Tastemaker: Bryan Ulbrich, Left Foot Charley

When I launched this site a few years ago, it was with the intention of adding wine regions like Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania to the core experience I had writing about New York wines. When Todd agreed to join me as co-founder, adding Vermont/New England made sense.

I never intended to add Michigan to our “beat” but I remember one of my “aha” moments with Michigan wine very clearly. It was in June of 2016, during TasteCamp 2016, which we held in Vermont.

One of the most fun parts of TasteCamp is always the Saturday night BYOB dinner with attendees. It’s grown a bit – to the point that some people bring a half case of assorted wines to share – but the original idea was simply to bring a single bottle of wine from your local wine country, wherever you’re coming from.

Gina Shay, who now writes for this site in addition to all of her other wine-related work, brought a bottle of Left Foot Charley 2013 Blaufrankisch to that dinner. I tasted a lot of wines that evening on a mountainside in rural Vermont, but it was one of the wines that stuck with me.

I’ve now had the opportunity – thanks to Gina and Left Foot Charley co-owner/winemaker Bryan Ulbrich – to taste through much more of the urban winery’s portfolio. I expected to like the rieslings and I have. Without a doubt. But I’ve also been floored by the quality and character of al of Ulbrich’s wines. From sparkling wine to some of the best pinot blanc in North America to his stunning Kerner. There isn’t a clunker in the bunch that I’ve found yet.

Ulbrich doesn’t grow his own grapes. Instead, he works with small vineyard owners, building long-term relationships with them and in turn letting those grapes express themselves. As you’ll read below, he thinks of his role as a winemaker as midwifery. I like that.

Bryan Ulbrich, Left Foot Charley

Location: Left Foot Charley, Traverse City, Michigan

Title: Winery Sherpa

Before I Became a Winemaker: That was a long time ago–last century!

I was working in a wine shop, running an after-school program for elementary kids and trying to publish books. A job opening at Peninsula Cellars consolidated my work ethic, love of wine and desire to be creative under one roof.

How I Ended Up Where I am Today: I was the general manager and winemaker at Peninsula Cellars during a really exciting time for Michigan. We accomplished quite a bit together over our 10 years together. Michigan wine and the perception of it had radically changed. By the end, they were moving toward a family-run, self-sustaining farm model. My contract was wrapping up and they were supportive as I began to develop the Left Foot Charley concept. My wife and I realized there were numerous small vineyards looking for a place for their fruit to call home and to see their hard work turned into wine. We started with four vineyards and now work with 18 individual farms.

Without these farms, it would all be like an infinite horizon eluding my grasp.

What I’m Drinking Right Now: I drank a Stroh’s yesterday in honor of my Grandpa. I don’t drink a lot of beer anymore though.

Anytime I can find an oddball cider I’ll grab it – particularly if it’s made from bitter sharps or bitter sweets. I want to learn more about the tradition of cider making. Not the adjunct stuff. Apple cider.  

For wine, I am an open palate. There is so much to learn. I used to pick a theme for the summer and try to hone my focus. I tried some wine from Trail Marker Wines recently. They have a Zweigelt I want to try as well.  Their rose and chardonnay are the type of wines that make you pause. Very cerebral wines with a playful finish.

Also, I got to meet a few Chilean winemakers recently and sat in on a tasting that showed the depth and range of their several appellations. I enjoyed the scope that their geography encompasses. I really want to join more wine clubs in general, so there is a steady supply of unexpected options. 

The First Bottle of Wine I Remember Drinking: I was at a Chicago restaurant called Geja’s Cafe. The statute of limitations is up so I can admit that I was a senior in high school. I was trying to impress my girlfriend with this romantic city experience. The waiter laid a massive leather-bound wine list on me. I was completely surprised by the opportunity and totally out of my element. Somehow I gathered up an unfamiliar reserve of suave courage and asked for his recommendation. I don’t remember the specific producer but he served us a bottle of Piesporter Goldtröpchen. It was magical. I’ll never forget the aromas and how long that flavor lingered. I’ve been chasing riesling ever since.

My Winemaking Style: Midwifery. My job is to help the grapes transition into wine. I carry it from one state to another. Some require more coaxing than others depending on the vintage. I’m not saying I’m not involved or don’t add value. But we aren’t the mothers/creators.  My job is to listen and respond so we can avoid stress and nurture a healthy wine through its birth till it enters the bottle.

My Mentors — Wine and Otherwise: There are three.

First, Madeline Triffon, MS, gave me a boost of courage early on. She was never a cheerleader type but more of an optimistic critic. She challenged me often by putting our wines on the stage with some of the best. 

Dave Kroupa of Peninsula Cellars taught me how to farm fruit and how to fix all kinds of equipment when it inevitably breaks. Everyday, it seems, I’m confronted with something that needs repair and I’m always thankful I had access to his experience and workshop back in the day. 

Lastly, my dad is a CPA and has been a significant source of guidance through the financial management morass. More importantly, he has taught me, by example, how to manage the work environment in a generous and fun manner. This keeps our growers and employees interested and engaged which definitely makes the wine taste better.

The Music Playing in the Cellar Right Now: John Mayal’s  Movin’ On album. It’s a stellar live recording from 1972.

My Favorite Thing About the Michigan Wine Industry: The fact that it’s cool during harvest and cold in the winter. It keeps us on the fringe and really impacts every vintage in a distinct way. The cool harvest weather gives us a lot of breadth in fruit handling. We can play with the skin contribution very deftly because the cold temperatures buy us some time. It’s a very intentional process. The cold winters give us slow fermentation and aging conditions that really help link the vineyard and vintage to the fermentive process in a gentle but deliberate manner. 

What I Wish Was Different About Michigan Wine: I wish for more time with the old guys. Our industry has lost some valuable minds and exuberant personalities in the last few years. These are people who took great risk to plant grapes where everyone said it can’t be done. They took a lot of grief from the “experts.”

When I look at historic wine regions, they often focus on their pedigree handed down from distant great-great grandfathers who started vineyards. Their story is rooted in its ancient history.

In Michigan we are young. I am part of this early second generation. I have been lucky to know and learn directly from the pioneers. These are the guys who will be legends for generations because of their willingness to defy current trends and follow their passion. They left too early. 

On a Random Thursday Evening, You’ll Find Me Drinking: Thursday is my favorite day – it’s a good day to share old wines. We have an old geezer club (it describes the wine and the members). Typically I can be found with a 10-year-old-plus German riesling or some other obscure wine someone has been hiding for years in their cellar.

My Last Meal on Earth:  By meal, I assume I get a few courses right? Grower Champagne to start. Then, seared scallops from Chef Myles at Trattoria Stella with Island View Pinot Blanc. Next, duck confit with morels and Blaufrankisch. Grilled Rack of Lamb with a vintage Clos Saint Michel Chateauneuf du Pape. A salad of goat cheese, pears, greens, and nuts with a dry Rheingau Riesling. Then for dessert, a glass of Erdener Prälat Auslese from Andreas Schmitges. 

Comments (1):

  1. Bruce Beaudin

    September 13, 2019 at 10:34 pm

    Great interview/article. After I finish this comment I will check Cellartracker and see what they have to say about Left Foot Charlie and Island View Pinot Blanc.


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