Your first (Yooper) Winery Tour: A Few Tings to Note

I am here to bring you on your first winery tour. Where, might you ask? Where else, but the U.P!

Don’t know what the U.P. is?

Well, you are about to find out that and a whole lot more.

This weekend my wife and I traveled up north to the Upper Peninsula (U.P.). This is not only one of our favorite vacation spots, but also where I was born and raised. We stopped in Escanaba, the third largest city in the U.P. This opening scene from Escanaba in Da Moonlight can give you some ideas:

But really, Escanaba is where my sister and brother-in-law taught elementary school for many years. One of the friendships they forged during those years was with Leigh Schmidt. Leigh was a special education teacher who also loved making wine. After retiring 12 years ago, Leigh turned his home winemaking into a commercial venture.

We’re going to learn a little bit about Leigh, a little bit about the U.P. and a little bit about great wineries now.

1. Charm

Leigh’s Garden Winery is located in the historic district of “Old Escanaba” and is perhaps the best example in the U.P. of high-quality wines produced from cold-climate grapes.

The winery and tasting room are housed in a main street building constructed in 1891. Although the exterior is fairly nondescript, it is located in a cozy, romantic town (in the summertime you could walk out the winery’s back door to find a bustling farmer’s market).

The interior oozes a homey ambiance and unmistakable charm. The winery’s fermenting and aging area is located in the basement.

If this doesn’t make wine seem approachable, I don’t know what will. Leigh’s place is artistic and cozy, friendly and welcoming all at once.

2. Love for the Local (weather?)

The local spirit of this place is tremendous and really a true example of this home-grown, farm-to-table, eat-local sort of fare becoming increasingly popular in the United States. I am certainly an advocate of sharing local Midwest food (and alcohol). Even the name, Leigh’s GARDEN Winery makes one feel like he’s sharing a great bottle of his wine from his own (literal) backyard.

The winters in this area of the U.P. have temperatures of 15 to 20 (F) degrees below zero, and that is why Leigh has planted cold-climate grape varieties that can tolerate temperatures of 32 to 48 degrees below zero. See our post on cold-climate grapes for more information how that is possible!

All the grape wines are produced on-site from cold-climate and French hybrid grapes, with many of the grapes grown at the winery’s Nesting Bird Vineyard in Bark River, eleven miles away.

Varieties include Frontenac, Sabrevois, Louise Swenson, LaCrescent, Frontenac Gries, and Prairie Star, most of which were developed at the University of Minnesota, some of them with the help of Elmer Swenson. Leigh also grows the cold-tolerant Marechal Foch, a French hybrid grape, as well as a grape variety from Latvia known as Baltica (or “Blue Eyes”). Leigh also brings in cold-climate grapes in the fall from vineyards in Wisconsin to supplement his own crop.

3. Yooper Wine

Traditionally, Leigh sells about eleven varieties of wine. However, being a small facility, these are all in limited quantities:

He makes about 1,200 gallons per year, or about 500 cases. The selection typically includes two dry red wines, a dry white, a rosé, a semi-sweet white, a sweet white, a semi-dry white, a dry white, and a late harvest wine.

Leigh also offers a smaller selection of primarily fruit wines, which are produced from either local fruit (such as apples and pears) or cherries from Traverse City, Michigan.

4. Persistence and Midwest Perseverance

  • At his vineyard, Leigh fertilizes his 562 vines only once per season, lightly in the spring.
  • He maintains the health of his vines with a regular and environmentally friendly pesticide and fungicide spray program.
  • Pruning is performed on a regular basis throughout the growing season to prevent the grapes developing a vegetative taste due to improper ripening.
  • To ensure that the grapes reach their full ripeness, Leigh spends a good deal of time throughout the summer clearing weeds from around the vine trunks and removing many of the vine leaves so that the grapes receive maximum sunlight exposure.

5. Wine Tasting: Cold-climate Quality

I must say, over the past few years I have sniffed and tasted a wide variety of cold-climate grape wines from commercial wineries in both Wisconsin and Minnesota, and the wines I sampled at Leigh’s Garden Winery are a cut above most of his commercial competitors.

Photo taken from Leigh's Garden Winery facebook page: "With Marina Fest going on at Ludington Park Saturday, we didn't want you to forget that we will be releasing our 2013 Old Escanaba. Remember to stop in on your way down there. Oh, and Farmer's Market will be going on as well."

Photo taken from Leigh’s Garden Winery facebook page: “With Marina Fest going on at Ludington Park Saturday, we didn’t want you to forget that we will be releasing our 2013 Old Escanaba. Remember to stop in on your way down there. Oh, and Farmer’s Market will be going on as well.”

The winery’s 2013 “Old Escanaba” is a case in point. It is a blend of Frontenac and Marechal Foch French-American hybrid grapes that Leigh obtains from three different Wisconsin vineyards. This red wine has a dark, attractive garnet appearance and a complex red cherry and dark plum aroma and taste, with moderate acidity. It is a fine example of how Midwestern winemakers’ blending of two cold-climate grapes enhances both in the final product.

And…

Leigh’s 2013 “Marquette” is a similarly interesting red wine that is true to this grape variety’s fruity flavor characteristics. The Marquette grape is a relatively new French-American hybrid released by the University of Minnesota eight years ago. Leigh’s Marquette has a refreshing cherry taste with black pepper notes and a bit higher acidity than the “Old Escanaba.” I would describe the Marquette as a bit lighter bodied than the Frontenac/Marechal Foch blend. If you enjoy light and medium-bodied Pinot Noir wines, then I think you will appreciate the taste of both the “Old Escanaba” and “Marquette” wines from Leigh’s Garden Winery.

I tried the Marquette

 6. Small wineries; fine products

In winding up this first tour of a Midwestern winery on our blog, I would state with confidence that Leigh’s Garden Winery is an excellent example of high-quality winemaking in this area of the country;

it’s a very small winery, but it produces a very fine product.

Unfortunately, if you want to taste these wines you must travel to Escanaba, because Leigh informed me that demand for his wine from local residents and tourists is sufficiently robust to dissuade him from applying for the required state license to ship to other states. 

Leigh’s wines are certainly worth the trip. So, pack your hiking gear or maybe some snowshoes if you do indeed venture north, and your bonus will be the breath-taking views and down-home charms of the Upper Peninsula and its residents, the Yoopers.

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