Sip rosé all day with Shady Lane Cellars Winemaker Kasey Wierzba.
With a counterclockwise swirl, an inviting waft of strawberries and a sip of the mouthwatering acid verve that defines the wines of Northwest Michigan, we’re off, drinking pinot noir rosé and marching down a row of vines behind Shady Lane Cellars’ head winemaker, Kasey Wierzba. Dressed in jeans and boots dusted with vineyard dirt, Wierzba stops every few paces to inspect the newly emerged shoots eagerly snaking their way east and west along taut trellis wires. “Good wine has to start with good fruit,” Kasey explains as light ricochets through the salmon pink wine sloshing in her glass, “and good fruit comes from a healthy vineyard.”
Featured in the June 2019 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Get your copy.
Wierzba’s approach to winemaking relies on a holistic intimacy with her vines from the moment they emerge from dormancy, through summer’s photosynthetic fury and into the autumn harvest. “Surrounded by all this agriculture and cherry farming, my love for growing things started here,” the Traverse City native recounts, tracing the electric green sawtooth edge of a pinot noir leaf drenched in early-summer sun. Wierzba, a self-described science kid, started out studying plant sciences at MSU and quickly pivoted to horticulture where she discovered a passion for viticulture and enology, doing research in the university’s grape lab and working summer internships at Black Star Farms and Craig Cunningham’s vineyard management company.
Emerging from the ivory tower chrysalis with a master’s degree in viticulture focused on sustainable grape vine management, Wierzba struck out for Napa Valley where she landed as vineyard manager at Frog’s Leap, a certified organic winery in Rutherford, and worked as a viticulturist at prestigious blue-chip institutions Rudd and Far Niente/Nickel & Nickel.
Two young sons, the magnetism of home and Northern Michigan’s rapidly growing wine industry drew Wierzba back to the thrill of cool climate viticulture when she signed on as assistant winemaker at Shady Lane Cellars in 2013. Faced with a truncated growing season and a radically different climate, Wierzba embraces the challenge. “The soil, the weather and the expression of the grapes are completely different in Napa,” Kasey relates, “but my biggest takeaway was in familiarizing myself with the land: knowing the identity of its soil, plants, weather patterns, the cycles of moisture and the stages of vine development. Even though conditions are not the same, the awareness that comes from understanding connections between the land and the crop translates 100 percent.”
Armed with an organic awareness and a heap of raw winemaking talent, Kasey finds her biggest challenge in the art of translating nature’s cues at the 45th parallel. “This was a hard reset to what I had studied at MSU. Our whirlwind growing season is only four months long but a lot happens in that amount of time, and even when our fruit is fully ripe, it has more of an acid backbone than anything that grows in California. I had to retrain my palette to be okay with that.”
Finding the virtues in this region’s bright, lifted expressions of cool climate grape varietals was not hard for Wierzba, however, as she believes these characteristics foster a development in the glass that’s hard to match in warmer climes. “The wines being made here are perfect food wines. They continue to unfold from the first sniff and sip to the last, and reveal new layers of aroma and texture to discover as the wines get oxygen and warm up a bit.” This intrinsic vibrancy, Wierzba maintains, keeps the wines from feeling heavy or laborious and makes them deliciously compatible with fresh preparations using seasonal produce and Great Lakes fish. “There’s always room to enjoy a second glass,” she says as we bid adieu to the afternoon’s first bottle of rosé.
A few glasses deep and reveling in that heady surge of vitamin D all northerners feel as summer officially settles in, we turn our attention to the pink wine at hand and its parent grape, pinot noir. “I call pinot noir ‘the diva grape,’” Kasey explains with a sly smile. “It’s really finicky in the vineyard and maintains that attitude throughout the cellar. The thinner skin also means that all of mother nature’s critters are drawn to the clusters as they ripen, so we have to be very selective with clusters and treat them with the utmost care.”
At Shady Lane, the utmost care is a meticulous regiment of small batch, open top one-ton fermentations, each with a unique yeast strain. Red varietals, pinot noir in particular, are highly sensitive to late-season weather fluctuations, but Kasey’ flags 2017’s warm dry fall as one of the best she’s worked with. “As they unfold, well-made wines from vintages like this keep telling a story in your glass.”
2017’s manifold layers of black cherry and barrel spice will have to wait for a cooler day though, as the grape is telling its story in rosé form on this sun-soaked June afternoon. Rosé mania has swept through popular culture in the last few years, posting exponential growth as a beverage category and popping up in Instagram posts from yacht decks in the Maldives to beach chairs on Platte Bay. The wines are almost universally fresh, bright and affordable, and Kasey rightly acknowledges the category as having “a huge breadth of styles from fresh, fruity and off-dry to serious wines aged on their lees in barrels.”
Shady Lane’s Pinot Noir Rosé definitely splashes down in the serious end of the pink wine pool. Aged in used barrels on its lees (the inactive yeast solids that remain after fermentation), the wine, as it matures in the bottle, develops what Wierzba describes as a “strawberries and cream” effect with soft red fruits and white pepper on the nose, silky mid-palate texture and a pop of bright acid that enlivens the finish. And while this wine has the cerebral trappings to satisfy geek and enthusiast alike, Kasey is quick to emphasize we should also seek the basic pleasure in a good glass. “Not everything needs to be raked over,” she says, admiring how light plays at the edge of the crystal. “Sometimes you need to just enjoy a simple moment of sand blowing around on the beach and shooing seagulls away from the picnic.” The beach, and another bottle, are calling.
SHADY LANE CELLARS PINOT NOIR ROSÉ
How it smells: Ripe strawberry, fresh orange peel, vanilla and a hint of sweet smoke.
How it tastes: Round and supple with soft red fruits. Dry, persistent finish.
How it’s made: Cold soaked in the press for 12 hours, lightly pressed and fermented in 80 percent stainless steel tanks and 20 percent neutral oak barrels. Stirred on its lees to add texture and soften the acidity.
How to drink it: Pull the bottle out of the refrigerator 15 minutes before serving and pour a taste while the wine warms up a few degrees and releases its aromas. Pair with a dock, a beach and soft-ripened cheeses.
Traverse food and drinks editor Tim Tebeau writes from Petoskey // Dave Karczynski teaches writing and photography at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.