Black Star Farms Inn and Winery – Suttons Bay, Michigan

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Sutton’s Bay in the summertime is a photographer’s dream; from the stunning shoreline of Lake Michigan with its sandy beaches and ocean-like vastness to the hillside vineyards, this part of northern Michigan offers an escape from the flat Midwestern landscape. Straddling the 45th parallel, the Leelanau Peninsula is home to many wineries, small farms, farmstands and several  outstanding farm-to-table restaurants, making it a destination for vacationers and foodies alike.

The entrance to the inn and winery is a winding tree-lined road through a vineyard; rounding the bend reveals a secluded valley setting with barns and stables set among broad pastures, and a beautiful barn-red colonial style Inn. Horses graze in broad pens awaiting student riders while chickens peck at seeds and a dozen lambs and a troop of hogs frolic in pens, providing some of the most flavorful braised pork and tender lamb chops I’ve ever tasted.

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We check in to the quaint yet opulent Inn and drop off our bags. The room, named Polaris, was spacious and elegant in its appointments with a comfortable sitting area and a whirlpool tub. A box of chocolates on the pillow greeted us, as did a complimentary bottle of the Inn’s own Red House White wine (a fruity blend of predominantly chardonnay, perfect as a nightcap or a spin in the whirlpool). At the end of an unforgettable evening of food and wine, our room provided the perfect retreat of relaxation and comfort and a restful night’s sleep.  In the morning, we enjoyed Chef Dayton’s breakfast of sunnyside-up egg and braised pork with a hash of fresh summer vegetables (which the Chef insists was no effort, though the exquisite taste suggests otherwise) that provided ample energy for a morning spent touring the grounds and visiting with the adorable farm animals.

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The Black Star Farms Winery
Of particular note is the sprawling Black Star Farms; A world-class winery and tasting room are a main attraction as is their Inn, but it is also a working farm with horse stables, gardens, and livestock to supply its restaurants, as well as vineyards providing Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Cab Franc, Dornfelder, and Pinot Noir grapes for the wines.  I recently had the pleasure of staying a night at the Inn, attending an exquisitely prepared harvest dinner (which will be featured on its own piece), and a detailed tasting and tour of the winery lead by the head winemaker Lee Lutes himself.

While covering the second annual Michigan Wine Showcase hosted at City Winery in downtown Chicago, I had the pleasure of meeting with Kimberly Zacharias and previewing a few of Black Star Farms top wines. I was invited to visit Black Star Farms to tour the winery and meet with Head Winemaker Lee Lutes, learn a bit about his team and his process, and of course to taste more of their wonderful wines.

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A beautiful timbered space with ample natural light and hand-painted murals, the tasting room has a cathedral-like grandeur fitting the collection of award-winning wines presented. We take our tasting in an adjacent private tasting room decorated with barrel staves accentuated by a river of red wine-stained oak and custom lighting made from barrel hoops. This room, reserved for wine club members, is cleverly designed to maximize your enjoyment of Black Star’s wines and spirits, and is the perfect setting for our extensive tasting guided by Master Winemaker Lee Lutes, who lead us through an extensive array of wines and brandies, which I will detail later. His personal insights into the styles presented and commentary on local vineyards provided a background into the local wine culture that is absent from winery guides.

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Wine maker Lee Lutes acquired his winemaking skills in northern Italy, honed them in Michigan since 1992, and in 1998 he teamed up with the owners of Black Star Farms, having lead their winemaking efforts since then and winning countless medals in the process. Of his recent successes, two particular cab francs and a stunning dry Riesling stand out as fine examples of the excellent wines this winery and region can produce.

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2012 Arcturos Cab Franc
Cabernet Franc is an excellent fruit for cool climates, and this variety has a long history in the region. Plums, blackberries, and dark cherries are prominent; 12 months on American oak provides a balanced profile and depth.

2011 Leorie Vineyard Merlot/Cab Franc
This wine is exclusively made from grapes grown in a hillside enclave looking out on the bay; it’s sloping, terraced cove provides natural shelter from winds and acts as a heat trap producing fruit of outstanding qualities almost unparalleled in this region. Flanked by tall trees, eagles nesting among them virtually eliminate the need for bird netting and allow the grapes to fully ripen in the intense sunlight. We were lucky to receive a tour guided by Lee to take photos of the vineyard and felt the ~10 degree warmer temperatures as we enter the vineyard and ascend the steep, winding trail through the grapes.

A Bordeaux-style blend, structured flavors of dark plums, cassis, and forest berries; and a spicy underpinning of espresso and oak, thanks to the French, Hungarian, and American oak barrels on which it spent 14 months developing.

2011 Montague Estate Dry Riesling
Riesling is one of my favorite varietals, and thanks to my time in Germany, I favor dry Rieslings, good ones can be hard to find.  This one is crafted with fruit from a single vineyard, and displays a surprisingly complex Riesling profile of crisp apple and citrus flavors, with dried apricot, early peach, and white pepper providing a neat and clean finish.

The Hearth & Vine restaurant at Black Star Farms
Situated beside the stables, Hearth and Vine is a beautiful place to stop for a meal after riding lessons or a wine tasting, and offers a delightful menu highlighted by brick-oven pizzas and small plates accompanied by Black Star’s own wines and fruit brandies. We enjoyed the pickled farm fresh eggs, beets, and red onions as a starter, along with a strawberry garden salad (the Chef substituted a just-picked mix of arugula, bibb, and red leaf lettuce with micro greens in place of frisee) and a stellar raclette pizza with a creamy potato puree, caramelized onion, and arugula highlighted with raclette and fromage blanc cheeses made just around the corner by John and Anne of nearby Leelanau Cheese.

The rustic ambiance is enhanced by hand-made wooden tables and chairs made of repurposed wine barrels situated in a low, sweeping space centered around an open kitchen and brick oven. During the summer months Hearth & Vine hosts weekly fish boils every friday night at 6:30.

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The Stables at Black Star Farms
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We have been visiting northern Michigan to experience the wine and food since the early 2000’s, and have witnessed a transformation from quaint weekend getaway to a fully-fledged food and wine lover’s paradise; a captivating atmosphere of gorgeous scenery and warmhearted, genuine people await visitors, as does an endless supply of exquisite wines to suit nearly every palate. In the intervening years living abroad we have come to realize that good food and good wine are what life is all about, and having a place so full of pleasures located so conveniently close to Chicago is truly a blessing.

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