Tag Archives: grapes

Spanish wine makes a comeback

Let’s start this column with a little wine history — perhaps a review for experienced oenophiles, but something new for those just now becoming friends of the grape.

In the late 19th century, much of the European wine industry was decimated by a plague of phylloxera, tiny sap-sucking insects considered part of the aphid family. The only thing that saved the European viticulture was the grafting of European vines onto phylloxera-resistant American rootstock, a relatively new agricultural technique that was just then coming into vogue.

One area seemingly unaffected by the plague was the tiny Jumilla region of Spain, and French growers flocked to the area to plant vines and continue their enterprises. That was all well and good until 1989, when phylloxera struck the southeastern Spanish region, which had never seen a need to graft its vines to American stock. Wine production fell off by as much as 60 percent over the next five years.

After a slow and expensive recovery, Jumilla and other Spanish wine regions have made an impressive comeback. A new spate of wines that recently entered the market shows an increased sophistication, boasting a more accessible approach for new wine drinkers and flavor spins uniquely their own for veteran consumers.

Central to this renaissance is monastrell, the original Spanish version of the red wine grape that the French call mouvedère. Currently, 85 percent of Jumilla’s vineyards are devoted to monastrell, which is used both in blends and as a standalone varietal in producing some very nice and affordable wines.

Another grape making a splash among Spanish wines is verdejo, a white wine grape indigenous to the northwestern Rueda region. This area was hit by the phylloxera plague along with the rest of 19th-century Europe and long ago grafted its vines to resistant rootstock. Consequently, the verdejo wines emerging today, known for their bright, honeyed fruit flavors, often emerge from very old vines that lend a greater depth to the wine.

Here are some examples of each that deliver some of the best wine values on the market today, as well as a few other Spanish wines of note:

The Honoro Vera Blanco 2013 ($9) may be one of the best places to start for fans of Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier looking for a new taste treat. Expect the same soft mouthfeel and bright acidity as the more familiar wines, but with flavors that balance in a slightly different way.

Honoro Vera’s papaya-mango nose gives way to a complementary flavor profile that also is herbal, floral and even a little grassy on the palate. Chilled appropriately, this wine is a nice accompaniment to summer’s waning days.

Expect something similar from the Bodegas Shaya Verdejo ($14), another example of how well the Rueda region manages its native viticulture. Aged partially in French oak, this wine offers a spice and kiwi nose, with hints of peach. The flavor profile is similar, with an excellent balance of fruitiness and acidity that make the wine both flavorful and refreshing.

For something a little sweeter, consider the Juan Gil Muscat ($11), produced from grapes grown in Jumilla by one of the wine houses leading the current renaissance. This juicy wine exhibits a nose of kiwi, melon and peach augmented by flavors of stone fruit and honeydew, with a long finish that helps manage the muscat’s inherent sweetness.

The coming autumn means the reemergence of red wines for many of us, and this is where Spain’s new crop of wine really shines. Bodegas Juan Gil produces a red version of its Honoro Vera ($9), this one made from organic monastrell grapes.

The wine is driven by a light, almost reedy mouthfeel and flavored with bright fruit flavors. Lighter in body than expected, the wine still offers complex flavors with balanced tannins for a distinctly clean finish.

The same grape and same region also are responsible for Juan Gil Silver Label ($15), a monstraell wine aged for 15 months in French oak. Smoky aromas of currant and berry lead to a supple mouthfeel and concentrated flavors redolent of crème de cassis. Solid tannins belie a good structure and lead to a lengthy finish.

Monastrell also plays a role in wines from elsewhere in Spain, including Laya ($10), a blend from Bodegas Atalaya in the nearby Almansa region. Comprised of 75 percent garnacha tintorera and 25 percent monastrell, the dense and savory wine speaks with a voice of espresso, licorice and pepper under an aroma of black fruits. Dark in the glass, the wine offers a surprising delivery for its modest price.

Garnacha plays a small (20 percent) role in Cellars Can Blau ($15), a dark red wine from the Montsant region. Balanced by 40 percent mazuelo (better known as carignan) and 40 percent syrah grapes, the wine builds on a base of smoky essence, with flavors of spice and black fruits. Can Blau is rich and deep, departing with a long, lingering finish.

