, in the tasting room, sited in a restored 120-year-old barn. The hot cup of Forty-Five North Apple was just the job.
Leaving Kimba knitting scarves behind a barrel near the steel vat-filled winery, I moved on to the effervescent Becky Hill who poured me a 2007 pinot gris - a gold medal winner at the Tasters Guild international wine competition.
"Mario Batali [an American chef and TV host] came in and said he hated all Michigan wines. He tasted the pinot gris and walked away with four cases," said fellow pourer Ashley Fredrickson.
After the off-dry 2007 45 White, a silver medallist at the 2008 Pacific Rim international in California, I finished off with the luscious pinot gris ice box.
The first phase of planting had been overseen by vineyard manager Doug Matthies of Big Paw Vineyard Services, which has planted two-thirds of the county's vines, and my next winery, Chateau Fontaine - the other side of Lake Leelanau - was owned by Doug's parents, Dan and Lucie. A quarter of the 100 acres are planted with 14 varieties of grapevines, producing 6,000 cases a year.
Dan, 63, has been growing grapes for 23 years, and takes his wine very seriously. Sitting on a tasting room bench, he related how Bernie Rink, now in his eighties, had founded the Boskydel vineyard a few miles south of Lake Leelanau village in 1976.
"He grew hybrids [resistant to the cold winters and disease], because no one knew vinifera would grow here - because it wasn't warm enough. Everybody started growing hybrids, but thanks to Michigan State University, who did some research showing vinifera could grow here [others branched out]."
Dan matched my pinot gris sample to the whitefish and perch of Lake Michigan, and then poured me a chardonnay.
"We age this in stainless steel tanks, so you can taste and smell the fruit. Whereas in California, they age their chardonnay in oak barrels, which gives it a whole different character, I like it clean and crisp, with just a hint of butter and oak.
"I'm not a rocket-scientist winemaker. You grow good grapes, you grow good wine - and you don't have to put a lot of shit in it."
Turning to the Woodland White, crafted from the auxerrois grape, he said proudly: "There's only two of us growing the grape in Michigan. It won a double gold medal at the 2008 International Tasters Guild in San Francisco."
He went on: "There's enough sun here. We
have a 26 mile-long lake [Leelanau]. This heats up and keeps our temperature warm. In the middle of the state, it's already freezing. High property, [being] close to the water and all that sun - that's our claim to fame."
I was booked in at the Whaleback Inn, just south of Leland - a strip of land between lakes Michigan and Leelanau. The inn has grown up around a century-old log cabin built as a summer home by a furniture factory owner from Chicago. Now owned by Lutheran church-goers Scott and Tammie Koehler, it is spectacularly appointed in five wooded acres on a hill overlooking Lake Leelanau.
Saturday breakfast was less spectacular, comprising hot coffee or cocoa and juices with frosted cinnamon roll (though a continental breakfast is served on the porch in the peak season from Memorial Day at the end of May to Labor Day in early September.
Leland's 200-year-old wooden fishing village, Fishtown, was close by, and for $2 I bought a hunk of sumptuous orangey-red smoked salmon from Carlson's whitewashed shack and munched away en route to Omena.
THE LPVA's biggest wine-producing operation, Leelanau Cellars, dates back to the mid-1970s when the Jacobson family started growing grapes on a cherry farm. Today, it produces upwards of 100,000 cases a year.
The tasting room and adjoining restaurant
overlook Grand Traverse Bay. "It is the largest distributor of Michigan wines in the Michigan area," my pourer, Tom, informed me.
Its 35-plus wines, many of which are Michigan wine and spirits competition medal winners, include fruit wines - the cranberry being "a perfect accompaniment with your Thanksgiving dinner!!!" - port wines and the 2004 riesling ice wine, a $60 double gold medallist whose grapes were harvested on a freezing day in January 2005. I tried a dozen, ending with some warm spicy witches' brew.
I had been invited me to a harvest party at the nearby Cherry Basket Farm, lit up off the Michigan Highway M-22, and pitched up with some Leelanau Cellars' blueberry wine.
Andy Schudlich, the congenial co-chef/owner of
Epicure Catering, and co-chef/owner Cammie Buehler had laid on a feast featuring salmon Andy had caught on holiday in Alaska and rabbits poached in wine.
