Driving north out of Traverse City on one of Michigan’s most beautiful roads, M22, it is easy to miss the Three Fires Wine tasting room. Sitting unassumingly in a countryside version of a strip mall, sandwiched between a barn and an art gallery, resides one of the most sophisticated wine experiences you will find in the Midwest, or the country for that matter.
If you are looking to replicate the cover of the tourist brochures and sip a Late Harvest Riesling overlooking the tranquil waters of Grand Traverse Bay, you may be, at first, disappointed. But if you are looking to immerse yourself in the wonderful world of wine, buckle up and enjoy the ride. At Three Fires the wine takes center stage.
Three Fires specializes in bone dry, French-style wines with 0% residual sugar. Owners David Snyder, Ileana Hapsburg-Snyder and owner/winemaker Nathaniel Rose sought their inspiration from the Old World, as opposed to California where some Midwest wineries look for direction. Michigan’s cooler climate better lends itself to making nuanced, flavorful French-style wines and Three Fires has seized upon that. But more on this later.
While Three Fires wines are heavy on sophistication, there is little time for pretension. This is, after all, Northern Michigan and the intimidating, mausoleum-like settings of many Napa tasting rooms would not play well here. In fact, David puts having fun at the top of the list for both himself and his employees.
“If we aren’t having fun, then our guests certainly won’t have any fun,” David tells me on a snowy December evening in the tasting room. And this philosophy comes across during a tasting at Three Fires. As a wine drinker and proponent of Michigan wines, one of the things that I find most frustrating is the tasting room experience at many wineries. The wine is often times spectacular while the experience and pourer leave a lot to be desired. This is not the case at Three Fires where the pourers are just as passionate and knowledgeable about the wine as David is.
Along with the knowledgeable staff, tastings at Three Fires come with generous pours in large glasses that allow guests to experience the wine in multiple tastes. They also serve the wine with Fontina cheese, Italian wild boar sausage and locally made dark chocolate to enhance the experience and showcase the fact that these are food friendly wines.
Another way Three Fires distinguishes itself on a peninsula with nearly 30 wineries, is that it is a negociant winery, which means they buy 100% of their juice and grapes from wineries all over Michigan; proof of their commitment to the state’s wine industry. Most Northern Michigan wineries follow the estate model, but the negociant method means Three Fires can pick the best quality fruit from Michigan AVA’s like Lake Michigan Shore and the Old Mission and Leelanau Peninsulas.
And now, back to the French inspired wines at Three Fires. David, who grew up in a home that didn’t imbibe, fell in love with French wines when he met Ileana, whose family comes from Vienna and has wine with every meal. Once the love affair started, David looked to people like Robert Parker Jr. for guidance while teaching himself all he could about wine. But he always came back to French wine.
“We can basically make French wine here. We said, ‘We’ve got the climate, so lets go do it.’” David added. “Some people think that if you make wine in the United States, you have to make it in the style of California, which is very fruit forward and dense. California tends to be lower acid because of their climate and you tend not to have the aromatics that you get in Michigan or France.”
Those low acid levels in California wine can result in what David calls “blurry wine.” He compares acid in wine to the focus on binoculars. In reviews of California wine, the reviewer will often mention notes of generic red or black fruit.
“Well which ones?” David asks himself. “With Michigan wine, we aren’t going to just say ‘plum’. We are going to say ‘Damson plum’. We aren’t going to only say ‘apple’. We’ll say ‘Cortland.’ According to David, this precise, “fine tuned” aspect to Michigan wines makes them go so well with food.
You’ll soon be able to find the “big three” dry red varietals of Northern Michigan on Three Fires’ shelves once their premier Pinot Noir comes out in March, joining Merlot and Right Bank, a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. You’ll also find the up and coming dry red varietal Franconia (Blaufrankisch in German and Lemberger in English), which is quickly becoming my favorite locally made wine. There is also a wonderful barrel fermented Chardonnay that may have won Three Fires their best unofficial award.
At a “Judgement of Paris” style event, Master Sommelier and Charlevoix, Michigan resident Ron Edwards along with two other Master Sommeliers hosted a tasting to give Michigan wineries some feedback on their wines. This event including a tasting that put 14 Michigan Chardonnays up against quintessential, world-class examples in a blind tasting.
The results? All three Master Sommeliers chose the Three Fires 2011 Barrel Fermented Chardonnay as the best of category, ahead of benchmark California and French Chardonnays. In fact, David says, they thought for sure that the wine was from France before uncovering the bottle.
“We submitted wines we made from the Lake Michigan Shore appellation and the great news was we won. Right out of the shoot in our very first vintage we showed that you absolutely can make world-class wine from Michigan grapes. You don’t get better than a panel of three Master Somms,” David said.
And, to top it off, their 2012 Cabernet Franc was also named best of category. Not bad for your very first vintage. Which is a pretty big feather in the cap for David, Ileana and winemaker Nathaniel Rose, who is one of this country’s most talented young winemakers. A fact that, along with Three Fires Wine, won’t be a secret for much longer.
Also visit the Skipping Stones Cellars counter for high quality sweet wines.
Three Fires Wine and Skipping Stone Cellars Tasting Room
5046 S West Bay Shore Drive
Suttons Bay, MI
The tasting room is open seven days a week from May 15 through the end of October and on the weekends year round.
Author Bob Lovik is the owner and tour guide at Grand Traverse Adventure Company in Traverse City, Michigan. Bob says wine from the Leelanau and Old Mission Peninsulas tastes a little better after you know more about Northern wines and the people who make them. In addition to wine tours, Grand Traverse also offers adventure tours and craft beer tours.