A visit with Spanish wines would not be complete with tasting a tempranillo, and the country’s signature wine grape delivers once again with Entre Suelos ($15), a bright red from Bodegas Tridente. Produced from grapes grown in the Zamora region, the wine has been aged both in stainless steel and French oak. 

The result is an excellent balance of cherry and blueberry flavors against a backdrop of espresso and spice. Light in body, yet surprisingly complex, the wine is a treat for the palate of experienced oenophile and wine newcomer alike.

Sip some zesty zinfandel

California winemakers often like to crow about their cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay and moon over their merlot and malbec as if they were California grapes of their very own. But they’re not. 

All four of the Golden State’s most popular wine grapes are French classics that had their origins in Bordeaux or Burgundy. California winemakers have done wonderful things with them, but the grapes are immigrant varietals.

That’s not the case with zinfandel — sort of. The grape has long been considered native to the States, as American as apple pie and concealed-carry permits. Its time here been traced as far back as 1820s Long Island. 

Then in the 1990s, wine geneticists at the University of California – Davis discovered a genetic link between zinfandel and primitivo, a wine grape widely grown in the Puglia region of Italy’s boot-heel. Illusions were shattered.

But those of us who love the robust, rustic red still embrace zinfandel as our own, and it’s in California where the heartiest are grown. The wine is produced in 13 other U.S. states, but the romance of central Illinois or southern Indiana zin isn’t quite the same. We tend to stick with the California zins we know and love.

Here are a few zins worth your time:

Zinfandel prefers a warm climate and a longer growing season, and Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley provides that for a number of zin vintners, including Frei Brothers. The Frei Brothers 2012 Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel ($19) opens with notes of plum and black cherry, pouring with the rich garnet color virtually all zinfandels possess. The region’s cool maritime influences produce wines well structured in a Bordeaux fashion, providing the Frei Brothers’ zin with mocha and caramel notes and a little cedar and spice on the back palate.

Napa Valley tends to produce more robust wines. The 2011 Buehler Vineyards Napa Valley Zinfandel ($20) qualifies while still retaining a lightness of body. Produced from a blend of estate-grown grapes and those from other valley producers, the wine seasons its dark fruit palate with essences of tobacco, cinnamon and herbs, delivering a well-balanced and pleasant finish.

The Director’s Cut 2012 Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel ($23) from winemaker and film director Francis Ford Coppola takes us back to familiar territory, but with a less familiar approach. The director of the Godfather series has created a blend of 80 percent zin and 20 percent petite sirah, a small, dark grape with a rich, powerful flavor. The wine’s ample body and velvety palate, with notes of blackberries, pepper and cloves combined with nuances of cherries and mocha, make us glad he didn’t yell, “Cut!” during the winemaking process.

The Duckhorn Wine Co. has always been a personal favorite, and its 2012 Decoy Sonoma County Zinfandel ($24) delivers. Once again, zin and petite sirah create a luscious blend, with a base of dark fruits highlighted by clove and vanilla notes enhanced by the wine’s oak aging. Expect a palate of berries, brambles and Christmas-y spices, supported by polished tannins and a lingering finish.

“Old vine zinfandels,” produced from aging vines that provide a smaller but richer yield, have become very popular, and Girard 2012 Old Vine Zinfandel ($24) has grown to be a favorite. The vintners blend grapes from several Napa Valley vineyards to produce a brighter wine with raspberry and cherry notes, which give way to spice and vanilla bean highlights and a nice mouthfeel that finishes with suitable acidity to make it an excellent dinner wine.

Nearby Mendocino County also grows zinfandel, of which the Artezin 2012 Zinfandel ($25) is a fine representative. The winemaker describes it as a classic fruit-forward “Zinny-Zin.” We’re not sure what that means, but we know that Artezin skews in the direction of bright fruit flavors with a spicy backbone of allspice, cinnamon and pepper. Supple tannins support the wine and even allow it to age for a little while. But why would you want to do that?

The Mayacamas Mountains border both Napa and Sonoma, and that’s where B.R. Cohn Winery harvests the fruit for its 2011 Sonoma Valley Zinfandel ($26). Berry and cherry flavors blend with peppercorn and clove in this full-bodied wine with a nice mouthfeel and lingering finish.

