Late last year, Wine Enthusiast Magazine published a short piece I wrote about Minnesota wine for them. This month’s tastemaker, Mike Drash from Chankaska Creek Winery, is the winemaker who inspired me to pitch and eventually write the story.
Introduced by our mutual friend Gina Certa Shay (owner of Petraea Plus), Mike and I hit it off immediately as we exchanged several emails about the grapes he works with, people using West Coast fruit to make “Minnesota wine”, the best barrel protocols for various Minnesota hybrids and NFL football.
Not long after, I got to taste some of his wines. He hasn’t been working with them all that long, but he seems to have a way with the grapes developed for Minnesota’s climate. His Marquette-based wines in particular stood out. They are quite different from any of the Marquette I’ve tasted from Quebec, New York and Vermont — as they should be. He’s bullish on the variety and its ability to express terroir.
“I am already seeing some terroir differences from various Marquette sites here,” he told me in an email. “Some are more like Rhone and our estate tends to be more graphite/mineral like.”
Mike is one of the winemakers at the forefront of quality wine in Minnesota. He’s not only a winemaker to watch, he’s a true tastemaker.
Location: Chankaska Creek Winery, Kasota, MN
Title: Vice President of Liquor Operations (aka I make all sorts of booze!)
Before I Became a Winemaker: Bartender in Key West, Florida in 1992!
How I Ended Up at Chankaska Creek: In 1993, I got interested in wine after college and met a person in Key West who had just worked a harvest at DeLoach Vineyards in Sonoma County. I told her that’s what I wanted to do. She gave me the phone number of Randy Ullom, the winemaker at DeLoach. He said he would give me a job for harvest but it was still only March.
I left a few days later from Key West and knocked on Randy’s door two weeks after I had called him. He was so impressed, he gave me a job right there as a cellar rat. From there I worked at Jordan Winery and J Vineyards & Winery, Far Niente Vineyards and Winery, Luna Vineyards and my own brand called Tallulah Wines named after my 11 year old daughter.
Four-plus years ago we were looking to make a change and moved to the Midwest and started at Chankaska in February of 2014. My wife, Tracy is from Wisconsin, so we are back near her family. We just bought a house on a lake and have a pontoon boat coming next month. A true Minnesota lifestyle!
What I’m Drinking Right Now: I’ve been sipping on some Monkey Shoulder. It’s a blended Scotch whisky that is heavy on the malt side of things and low on the peaty side. I’m playing around with making a 100% malted barley whiskey and need to do some research!
The First Bottle of Wine I Remember Drinking: It was a bottle of Jordan Vineyards 1987 Cabernet Sauvignon, which I drank in 1991. I was waiting tables in Memphis and after work a few of us went out to the bars. One guy ordered the ’87 Jordan which was quite expensive giving how little we were making at the time. It absolutely blew my mind. It made me start down the path of winemaking.
The next morning the guy who bought the Jordan Cab was arrested because he had stolen the credit card from a customer! Sucked for him!
My Winemaking Style: I have worked for very traditional wineries like Jordan and Far Niente but also worked for Luna Vineyards which was the complete opposite. Very minimal intervention and native yeasts. I pull a lot of my winemaking from my days at Luna but have the sensible side of me that knows not to go to hands-off/native — especially in Minnesota.
My Mentors — Wine and Otherwise: My two best winemaking mentors were Monty Paulsen from Deloach days and Abe Schoener from my Luna days. Randy Ullom left shortly after I started at DeLoach and Monty was named winemaker. Abe hired me at Luna and part of the interview was trying five different wines blind and discussing them with him. He really opened my mind up to how wine could be made better without interfering so much as a winemaker. I’m still friends with both of them to this day.
My Dad was a huge influence on me as well. He was my principal, my coach and my friend. He passed away nine years ago from Leukemia and I find myself doing and saying some of things that used to drive me nuts as a kid. Now I get to torment my daughter the same way. I’ve coached her soccer team for five years now. She did admit the other day out of the blue, “Dad, you are a really good soccer coach!” GOOOOOAL!
The Music Playing in the Cellar Right Now: You know, I’m not that big on music in the cellar. You can’t hear when things go wrong!
My Favorite Thing About the Minnesota Wine Industry: Changing the minds of what people’s perception of wine in Minnesota can be. I never fully embraced living in California and always thought it would be a good challenge to make wine somewhere on the fringes. I’ve definitely found that in Minnesota! We are expected to get 2 to 4 more inches of snow this weekend. Ugh.
What I Wish Was Different About Minnesota Wine: It is something that will take some time but having state-wide standards on what is considered a quality wine. Right now we have wines styles and quality levels that are all over the map. I’ve tried some wines that have been given a gold medal and scratched my head as to why — to the point where the wine is almost undrinkable but somehow got a gold medal.
On a Random Thursday Evening, You’ll Find Me Drinking: Sonoma Pinot Noir. It’s a wine both my wife and I can agree on.
My Last Meal on Earth: Central BBQ in Memphis. The pulled pork sandwich and a bottle of Chateau Figeac, any year. Absolutely love their wines and was fortunate to hang out with them 10 years ago for a day.