Hint: Blaufränkisch is not a place to visit. You cannot eat it. You should definitely put it in a glass.
The dream was to have a family vineyard. My husband, Warren, and I thought it could come true when we retired, in 30 years or so. Maybe, one day. That day came sooner than we expected.
On a warm afternoon in 2010, we drove south of Traverse City as falling leaves welcomed us into Benzie County. My parents-in-law, Nancy and Michael Call, had worked at Crystal Mountain for 40 years and were ready to retire. They “wanted a project that would keep them outside” on the 50-acre family farm in Beulah, Michigan. As we were hiking around the aging cherry orchards, Warren and I shared our dreams of having a vineyard someday, perhaps in southern Spain, where my parents reside. Many bottles of wine were opened throughout that year, concocting a plan on how to possibly evolve the Beulah land into a vineyard. Nancy and Michael Call contacted Craig Cunningham, a viticultural consultant, owner of Cunningham Viticultural Services, who advised them on the process. Craig matched them with Bryan Ulbrich, the winemaker at Left Foot Charley in Traverse City as a possible buyer for their grapes.
Several meetings took place and Bryan provided suggestions regarding which grapes to grow. Play it safe, but also be adventurous. He encouraged them to do half of their proposed 5-acre vineyard using the soldier grape, chardonnay. His second recommendation was to try a less conventional grape—blaufränkisch. This was a grape that Bryan was excited about and one that was gaining traction on the East Coast. We did some research and sure enough, this grape was a buzzword in Manhattan’s trendy restaurants.
What exactly is Blaufränkisch?
It’s a Central European red variety grape, having originated in Austria. It was first documented in the 18th century though it’s thought it may date as far back as medieval times. It is known as lemberger in Germany and as blaufränkisch in Austria. Both monikers are used in the United States.
While doing our wine research, we discovered that blaufränkisch is one of the few red varietals that favorably tolerate colder temperatures. It is a late-harvest grape and the distinct, deep-hued red wine it produces is most suitably paired with lighter fare. A beautiful combination would be arugula salad, grilled chicken, and spice cookies. This wine breathes black cherry and blond tobacco aromas, has a delicate spicy taste, and finishes with a warm mouth feel. It has been called, “the pinot noir of the East.” It’s a cross variety between Blauer Zimmettraube and Weißer Heunisch. Blaufränkisch was widely planted throughout the Habsburg Monarchy and is the most important variety in Mittelburgenland, Austria called Blaufränkischland. That’s a mouthful.
Would this Austrian wine work in Beulahland? In Hebrew, Beulah means “to marry” and Merriam Webster dictionary describes Beulah as “an idyllic land near the end of life’s journey” in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.
Nancy and Michael were optimistic that it would work and they married the idea of the idyllic land to Beulah, Michigan and called the vineyard: Eden Hill Vines. The transformation of the farm on Eden Hill Road began in 2012. The first step was to pull the 1970’s Montmorency tart cherry trees out of the ground. The soil required time before the transition, and the soil conditions were improved by planting cover crops of winter rye grass, buckwheat, vetch, and sorghum. The land was ready in 2014, and chardonnay and blaufränkisch vines were planted. By this time, Nancy and Michael were retired and officially grape farmers.
The first crop of blaufränkisch grapes was ready for harvest on October 22, 2016. It was a cool day, with an autumn mist rising from nearby Crystal Lake. An enthusiastic group of friends and family worked throughout the weekend, arriving in different shifts, cutting cluster after cluster until only crimson hands remained. The fruit was piled high into bins, transported inside a truck, and safely delivered to the urban winery, Left Foot Charley, in Traverse City.
We never imagined the blessings that Bacchus, the wine god, would bestow on that first harvest. Perfectly guided by the capable hands of Left Foot Charley’s Wine Sherpa, Bryan Ulbrich, the first cases arrived and the wine was exceptional. But we were biased. It was our baby.
A few months later, however, we learned that we were not the only ones. Our very first blaufränkisch grapes, crafted into the 2016 Left Foot Charley Blaufränkisch, had been awarded the prestigious 2017 Jefferson Cup award for Red Vinifera Wine. (The Jefferson Cup Invitational was founded in 1999 in honor of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was a seminal figure in America’s cultural, culinary—including wine—and agricultural history.) The good news did not end there. The Wall Street Journal praised this wine “as the unanimous favorite” in their article, “Can Midwestern Wines Compete with California’s?” on November 30, 2017.
The blaufränkisch grapes have continued to thrive in the Northern Michigan terroir and Bryan Ulbrich’s mastery and unyielding innovation have produced the first-ever Michigan Blaufränkisch Rosé, released in May 2018. This dry but delicately fruity rosé celebrates the fleeting pleasure of summers Up North. Bottles are available at their tasting room in the Village at Grand Traverse Commons in Traverse City (806 Red Dr.).
My husband and I had a vision of starting a vineyard. Nancy and Michael Call’s hard work and dedication have made Eden Hill Vines a reality. This fruitful adventure made me believe that, I too, did not have to wait 30 years to fulfill my dreams.
I had been working on a novel for years and decided to take a sabbatical year to complete it. After three book covers, several editors, and a drastic new ending, the novel is now published. Titled, Eastbound, I Think, it is a fiction work set in southern Spain and Portugal: a coming-of-age story of a young man in his early 20s who sets off on a train adventure. It is filled with detailed descriptions of the Mediterranean landscape, Spanish food and wine, and the family relationships that define who we are. The book celebration took place on May 15, 2018, at Left Foot Charley. Toasted, appropriately, with an Eden Hill Vines Blaufränkisch rosé.
Marina Call is a travel writer, educator, and author of “Eastbound, I Think.” More information at www.themarinacall.com.