Napa’s Rombauer Vineyards adds just a hint of petite sirah to its 2012 Zinfandel ($28) to give it a little richer character. Expect the usual flavors of raspberry, cloves and pepper, with just a hint of boysenberry and vanilla, combining into a velvety wine with a long, supple finish.

The winemakers at Frog’s Leap have always done things a little differently, and their 2011 Napa Valley Zinfandel ($29) is an example of that. The wine, 85 percent zinfandel balanced by 14.5 percent petite sirah and just a hint of carignan, is not a big fruit bomb like so many California wines. Rather, the Frog’s Leap is taut and refined with an almost-Old World character, while offering a burst of summer fruits like strawberry, raspberry and fig. Like other Frog’s Leap wines, this one is nicely done.

One of our earliest introductions to Zinfandel came via Seghesio Family Vineyards, and we have never stopped admiring their work. The 2012 Seghesio Old Vine Zinfandel ($39) is one of the better wines the Sonoma winemakers have to offer. Red fruits, green pepper and bright spice characterize the nose, while briar, berries and mocha flavor the palate. Sourced from vines reportedly 50 years old, this full-bodied, complex wine is ready now, or it can be cellared for four to five years while it further refines itself. 

That’s assuming you can wait that long.

‘Wines by northwest’ pour excellence

California gets all the attention when it comes to wine produced in the United States. With wineries concentrated mostly in regions such as Napa and Sonoma, the state produces almost 90 percent of  the wine made in the nation.

But turn your western gaze a little more northwesterly. Washington and Oregon have winemaking legacies nearly as long as California’s, and those states’ pinot noir, chardonnay and excellent vintages are pushing them further into the limelight. The states rank as the third and fourth highest-producing states in the nation behind California and New York.

Washington boasts an $8.6 billion wine industry, more than half of which comes from wine tourism. More than 50,000 acres of vineyards (owned and operated by about 800 wineries and 350 ancillary grape growers) produce 12.5 million cases of wine in the state. Production is more or less evenly distributed between red and white varietals.

Oregon lags its northern neighbor but still boast $2.7 billion industry that’s built largely on the reputation of its pinot noir. The state’s 545 wineries produce 72 varieties of grapes, and production numbers continue to increase. 

We reviewed wines from the Pacific Northwest and created a mixed list of favorites grouped by color and varietal.

WHITES

Although not as well-known as some of its counterparts, the pinot gris grape has been producing top quality wines worldwide for generations, largely in cooler climates. Known for a honey-like flavor palate, Pacific Northwest pinot gris also has a spritzy, fruity quality that makes it one of the region’s most successful varietals.

Two wines from Oregon stand out. The Acrobat 2013 Pinot Gris ($12), produced by King Estate, offers a palate of citrus and green apple backed by a youthful effervescence that makes the wine ideal for warm fall days. 

The winery also offers a stronger version under its own brand. King Estate 2012 Domaine Pinot Gris ($25) pours with a bit more authority. A similar fruit-and-acidity approach brightens the palate, which is then treated to essences of pear, citrus and tropical fruit backed by a honeyed apricot nose, giving the wine more character and grace than its lower-priced sibling.

Chenin blanc, which originated from and is still cultivated in France’s Loire Valley, is undergoing a resurgence in popularity. Try wines like Pacific Rim 2013 Chenin Blanc ($11), from Hilary Hahn Vineyards in Washington’s Yakima Valley. The wine’s floral aromas lead to flavors of melon and Key lime while suggesting traces of minerality underneath its refined surface.

Chardonnay looms large in the Pacific Northwest, and the Columbia Winery’s Chardonnay ($11) offers a nicely oaked version of the familiar varietal. A balanced palate blends acidity and a vanilla sweetness from its oak aging that’s augmented by apple, pear and tropical fruit overtones.

Cooler climates also bode well for Riesling production, and the winemakers at North by Northwest find subtle expression in fruit from vineyards on both the Oregon and Washington sides of the Columbia River Valley.

The NxNW 2011 Horse Heaven Hills Riesling ($10) offers a drier expression of the familiar white wine. Golden straw in color, with aromas of peaches, jasmine and even graham cracker, the wine pours with flavors of apricot, mango and citrus, offering a good balance of fruit and acidity, with a lingering, satisfying finish.

