Toast to Taste

Make home and hearth one of this winter season’s top dining destinations.
Wine and cheese
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While restaurants and wineries state-wide often enlighten and delight customers by introducing Michigan wines in concert with multi-course meals, you don’t have to be an expert to organize a memorable wine tasting/pairing of your own.

Pick Your Party

A home tasting offers guests a chance to try and compare different wines in a relaxed setting, among friends. There are various ways to go about it.

Outside of determining designated drivers beforehand, “There are no real rules to this,” encouraged Lance Climie, manager at Reds on the River in Rockford, where he oversees a wine program. What’s your pleasure?

During a blind tasting, guests don’t know what they’re drinking. While bottles can be visible, which wines are are in which glasses remains unknown to all but the hosts. Or, you can let participants know what’s being tasted.

A single blind tasting entails presenting the same genre of wines.

“In Michigan, some of the grapes producing good wines are pinot gris and Gewurztraminer. Rieslings have done a good job for a long time — and pinot grigio,” Climie said. “Get, say, six different wines, the same grape variety but from different vineyards.”

Leelanau County, Old Mission Peninsula and Southwest Michigan offer varying appellations from which to choose.

In a double-blind tasting, wines made from a variety of grapes are presented.

“You’re tasting the wine, but have no idea of what (type) it is,” Climie said. “It’s fun to do wine tasting this way.”

Aaron Hagen, sommelier-in-training at Esperance in Charlevoix, said Michigan vintners’ ventures into lesser-known grape varietals create a perfect angle for a tasting.

“There are a lot of unusual grapes being made into wine in Michigan that people aren’t necessarily familiar with,” Hagen said, noting that lack of recognition also makes tasting parties entertaining.

It’s a good idea to set up ahead of time. Plan to use a lot of glasses, Climie said, and pour the samples before everyone arrives, arranging them in a specific order on a table. Always start with dry wines first, then move to semi dries, and on to sweets and dessert wines. If stored at cooler temperatures, allow wines to reach room temperature before serving.

Have crackers and bread at the ready to help cleanse the palate between flights, Hagen recommended. If reusing glasses between tastings, a pitcher of water for rinsing and bucket for dumping is useful, he said. Don’t forget paper and pen for noting ratings and comments.

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Please the Palate

Wine is a bit like a chameleon. Pair it with food and it can become a whole different animal. That’s why hosting a food and wine pairing can be informative, as well as fun.

“You take a sip of the wine first and make sure you really understand the taste,” said Eileen Brys, owner of Brys Estate Vineyard & Winery on Old Mission Peninsula near Traverse City. “Then take a bite of the food paired with it.” After following this with a second sip, she added, “It really opens people’s eyes.”

Brys recommended starting with dry white, followed by dry red, then semi-sweet whites and reds, and on to the sweetest varieties.

As for food, focus on hors d’oeuvres. Or, serve a multi-course dinner, pairing wines with each course.

For an appetizer run, Brys said she opts for easy-to-assemble recipes that “look gourmet.” She suggests matching a Michigan pinot grigio with purchased toasts or crackers topped by a mixture of cream cheese, mayo and Good Seasons Italian dry dressing mix, finished with fresh dill and a cucumber slice.

With a Gewurztraminer, she likes to serve whole cashews dusted with curry powder. “A little spice goes well,” she said.

For a riesling, Brys likes offering white cheddar cheese drizzled with honey and finely grated walnuts.

Pouring a full-bodied red? Consider chocolate.

“People love pairings of dark chocolate with red wine,” the vintner said, adding that manchego cheese is another top complement to red.

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Get Inventive

Chef Tom McNeil, owner of Country House Catering in Mason, has been holding wine dinners every month for nearly 20 years. Often, Michigan wines are the theme, he added, noting this industry has “turned around a thousand times” since he began the series.

As chef for Burgdorf’s Winery in Haslett and caterer for Chateau Aeronautique in Jackson, McNeil makes a point of incorporating featured wines in the recipes he prepares.

For example, McNeil mixed Chateau Aeronautique Seyval Blanc into a marinade for the skewers of cheese tortellini, cherry tomatoes, peppers, onions and pineapple he paired with this white wine. Before stuffing mushroom caps, he marinated them in a blend of balsamic vinegar and Italian Rhone Red, which was paired with the dish.

For a dessert, McNeil recommends reducing a half bottle of a heavy cabernet with a half bottle of balsamic vinegar into a sryrup. “Put it over French vanilla ice cream,” he encouraged.

Foodie and Leelanau Cellars Tasting Room Manager Carrie Hanson revels in offering pairing suggestions. With chardonnay? A grilled salmon fillet.

“I’d dust it with mustard and roll it in pistachios, or you could do walnuts or something like that,” she said. “You could bake it in the oven, or throw on an herb like rosemary and grill.”

With Leelanau’s Dry Tall Ship Red, she opts for a richer dish pairing like beef roast or lasagna. At the same time, she said, a heavier fish like salmon could also be paired with a lighter red.

“They used to say only pair white wine with fish and only pair red wine with meat items,” she said. Today, “it’s not necessarily as concrete as it used to be.”

For suggested wine and food pairings,

Freelance writer Kathy Gibbons is based in greater Grand Rapids and Traverse City.

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