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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Tuesday Review: Fenn Valley Winery

The Buzz editorial staff is pleased to announce the start of a new series. Every Tuesday (or every other Tuesday, depending on how it goes), we will post a review of a restaurant, bar, brewery, beer, wine, or winery. This week, Fenn Valley. Next week, who can say. Have a suggestion? Let us know.

Fenn Valley
By Chris Siciliano

Two years ago my fiance Gena and I lived in a small mountain town along the I-5 corridor in Southern Oregon. The town we lived in—Roseburg—sat at the center of a little-known wine region called the Umpqua Valley. Considering (a) the quality of wine produced there, and (b) the stunning beauty of the nearby mountains, it's hard to understand why so few people have ever heard of it. It might be the locals prefer to keep it that way. Then again, it might be that better known valleys in Oregon divert attention from the otherwise deserving Umpqua AVA (American viticulture area).

It seems to me Fenn Valley Winery in Fennville, MI is up against the same challenges. Though Fennville is one of Michigan's four recognized AVAs, it's less well known, at least in some circles, than its northern counterparts, the Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas. Don't let that fool you. The wines from Fenn Valley are really, really good, the people are friendly and courteous, and the vineyards are picturesque, especially when blanketed in snow. Add to all that the exceedingly reasonable tasting fee (it's free) and a visit to Fenn Valley becomes well worth the hour it takes to get there from Grand Rapids.

Worth noting

  • I imply above that Fenn Valley doesn't get the respect they deserve, but what do I know. The winery has been open since 1973 and their tasting room is cavernous, presumably because they can fill it, and have been filling it for almost forty years. Clearly this place is not the secret I assume it to be. Apologies to those I have offended.
  • I like wine. I drink it often. I like wine tasting, but I don't do it often. I'm certainly no aficionado. The most awkward thing for a novice wine taster like myself is to have somebody from the winery hover too close, fishing for validation. The folks at Fenn Valley were extremely laid back in this regard, happy to let us taste in peace, happy to answer questions as they arose. Good service.
  • We missed the Saturday tour by a matter of minutes. I hear it's good, though, especially in the warmer months. Siciliano's staffer Sarah "The Cheetah" Derylo claims they put you on a tractor and drive you through the vineyard, not only passing out wine samples but cheese and sausage too. Sarah calls the experience a "hayride for adults."

If you go, make a day of it

  • Gena and I set out from Grand Rapids early Saturday afternoon and headed west with only a vague premonition of where the road would take us. We intended to stop in Holland, and did. We had one beer each at New Holland Brewing Co. then walked it off on 8th Street, which was decked out in full holiday regalia. Saugutuck Brewing is also on the way.
  • The town of Fennville proper lies a few miles northeast of the winery. We stopped here for dinner at a place called Salt of the Earth. It came highly recommended and did not disappoint. In fact, the meal is one of the best I've had from a restaurant in recent memory. Gena ordered the wood-fired pizza with barrel-aged feta (barrel-aged feta!), jalapenos, and Swiss chard. I had the homemade oregano sausage with polenta and pickled apples on the side. Both meals were clearly made with care and skill, and I have no trouble passing along the recommendation. Prices were reasonable. Service was great.
  • We arrived in Fennville around 4:30 p.m., a half-hour before Salt of the Earth opened for dinner. To kill time we crossed the railroad tracks and stopped for a beer at a place called Stephen's Hotel Pizza. I don't know if Stephen was the owner's first or last name; I do know the man could talk, and I mean that as a compliment. In the time it took to drink a Bloody Caesar (a Stephen's Hotel specialty) we learned much of Fennville's history, as relating especially to the all-time leading scorer in men's high school basketball. The two old timers playing Keno at the bar were indifferent to our presence, one sipping a Busch Light, the other a Carling's Black Label. All in all it was a classic small town bar experience, the kind you hope for on road trips such as these.

The takeaway

People aren't likely to confuse the Fennville AVA with Napa Valley. As well they shouldn't. The place has a personality and beauty all its own, and for West Michiganders in particular it's an excellent way to feel part our native land, our terroir as they say.

Gena and I left Fenn Valley strangely proud to know that wine produced in our area could be so good. We ate a terrific dinner in a small town with loads of character and an hour later we were home, sitting with an open bottle of red and the distinct feeling we had lived this kind of day before. It was a lot like this back in Oregon, where almost weekly we made similar satisfying discoveries in the little-known but always-surprising Umpqua Valley.

Can't make it to Fenn Valley before the holidays? No worries. Siciliano's keeps a good selection of their wine in stock, ranging in price from $10 to $15. Stop in and take a look!

An excellent pie begins with the crust,
and Salt of the Earth makes a good one

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