The same winery offers a late harvest varietal, the NxNW 2011 Riesling ($15 for 375 ml) that is richer, sweeter and more viscous than its younger sister. With a nose of summer berries and bubblegum, the dessert wine offers essences of mandarin orange, blackberry and sour cherry on the palate. 

REDS

Although technically not a red, the 2013 Acrobat Rosé of Pinot Noir ($16) serves as a fine crossover to heartier wines. Lively acidity balances with bold fruit in this fruit-forward Oregon wine. You’ll find surprising notes of spice, strawberry and even a touch of kiwi on the palate.

We can’t mention Oregon wines without immediately thinking of the state’s rich and vibrant pinot noir profile. The opportunities are almost too many to mention, but here are two worth trying:

The 2012 Iris Vineyards Oregon Pinot Noir ($20) pours a deep garnet with aromas of anise, plum, black cherry and a touch of smoke. The cherry and plum appear on the palate of the medium-bodied wine along with dark chocolate baking spices and maybe even a little graham cracker, finishing long and clean.

The 2012 King Estate Signature Pinot Noir ($25) offers dark fruit aromas balanced with earthiness and spice. Those essences carry through to the flavor palate, which offer good balance, mellow acidity and nice complexity.

Pinot noir does not play a role in the 2011 g3 Red Wine ($15) from Goose Ridge Estate in Washington’s Columbia Valley. The red blend, composed of (in descending order) cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah, malbec, mourvèdre, petit verdot and cabernet franc grapes, combines elements of red fruit and crisp red apple on the palate. Its oak aging adds notes of vanilla and spice to the wine’s long and supple finish.

Other Columbia Valley reds are gaining attention, including the Columbia Winery Merlot ($12). Blended with small percentages of syrah and cabernet sauvignon, the wine pours a deep red with a distinctly purple edge. The merlot’s rich, almost plush mouthfeel offers highlights of cherry and plum with notes of toasty oak and vanilla from its barrel aging.

But Skyfall Vineyard 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon ($13) was one of our most pleasant surprises. Only 5,000 cases were produced, but the resulting vintage has a boysenberry and dark chocolate nose matched to flavors of black cherry, butterscotch and maybe even a hint of crème brûlée. This one is often tough to find, but it’s worth the search.

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7 sassy chardonnays to brighten your summer

We all know that summer and chilled white wines go together. And few whites are more reliable than chardonnay, one of the country’s top white choices.

The adaptable chardonnay grape has flourished in cooler as well as warmer places, such as its native southern France. When other countries discovered chardonnay, an unintended hybrid of the Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc grapes, its status and availability grew.

Once chardonnay crossed the Atlantic, the market exploded. Growers began to clear their slopes of many lesser-known varietals to plant chardonnay. Acres of historic vines and entire enological legacies were lost to make way for the upstart. The result was an eventual market glut that made chardonnay somewhat passé.

Fortunately, the varietal is regaining popularity. Consider the following seven sassy chardonnays produced by U.S. vineyards.

Winemaker Philippe Coquard does not produce his Wollersheim Chardonnay ($17) from grapes grown on his estate just south of the Wisconsin River. Instead, he contracts for a custom-grown grape from Washington State, which he uses to create a fine example of chardonnay in his winery near Prairie du Sac. 

Two-thirds of Wollersheim Chardonnay is matured in French oak barrels and one-third in stainless steel containers. The wine captures the vanilla-and-spice essence of the oak while tempering it with the cleanliness of the stainless steel. The result is a dry, crisp, clean wine with a pleasant fruitiness and subtle acidity.

California wine country has no shortage of chardonnay producers. In Sonoma County, Joseph Carr 2012 Chardonnay ($18) was made according to a method known as the Dijon clone. The grapes were cold-pressed and then the juice was aged sur lie — in new French oak barrels along with the sediment that settles to the bottom during fermentation. The result is a wine with more complex character. Carr’s chardonnay offers a nose hinting at apricot, vanilla and peach, as well as a palate with overtones of apricot, strawberries and citrus.

The Ferrari-Carano 2012 Chardonnay ($21) was made with fruit from 60 different chardonnay lots. These were cold pressed and aged sur lie in two ways — 30 percent in new French oak, 60 percent in older cooperage. The result is similar in character to the Carr wine, featuring a slightly different flavor profile of peach, lemon and a hazelnut. In neither case does the wine disappoint.

