Forty-Five North Vineyard & Winery weathers storm
by Samantha Graves
It’s a winery that has weathered some of the most disastrous winter conditions northern Michigan has seen in decades. Rather than fold, Forty-Five North, is true to its latitude with attitude motto etched into the tasting room’s mantel, re-emerging with a blend of estate-grown and imported warm-climate fruits and releasing a new, exciting line of hopped and hard ciders.
In 2006, long-time summer residents Steve and Lori Grossnickle broke ground on their vision to convert a 100-acre property into a vineyard and tasting room. With it’s sandy soil, rolling hills, and unique microclimate, buffered by Lake Michigan to the west and Grand Traverse Bay to the east, Leelanau was an ideal location for vines.
Jay Briggs, Winemaker for Forty-Five North said it’s the cool-climate that really gives northern Michigan wines their signature flavors. “Our reds tend to be a little more aromatic. They’re easier to balance here because they’re, relatively speaking, lower in alcohol than our west coast cousins. We have really fruit-forward wines with a great acid-alcohol-fruit balance that just makes the wines a little more alive.”
Patience and Persistence
The same thing that gives northern Michigan wines their characteristic fruit-forward flavor [that cool-climate growing season], put regional wineries on high alert, as everything from unprecedented extended periods of extreme, sub-zero temperatures to summer hail threatened the vines. During the 2014 and 2015 growing seasons, survival rates for some varietals ranged between 10 and 60 percent, with hybrids fairing slightly better.
Briggs said the severe weather created significant challenges, but also provided unique opportunities for growth. In addition to the existing estate-grown Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Vignoles, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Pinot Noir; Briggs, like many regional winemakers, found it necessary to import warm-climate fruit from out west to blend with the surviving harvest. “It’s a different animal; dealing with warm climate fruit, but it’s fun for me to deal with a different variety.”
His favorite? The Mourvèdre, a grape that originated near the Mediterranean. Briggs describes it as a heavier Pinot Noir meets Lemberger-type varietal. However, at the end of the day, good year or bad, Briggs said it still all comes down to fermentation.
“The last two seasons have definitely taught me a lot about dealing with different specific things that happen during the life of the wine,” he said. “It’s made me more patient.”
By the time Briggs joined Forty-Five North as their winemaker, he had already developed a passion for cider. And fortunately, so had the winery. “I really wanted to get into it,” he said. “When I got here, they were already doing one hard apple cider, so I said, ‘Let’s do more ciders.’ It’s a no-brainer; we have the apples.”
Briggs said the decision was helped by the lower alcohol content with ciders, “It’s easier. The labeling issues we have with wine; we don’t have with cider.”
The loss of vines opened up land for growing fruit trees. Last year the vineyard planted more than 400 heirloom apple trees spanning 12 varieties including Ashmead’s Kernel, Wickson Crab, Black Oxford, Harrison, and Winter Banana. Initially, Briggs said the vineyard planned to move toward high-density plantings with the apples, to make use of existing grape trellising, but limitations in the availability of rootstock drove them to plant on traditional semi-dwarf stock.
Support from apple growers in the region made everything from selecting the varieties and rootstock to planting and making ciders easier. “You can’t throw a stone without hitting somebody’s apple orchard up here.” In addition to talking with cidermakers, Briggs added, “We had really good conversations with people who have been growing apples, both high density and traditionally, for years.”
Briggs said there’s still some inherent insecurity planting apples to replace vines. “There is risk, especially with the young apple trees that we have. Apples are farther out of the ground, so it’s easier for grape vines to get insulated [during harsh winters] than for an apple tree.” However, once the trees are established, Briggs said that risk shifts, “With grape vines, you’re never out of the woods. Every year is something.”
Briggs said offsetting the initial risk is the profitability of cider, “It’s much more cost effective to make cider. And you can make it all year. There’s much more you can do with cider.”
Alanna Grossnickle, general manager at Forty-Five, agrees. “Our premium cider blends will sell for $20 a bottle which is close to our average bottle of wine at $26.”
The success of Forty-Five’s ciders has spurred an increase in production. This year, in addition to the 15,000 gallons of wine they’ll produce, the winery expects to pull 3,100 gallons of hard cider.
Grossnickle also said the inclusion of ciders has broadened Forty-Five’s audience, “I feel like we’ve been increasing our younger audience and gaining more of a local audience. People like variety. Sometimes folks aren’t in the mood for wine, or are just looking for something lighter and crisper than what we have to offer in our wine varieties. And then there’s those that don’t like wine at all, or are beer drinkers and cider seems to be a good transition for those folks.”
Alanna’s partner and the man behind Forty-Five North’s popular labeling, Eric Grossnickle said, “The cider audience seems to span the gamut between wine and beer drinkers. And ciders are marketed as such, from the reserve and elegance of wine to the bold playfulness of beer.” He added, “Unlike our wine labels which mostly follow a similar style, our cider labels reflect the adventurousness of our ciders with one-off designs created specifically for the style.”
This season, Forty-Five will be making more labels, offering a total of seven hard ciders to their wine line-up. Briggs said it was Alanna and Eric, whose love of hops was an impetus for their unique line of hopped ciders. Said Alanna, “We love experimenting and keeping it fresh and fun here.”
“You’re Making More of This”
After receiving a sample of Citra hops from Odd Side Ales in Grand Haven, Briggs dry-hopped the first run of Forty-Five’s signature Citra Cider and 7 Monks Taproom in Traverse City put it on tap for a trial run. Briggs said the response was simple and sweet, “You’re making more of this.” Forty-Five increased production from the pilot 10 gallons to 300 the following season.
Production of Forty-Five’s successful line of ciders today includes an estate harvested Wild Cider, the aged-in-oak Barrel Roll, a cherry-apple blend called Chapple, and the latest introduction by Cellarmaster, Paul Sanford, the Paul Michael. Additionally, Forty-Five produces hopped ciders, Citra, and a new version of the Five-Hopped containing Chinook, Comet and three dwarf hop varieties, Jarrylo, ADHA-484, and -529, on recommendation by Brian Tennis of the Michigan Hop Alliance. Briggs said there’s at least one more release planned for spring.
Several hops were trialed in a set of six new stackable stainless steel barrels, purchased for the task. Then, with trellising available where vines had been lost to an unrelenting winter season, the winery added hops to their apples and vines. “We bought some Chinook vines from Brian [Tennis] and planted 200 out in the vineyard right along the trellis,” said Briggs. “We’re going to grow on a curtain, so we’ll train the hops laterally.”
Asked whether hard ciders are more accessible to the public than wines, Briggs said it’s mostly psychological. “Wines are supposedly this pretentious drink that you have to know everything about to enjoy, and what we try to push here is that it doesn’t matter; if you like it, then it’s good. We’re not going to tell you what you’re supposed to like.” And from the smiles and sparkling eyes in the bustling tasting room, it appears people are liking what Forty-Five has to offer.
Looking ahead, Briggs said he’s excited about the possibilities. “Cider-wise, I’m excited to really bust this open and get our cider branding out a bit more. We’re going to start distributing Citra in April.”
Briggs is also considering bringing back some of the warmer climate fruit they’ve depended on over the past two seasons. “If we’re still going to bring Sauvignon Blanc or Chenin Blanc in, I’m excited to see how well they’ll coexist on the shelf that’s labeled ‘Michigan.’ But mostly, Briggs laughs, “I’m excited to get some fruit out of the vineyard. That’s what I’m excited about. I’m excited for Michigan fruit again.”
On the latitude with attitude
Forty-Five North Vineyard & Winery weathers storm