This past summer I was able to get back home to Michigan. I was lucky enough to have time to visit one of my favorite places— Northern Michigan and specifically Elk Rapids. These visits “up north” usually allow me the opportunity to visit the wineries of Leelenau and Old Mission Peninsulas, some of my favorites in the State. In July, I visited some of my faves: Black Star Farms, 2Lads Winery, Brys Estate, Mawby, Circa and Bel Lago. Here are some of my thoughts in a series of posts about my visits. If you have never been to these wonderful wineries and have the opportunity, please visit their tasting rooms. If you are not able to make the trip, I would recommend ordering from them for shipment if possible, or try to find their wines in your local wine shops.
The last stop on our two day excursion was Bel Lago. And while it was not intended to be the last stop, ala our visit to Brys Estate, it ended up being the last stop of the day and trip.
When I set out for Bel Lago, I had two things on my mind: (1) the tasting room menu and (2) Tempesta, Bel Lago’s fantastic select harvest red wine. I planned to leave with at least one bottle if not two. One for me and one for my fellow wino, Kurt Hornick, who was with me when we first tasted it at a Michigan tasting not so long ago. I over-achieved on my first task but failed in spectacular fashion at my second. Ah, not to worry, when I fail spectacularly, I do mean spectacularly!
In Italian, “Bel Lago” means “Beautiful Lake.” Located on the west side to Lake Leelanau on the Leelanau Penninsula, the name certainly fits the location and the vineyard.
Bel Lago Vineyard and Winery
was founded in 1987 by Domenic, Ruth and Amy Iezzoni and Charlie Edson. Bel Lago is a family run and family oriented winery. The quaint tasting room and very friendly staff at Bel Lago makes you feel like you are at home. It was as if my wife and I had gone to share a bottle with our neighbors. There is a very “hometown” feel to Bel Lago and I mean that in the best sense of “home”. When in Leelanau, stop by Bel Lago and meet the neighbors!
Bel Lago is also, to me, Charlie Edson.
Without question, there are many individuals that collectively make up Bel Lago, but Charlie is the “backbone.” Charlie is a kind of “mad scientist” when it comes to making wine. He has a large number of grape clones that he identifies by number; rather, than name. His experiments are all designed in the pursuit of excellent wine.
In 2010, I wrote about Bel Lago’s Auxerrois
wine. I emailed Charlie with some questions about the Auxerrois. I never expected to receive the outstanding and delightfully detailed response that landed in my inbox. I was smitten. Charlie had undoubtedly taken precious time out of his busy day to educate and enlighten me. I have never forgotten that gesture. Since then, I’ve met and talked with Charlie at many Michigan wine events. Like your buddy next door, he’s always willing and ready to talk wine.
My wife and I arrived to the Bel Lago tasting room in the early afternoon. It was a weekday, so lucky us, the parking lot was empty and we had the tasting room to ourselves! Time to make ourselves at home.
We saddled up to the bar and got started. First, we enjoyed the white side of the wine list, including the Auxerrois. Then, as I readied myself for the red side of the wine list, I took a peek at the shelves of wine for my bottles of Tempesta to find the cupboard bare.
Damn! And, yes, I said it out loud.
My disappointment evident, Charlie was immediately summoned (my wife mentioning I was a wine-blogger may have something to do with the summons, actually). As we waited for Charlie, who was labeling bottles downstairs (now I felt guilty), we continued through the red side of the wine list and two more customers entered. They began their journey through the red side — not fans of white they said— as Charlie emerged. I introduced myself to Charlie — as I was sure he would not remember me — and thanked him again for his help with my Auxerrois blog post.