The Flowers 2011 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay ($41) was produced using a similar sourcing pattern, including cold pressing and a variety of oak cooperage, but with slightly different effect. The wine exhibits a slight flintiness thanks to its terroir, providing an interesting edge to its flavor profile that’s reminiscent of Honeycrisp apples. Flowers’ chardonnay also has an abundant mouthfeel and a fine acidity.

The Laguna Vineyard Ranch in the Russian River Valley has been producing chardonnay for some 40 years, and the Laguna 2012 Chardonnay ($28) was made using the same approach as the Sonoma vineyards. The wine, once again cold-pressed and oak-aged, opens with delicate notes of apple, pear and tangerine. The wine is well balanced, with supple mouthfeel and a fine lingering finish.

The winemakers at Frog’s Leap, located in Napa Valley, take a different approach, placing emphasis on the soil in which the grapes were grown. The Frog’s Leap 2012 Chardonnay ($26) was made with fruit from the Carneros district, whose soil often yields chardonnays with a more vibrant acidity. Ninety-five present of Frog’s Leap 2012 Chardonnay was aged sur lie in concrete vats, and only 5 percent of the developing wine was exposed to wood.

The Frog’s Leap profile is crisp and very clean. The acidity blends nicely with the flavors of fruit. Slate and hints of lemongrass on the nose give way to a palate of peach and citrus with an underscoring mineral quality that make this wine stand out.

Much further south, the winemakers at Fess Parker Winery & Vineyard in California’s Santa Barbara County follow similar a technique, but one that leads to yet another unique result. The Fess Parker 2012 Ashley’s Chardonnay ($28), produced from grapes harvested in Ashley’s Vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills, was also barrel-aged in French oak. The wine offers aromas of pear, peach and honey that give way to a palate featuring pear, green apple and pastry crust, along with a hint of vanilla courtesy of the French oak.

Chill any of these and serve and you will quickly see the chardonnay, sassy or not, is no longer passé.

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Wineries – and now breweries – make Door County a spirited destination

Wisconsin’s Door County isn’t Napa Valley, but seven wineries dot the 483-square-mile peninsula. Two of the wineries also brew beer and one of the two produces distilled spirits. There is a third brewery just starting out and a hard cider operation on the peninsula’s northern end.

All of this makes Door County an excellent destination for travelers with a spirited vacation in mind.

TIME FOR WINE

The Kewaunee County community of Algoma is a great place to begin your Door County wine tour. The local Von Stiehl Winery ranks as one of Wisconsin’s oldest. Housed in a building constructed as a brewery in 1868, the structure fell into disrepair until 1967. That year, it was purchased, restored and opened by Dr. Charles von Stiehl as a winery specializing in locally grown cherry and apple wines.

Von Stiehl’s lines have expanded and the winery has won numerous awards over the years. The company currently produces 70,000 gallons of wine annually.

Tours and tastings at the winery, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, end in the popular third floor lounge, which overlooks Algoma’s landmark lighthouse and the Lake Michigan shoreline.

Traveling north, the next stop is Red Oak Winery, with production facilities just south of Sturgeon Bay. Owner, winemaker and Sturgeon Bay native Andy Wagener, an attorney with winemaking credentials from the University of California (Davis) prides himself on premium wines in the German white and French red styles. One of several wineries to use fruit purchased from West Coast growers, Red Oak specializes in pinot noir, zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and other well-known varietals. Wagener also produces several Door County cherry wines.

Door 44 Winery, located just north of Sturgeon Bay, produces wines from fruit grown exclusively in Wisconsin vineyards, including those of Parallel 44 Vineyard & Winery, its affiliated Kewaunee County operation. Owned and operated by the husband-and-wife team of Steve Johnson and Maria Milano, the wineries use locally grown grapes, including Marechal Foch, Frontenac, St. Pepin and other varietals to produce their wines. 

The name Parallel 44 refers to the latitude where the vineyard sits – the same one as the French and Italian wine-producing regions of Bordeaux and Tuscany. Except for Wisconsin’s freezing winters, the three regions share many similarities, say Johnson and Milano.

