Cosmic Wines from Southwest Michigan
Joe Herman, proprietor of Karma Vista Winery believes he has the best job on the planet. As he puts it, “If I pour myself into my work, at the end of the day, I can pour my work into myself!”
Joe knows what he’s talking about. As the sixth generation owner of the family farm, he feels his stewardship is a proud tradition to be passed on to new generations of grape growers and winemakers.
“My dad, who was the greatest man I’ll ever know, gave me permission to branch out into the wine business. As with life’s karma, what you put into vineyard will come back to you”, says Joe. Founded in 2002, the winery is focused on retail sales in the tasting room instead of wholesaling to large markets. Yes, the operation is iconoclastic and that’s the way they intend it to be!
From growing apples, peaches, cherries and grapes, to making a variety of wines, this operation is a family affair. Joe’s son Keith is the self-taught winemaker and Joe’s wife Susan is in charge of the tasting room. A quick glance at the website or wine list immediately indicates how important music is to this winery. Lyrics familiar to many of us are used by Joe to express not only how he feels about his wines, but also, and, somewhat surprisingly, his attitudes toward the business of wine.
Perhaps the most telling of all the quoted lyrics is from Bob Dylan’s classic tune, All Along The Watchtower: “Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth, none of them along the line know what any of it is worth.”
According to Joe, growing grapes is just the beginning of the process of creating value from the earth. What to plant and where to plant are key decisions that change over the course of time. As Joe states, “There are a lot of good sites. We’re constantly seeking the great sites, because that’s where the grapes grow best and we can make the best wine.” The cliché, “The sum is greater than the whole o the parts” exemplifies the nature of winemaking because the grapes need to “belong” on the proper site.
Thinking globally yet drinking locally reflects the current popularity of the farm to table movement. Yes, you can buy a decent bottle of wine for under $10 from many different countries. However, fresh fruit in season- say, Michigan strawberries during summer- smell and taste so much better than those from Mexico in March! Enjoying wine from locally sourced grapes made into Midwest wines is just better karma than drinking wines from halfway around the globe.
Karma Vista grows a lot of hardy, cold resistant grapes, otherwise known as hybrids. Unfortunately, the term hybrid is, for many people, an indication of lesser quality grapes and wines. Not necessarily so. None other than Dr. Stanley G Howell, the dean of Michigan viticulture, believes that hybrids are key to the future of Michigan wines. Dr. Howell prefers to use the term hardy grapes because of the frequent negative connotation applied to the term hybrid.
The 2013 Marquette from Karma Vista is an example of a cold weather resistant grape variety producing a very food friendly wine for novices and aficionados alike.
Karma Vista will be planting a new hardy varietal, Petite Pearl in 2016. This hybrid from Tom Plocher, a leading Northern grape breeder, has great potential for success in the Midwest. Plocher is currently part of the North Dakota State University team working to breed hybrids with the aroma and flavor profile of vinifera grapes. Joe Herman believes that “new varieties are the lifeblood of any agricultural undertaking. Continuous improvement and experimentation is essential to adapting to climate change and consumer preferences.”
One of the winery’s most popular wines is named Starry Starry White, a reference to a Don McLean’s 1971 song Vincent. This semi-sweet wine is a blend of two hardy grapes Vidal and Seyval, and the noble Riesling grape. A blush wine made from Vidal, Seyval and Maréchal Foch grapes is named Pink Side of the Moon. Do these names seem familiar but just a bit different?
The labels from Karma Vista are visually stunning. Utilizing vibrant colors and whimsical artistry, they express the cosmic attitude of the owners. As Joe says, “My labels are part metaphysical and part Madison Avenue. Having a minor in philosophy, I like to blend philosophy and marketing to create eye-catching labels.” His labels are some of the most interesting this writer has ever seen.
Karma Vista also produces 100% vinifera wines. The 2012 Syrah Reserve won a gold medal at the 2014 San Francisco Chronicle wine competition. The Herman’s’ are justly proud of this accomplishment, winning over many entries from California and Washington. A most unusual Midwestern wine is the 2013 Fume Blanc from Karma Vista. The vast majority of Fume Blanc a.k.a. Sauvignon Blanc worldwide is produced solely in stainless steel. Keith and Joe use prodigious amounts of oak to fashion this toasty version of Sauvignon Blanc.
If fruit wines are your preference Peach Train and Cherry Amour are excellent choices. Have you noticed a theme regarding the names of the wines? Hint, it’s a music theme!
As mentioned above, Karma Vista is the antithesis of a corporate conglomerate winery. It’s a very, very personal enterprise to the Herman family. The grapes they grow, their terroir, the choices they make in winemaking and business are all very conscious decisions to focus on what they believe in. A perfect example of this personal approach to business is the lack of spit buckets in their tasting room. They’re grossed out by spitting, believe their customers are as well and, therefore, don’t allow it! As they say, “Our house, our rules.”
Some folks may not be fans of the practices and procedures at Karma Vista winery, and that’s perfectly acceptable to them. The refreshing and individualistic attitude exemplified in southwestern Michigan isn’t for everyone. It is however, a cosmic choice for folks who appreciate irony, like a good laugh, and enjoy unique wines from a family enterprise. As the band Yes sang in the song I’ve Seen All Good People, ‘Send an instant karma to me, initial it with loving care.” Slainte!