Michigan By the Bottle Knows Local Wine
“Afraid of wine snobs? We’re not them.”
That’s the message on a poster at a Michigan By The Bottle (MBTB) tasting room, and it greets you when you walk in. But if any wine snobs should happen to wander in, they’ll undoubtedly expand their horizons.
“There are a lot of people who believe Michigan only makes sweet white wine,” says Cortney Casey, who founded MBTB in 2009 with her husband, Shannon. “This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Over the last two decades, Michigan winemakers have been honing their craft, experimenting, determining which grapes can thrive here. There are now tons of high-quality dry reds available, along with many delicious dry whites. In truth, Michigan wineries produce the entire spectrum of wine styles: dry, sweet, still, sparkling, dessert, fruit—you name it.”
MBTB, which now includes 3 wine tasting and retail locations, began as a blog, providing the Caseys with an outlet to rave about their extracurricular passion: wines from around the state that suffered from insufficient promotion. They struck a chord. “We were shocked by how quickly it took off. There were tons of Michigan wine lovers who hadn’t been united in a meaningful way before,” says Cortney, whose day job at the time was as a newspaper reporter, while Shannon worked in financial services.
Of the four levels attainable through the Court of Master Sommeliers—an organization that encourages heightened standards of wine knowledge and service—Cortney and Shannon are beyond the introductory level and at the second tier designated “certified.” There is no supervised coursework. “It’s all self-study,” says Cortney. Exams include one in wine theory, a blind tasting and “the very nerve-wracking service portion, during which you have to serve to a Master Sommelier as if he/she was a guest in the restaurant, and all the while, he or she is bombarding you with various questions about wine and spirits.”
Having survived the exam, the Caseys make learning about wine in their stores as enjoyable as possible. Visitors to any of their three tasting rooms can sample full flights, with five (2-ounce) pours, or mini flights, with three. Those who know what they want can enjoy a big pour. Additionally, palate-cleansing snacks called “flight bites” feature cheese and chocolate from Michigan producers.
The Caseys pair wines with other extras: music on Friday nights, yoga classes and meet-the-artist events. There’s a “sipper club” described as “multiple wine clubs all rolled into one,” featuring handselected wines offered at a discount and members-only events. Wine classes are offered throughout the year. “We recently did [a class] on the right temperature at which you should serve white wine,” says Cortney. “People were amazed at how much flavor gets masked in a white when it’s too cold because you just stuck it in the refrigerator.”
Michigan By The Bottle tasting rooms feature wines from a dozen or so vineyards, all of which tend to be a substantial hike from the Detroit Metro area. “Michigan is ripe for this idea because wineries are in outlying areas,” says Shannon. “People go somewhere for vacation, enjoy the wines there, but come back home and there’s nowhere to get them. The few wines that are distributed tend to be the mass-produced stuff, not the more serious wines.”
It’s why he and Cortney specifically seek out wines that are “more boutique-style, with limited distribution. When we make an exception—as we recently have with Chateau Chantal—it’s because they’ve agreed to supply [us] with their reserve wines that aren’t in distribution.”
Winemakers agree that being part of MBTB has tremendous benefits. Connie Currie of Blue Water Winery and Vineyards operates her vineyard in Lexington with her husband. “We’re small, and in a seasonal location,” she says. “Off-season, I can just point fans right to the MBTB Tasting Rooms, whereas before they would have had to wait until we’re back open in the summer months.”
Lorenzo Lizarralde of Chateau Aeronautique in Jackson says, “We have distribution channels, but these are so much more effective. We love the face-to-face interaction with our guests. When you go to a store and get something off the shelf, you don’t know what you’re getting.”
Underpinning the entire enterprise is the Caseys’ passionate belief that Michigan wine is ready for its moment. “Master Sommelier Claudia Tyagi, who lives and works in Metro Detroit, once told me that, when she first got into the wine industry, people were skeptical of California wine,” says Cortney. “It takes time, but with every award, every article, every wine critic that gets amazed, Michigan will continue to prove itself in the wine world.”
“We drink wines from everywhere so that we can put Michigan in perspective of the world of wine,” says Shannon. “I challenge people to try Michigan Rieslings, Cabernet Francs, and the Syrah, especially from southwest Michigan, is up-and-coming.”
Vintner Lizarralde agrees. “I’ve seen people turn from apprehension and low expectations when they come in, to making great new discoveries that turn them around by the time they leave. They’ll say, ‘This is Michigan?’ Yes. This is Michigan.”
Find out more at Michigan By The Bottle