Door Peninsula Winery, located in Carlsville, may be among the peninsula’s most productive: It has winemaking, brewing and distilling operations. The winery houses the restaurant Bistro 42 and also owns Fat Louie’s, which produces gourmet oils and vinegars, as well as an art gallery.

Door Peninsula’s modern facility stands on the site of the 1885 schoolhouse in which the winery started. The facility offers tastings of many of its 45 wines, made from locally grown grapes and other fruit, as well as grapes brought in from the West Coast.

On the eastern side of the Door Peninsula on County Road I, Simon Creek Vineyard & Winery occupy some of the county’s most scenic terrain. Founded in 2003 by partners Tim Lawrie, Lance Nelson and Tom Payette, who serves as winemaker, Simon Creek relies on locally sourced fruit and grapes from other regions. The 11,000-square-foot facility, which sits on 30 acres of vineyards, bottles wines using varietals ranging from cabernet franc and gewurztraminer to golden muscat and Door County cherry.

Harbor Ridge Winery, located south of Egg Harbor, may be the peninsula’s newest winery, but it benefits from assistance provided by von Stiehl’s winemaker, who helps the owners create memorable reds and whites. With wines named Knockin’ Heads Red, Mademoiselle Tantalizing White and Gimme One Good Riesling, Harbor Ridge aims for a whimsical brand. But don’t discount the quality of its wines – they rank among Door County’s best.

Stone’s Throw Winery, located east of Harbor Ridge on County Road E outside of Bailey’s Harbor, prides itself on its micro-vinification approach. The winery imports small-lot premium grapes from California’s Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties to produce high-end varietals. In a world of cherry wine, Stone’s Throw is bottling Petite Verdot, Sangiovese, cabernet sauvignon and other complex wines in a 90-year-old stone barn that the owners say is located at the very center of the Door County’s Peninsula.

But it may be Lautenbach’s Orchard Country Winery & Market south of Fish Creek that best embodies the Door’s winemaking tradition. Starting as the Lautenbach’s family dairy farm and cherry orchard in the 1950s, Lautenbach’s Orchard Country is still one of the peninsula’s major cherry growers. The business creates a full line of wines from grapes, cherries and other fruit that have become very popular with visitors. The Swedish lingonberry wine, probably the company’s most unique, was out of stock when we visited, giving us a reason to return.

BEER HERE

Wine isn’t the only spirited beverage bubbling up in the Door. The craft beer movement, at full swing elsewhere in the state, is beginning to catch on. There’s a trio of worthy brewers to check out.

Shipwrecked Restaurant, Brewery & Inn in Egg Harbor is the oldest area microbrewery and part of the Door Peninsula Winery family. The bayside brewery produces the standard range of craft ales. The cherry wheat ale is not to be missed.

Door County Brewing Co., located in Baileys Harbor, is new to the scene and currently contract brews its beers at Sand Creek Brewery in Black River Falls. But restaurants up and down the peninsula feature the brewery’s Polka King Porter and Little Sister Witbier, both worth a sip.

Even von Stiehl is getting into the brewing scene. This summer the company revived the Ahnapee Brewery, which will feature Noble IPA, a German-style IPA, and Bavarian Helles on tap soon two doors down from the winery.

AND THE REST

If your tastes don’t run to wine or beer, here are several other libations available during your Door County vacation.

Door County Distillery, another part of Door Peninsula Winery, has only been operating for several years, but it already has earned honors in top national spirits competitions. The blend of botanicals, juniper and citrus earned its Door County Lighthouse Gin gold and silver awards in East and West coast spirits competitions, with silver awards going to the distillery’s Door County Apple Brandy.

One of the area’s unique producers, Island Orchard Cider, is located in Ellison Bay. Owned by Milwaukee residents Bob and Yannique Purman, the hard cider house produces five different ciders in the Normandy style from apples, pears and cherries grown on Washington Island off the Door peninsula’s northern tip. The oak-aged brut apple cider is one to take home with you to foster fond memories of your spirited vacation.

On the Web: For more, visit doorcounty.com/what-to-do/wineries.


Farmers worry about fate of immigration bill

For northern Michigan fruit grower Pat McGuire, the most potent symbol of the immigration debate isn’t grainy television footage showing people slipping furtively across the U.S.-Mexican border. Instead, it’s plump red cherries and crisp apples rotting on the ground because there aren’t enough workers to pick them – a scenario that could become reality over the next couple of months.