We chatted a bit about the Auxerrois and the wines we had tasted when it was suggested that I was disappointed that there was no Tempesta for me to take home. Admittedly, I knew this was a possibility as Tempesta is not produced in every year. It is only produced in excellent vintages. Charlie apologized (as he should!) that he had no bottle for us. Would, per chance, we want to taste a barrel sample of the 2010 he had downstairs? Hmmm, I don’t know? Is the Pope Catholic came to mind but, instead, I said “If it isn’t too much trouble, sure.” Charlie then turned to the two other visitors and asked them if they wanted a taste and I answered “yes” for them, reassuring them that it would probably be the best red they tasted here.
Needless to say— barrel sample or not— it was already wonderful. Big, bold and lush, Tempesta, in whatever vintage, should be sought out and tried.
We had so much fun that Charlie offered another gem, in bottle, but not labeled, so it could not be sold— an ice wine made of… Pinot Grigio… huh? Yep, Pinot Grigio. Of course I want to try this! It was out of this world fantastic! It was full of apricots and peaches — not the sweet kind, but dried apricots and dried peaches — it was and is a wonderfully surprising ice wine.
And, when I thought my day could not get better, it did. ”Are you busy this afternoon?” Charlie asked. As it happened, Charlie needed to taste his 2011 Pinot Noir and decide whether to make one Pinot Noir or two Pinot Noirs (one being a Reserve). ”Would you like to join me for a tasting?”
Yes, the Pope is Catholic.
With his cell phone number in hand, we left Bel Lago for lunch, excited for our return.
We arrived back to the tasting room around 5:30, a bit later than anticipated, but who was keeping track of the time? Charlie and the crew had finished their bottling duties and looked tired. My wife and I on the other hand were refreshed from lunch and some palate cleansing — ready, set go!
Descending down to the barrel room, I could feel the excitement rising within me. Was I really doing this? Charlie handed us our tasting glasses and it was official, we were part of the tasting jury. What a humbling experience.
Charlie reminded us of the task at hand: The Pinot Noirs. But, hey, as long as we are here, let’s taste Chardonnay — just to see how it was doing? You may recall that my wife is not a lover of the oaked Chardonnay. She can smell the vanilla before you uncork the barrel. She was visibly nervous as she did not want to insult our host. She needn’t have worried. ”Wow!” said her eyes and she sipped again. Staying quiet among the “real wine aficionados,” she was lurking in the back a bit. Much unlike her usual opinionated self, she was a bit self conscious. She doesn’t “do wine” she says, her husband “does wine.”
It was good— very good! Even my wife smiled with satisfaction. And, after a glass she began to feel more at ease. I think she never imagined that she would be doing barrel tastings in a barrel room with a winemaker let alone with a winemaker who actually wanted her opinion!
Next, the Pinot Noir. Two new glasses were issued to each of us (one for each barrel). Armed, we approached our task:
We swirled, smelled, sipped, pondered and then it was time for comment. My wife was first to notice that both were wonderful wines, but that there was a bitterness on the backend of what Charlie thought could be the Reserve wine. Without hesitation, Charlie wholeheartedly agreed with the assessment and then explained why that is exactly what he was getting in his tasting and that it, not to worry, was just fine!
My wife, stood a little taller after that, more confident that she had received an “A” for her first effort — which she did deserve. I loved watching her. She enjoys wine but hangs back a bit and Charlie made her feel so comfortable in the barrel room that it was like talking around the dinner table with family.
There was discussion, not only of whether the wines could or should be bottled separately, but the whole business decision behind bottling one Pinot or two in any given year. It was truly fascinating to listen to Charlie “think out loud” about how he would reach his decision. A consensus was reached as to how the vintage would ultimately be bottled — Charlie still had final veto authority as the wine needed a little more time in barrel before bottling, but I think that he was comfortable with the decision reached that day by the group.
What did we decide? That is a secret among the small group that met that night in the Bel Lago tasting room. Jen and I are more than giddy with anticipation to find out if our pick in the tasting room finds its way to the shelves for sale.
But, if you see a label, suggesting that this is “a wine worth getting dressed up for” then you will know that Charlie ultimately agreed.