Among those there was winemaker Shawn Walters, who had spent the day crushing grapes. He was full of zesty acidity, like his wine.
"I'm a high-school dropout, but I was a motivated dude. I don't make wine in the lab - I make it in my head," he said passionately.
His ambition was to own a vineyard and to make wines named after his wine-savvy young daughters.
"I want them to be sommeliers - I don't want them to have to work like I do," he said.
The following morning, I set off on a 15-mile ride around Lake Leelanau towards Shady Lane cellars, passing log cabins amid pine, fir and maple tree woods. The southernmost of six wineries clustered between Suttons Bay and Traverse City, it is owned by fishing and hunting buddies Joe O'Donnell and Bill Stouten, a neurosurgeon and real estate broker respectively, from Grand Rapids. Around one third of the 150-acre estate is planted with grapes, and its winemaker, Adam Satchwell, the president of the LPVA, had been "bottling" until midnight.
Shady Lane offers a "complimentary pour," followed by a $5 paid tasting of four wines with a "gourmet spread." The wines included a delicious mango and apricot-flavored 2006 late harvest vignoles.
As I sipped a dryish 2007 Gewurztraminer, Denise Perez, Shady Lane's events coordinator, said: "We do the true German style, so it's quite different to what you're used to - normally, it's much sweeter. It was aged in French and American oak barrels. Adam went to Europe a couple of years ago, and prefers it that way. It goes great with spicy food."
The region's grandest b&b is Black Star Farms in
Suttons Bay. It has a six-pillared entrance with a marble floor, and its nine guest rooms are set in a red-and-white colonial-style mansion which nestles amid 120 acres of sweeping land. It is approached via a swath of grapevines, some covered in protective netting, which fan out on the surrounding hillside.
The rooms are named after Greek stars: I was in Lyra - and the place has a luxurious, leisurely air. When it first went on the market, Madonna reportedly looked into buying it.
For breakfast, the chef, John "Street" Dayton,
concocted a pyramid comprising beef tenderloin, mushrooms, sweet potatoes, parsnips and turnips, topped by a poached egg and a sprig of rosemary, and covered in a yummy cheese raclette mornay sauce made at the onsite Leelanau Cheese Company.
Black Star produces about 10,000 cases of wine
and spirits a year. It includes a winery, a distillery, a farmers' market and stables. It also has a 100 foot-long wine cave and a 50-foot cheese cave.
The complimentary tasting for guests in the dome-shaped tasting room-cum-shop stretches from pinot noirs to ciders. There is also a "two-tastes-for-$5" option, including a Sirius maple wine, a spirit of pear eau de vie brandy, and a siriusly expensive 2007 A Capella ice wine - the grapes for which were picked and pressed while frozen. Served at a White House dinner, it costs $92.50.
I cycled to my final tasting, at Willow Vineyard, on the Leelanau Trail, which runs south through farmland and meadows towards Traverse.
Willow, perched on a hillside overlooking West Grand Traverse Bay, had an unhurried air. Eight of its 11.5 acres have been planted with grapes by its husband-and-wife owners, John and Jo Crampton, who previously had a landscaping company downstate. They bought the property 30 years ago when it was a cow pasture for a dairy farm.
"My 2004 Volkswagen cost more," said Jo.
Earlier this year, John, 61, and Jo, 51, put it on the market - a rarity, as, according to Dan Matthies, no Michigan vineyard has changed hands for more than 30 years. The asking price, which includes Willow's estate villa, its equipment and tractors, is $2.3m.
The tasting room is the sole selling point for Willow's annual production of 1,300 cases of fruity chardonnay, pinot gris and cherry-nosed pinot noir wines. As I sipped away, the vineyard's yellowy-green expanse was bathed in sunlight, pelted with hailstones, assaulted by snowflakes, and, finally, overarched by a rainbow.
"We love this area and the vineyard, but [there are] too many cold, grey days," said Jo.
Back at Black Star, I left the bicycle for George outside the pillared entrance. The following morning, a Bay Area Transportation Authority bus, on which I had reserved a seat, appeared out of a snow flurry; and within an hour I was in Traverse City booking an Indian Trails bus to Chicago - with a few bottles of north Michigan wine stuffed into my bags.