Across Michigan’s orchard belt, cherry trees already sag under the weight of bright-red clusters, yet many trailers and wood-frame cottages that should be bustling with migrant families stand empty. McGuire is waiting to hear whether crews will show up to pick his crop in mid-July.

“We’re running out of time,” he said, pulling aside leafy branches to inspect his ripening fruit on gently sloping hillsides a mile inland from Lake Michigan.

From Christmas tree growers in the Appalachians to Wisconsin dairy farmers and producers of California’s diverse abundance of fruits and vegetables, agricultural leaders are pleading with Congress for an immigration bill that includes more lenient and less complex rules for hiring farm workers.

A measure that recently cleared the Democratic-led Senate contained provisions that the farm lobby said were promising. The Republican-controlled House is expected to take up the issue shortly. But with agriculture’s once-mighty political influence in decline as its workforce has fallen to 2 percent of the population, it’s uncertain how the industry will fare. Farmers’ complaints about a shrinking labor pool are being overshadowed by the ideologically charged issues of border security and giving legal status to people in the country illegally.

McGuire, 42, a self-described conservative who usually votes Republican, was among representatives of the American Farm Bureau Federation who made their case on Capitol Hill last week. His Michigan group went to the offices of eight lawmakers and to the Senate floor, buttonholing members or their staffers.

“Each office had their party speech,” McGuire said, recalling one member’s argument about border security. But the border must already be pretty secure, McGuire said, “because we don’t have the labor in this country that we used to have.”

Michigan farmers hire about 45,000 seasonal workers in the typical year, many of them immigrants. Some of the asparagus crop was left in the field this spring because too few pickers were available.

In Wisconsin, immigrant workers make up more than 40 percent of the hired labor force at increasingly large dairy operations, according to a 2008 University of Wisconsin study. Kevin Krentz, who milks 500 cows near Berlin, said finding enough help locally is a constant struggle.

“It’s not a job that’s 9-to-5,” Krentz said. “It’s a job that’s done when the cows are fed, when the cows are milked, when the crops are harvested.”

The situation poses a test for the House GOP, said Tom Nassif, president of Western Growers, a trade organization that represents the fresh produce industry in California and Arizona. A Republican who held several positions in the Reagan administration, Nassif said some in the party are so concerned about illegal immigration that they’re trying to sabotage any chance for reform.

But if the House doesn’t find something it can pass, he said, voters “are going to lose complete faith in the party’s ability to legislate. All the national statistics show the American people believe in immigration reform.”

The industry insists its chronic labor shortage isn’t a matter of low pay, but too few Americans willing to deal with the long hours, hot weather and other hardships of farm labor.

“The truth is, not even farm workers are raising their children to be farm workers,” Nassif said.

The Senate bill would enable experienced farm workers already in the country but without government papers to obtain “blue cards” making them eligible for year-round residency and ultimately citizenship, on a faster path than other people here illegally. Applicants who entered the U.S. illegally would have to pay a fine, catch up on taxes and pass a background check. Another new program would allow farmers to hire foreign “guest workers” who would be issued three-year visas.

But such policies are a hard sell with House conservatives who deride the idea as “amnesty.”

Rep. Justin Amash, whose western Michigan district includes the city of Grand Rapids and outlying farm country, is typical of Republicans feeling pressure from both sides.

Home-state farmers visited his Washington, D.C., office twice last week. Mark Youngquist, an apple grower from Amash’s district, later gave one of his aides an orchard tour. During a town-hall meeting the same day, the second-term Republican described the farm labor shortage as “a problem we should deal with” and called for compromise on immigration.

But Amash’s comment that deportation wasn’t a realistic way to deal with all 11 million people believed to be in the country illegally drew angry shouts. “They’re criminals,” one man protested.

Youngquist, 53, another staunch Republican, said he wished other conservatives were more sympathetic toward immigrants who fill jobs that no one else will take. The more intense border enforcement appears to be taking its toll, he said. His migrant labor housing that is usually half-full for the approaching apple harvest is now “at zero,” he said. “We’re sitting on a beautiful crop of apples. Unless things change, none of it is going to get picked.”