Despite being a very decorated winemaker, Drew Perry of Aurora Cellars doesn’t put too much stock in awards. Instead, the longtime viticulturist at the Lake Leelanau winery prefers to measure his success in other ways.
“More often than not, when I’m looking at success, I’m looking at what was the most difficult thing that we dealt with in that year, and did we take it to a level that was something far significantly greater than what we could have otherwise?” he says. “What was our biggest challenge, and did we actually succeed? I’m not really looking at what won an award.”
Still, three of Perry’s wines — a Riesling, a Gewürztraminer, and a Grüner Veltliner — recently won top honors at The Jefferson Cup Invitational Wine Competition in Mission, Kansas — no easy feat. His were the only Michigan wines to win three coveted Jefferson Cups at the invitation-only contest, which dates back to 1999 and seeks to showcase the best of the best in U.S. wines.
“It gives me a little bit of validation when I’m telling our crew that what we do matters,” Perry says.
Here, he reflects on his background in the industry, his award-winning vinos, and Michigan’s place on the national winemaking scene.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Can you tell me about your background in the wine industry?
A: I went to school at Michigan State for viticulture and enology and finished that program [around] 2005. After that, I did a short six-month stint out in Napa, out at Pine Ridge Winery, and after that, I decided to come back home to the state and ended up starting at a new winery called Left Foot Charley and ended up becoming winemaker there after two years. I was with them from the ground up for about eight years. And then, after a few years, I ended up joining [current sibling owners] Sam and Taylor [Simpson of Aurora Cellars]. I’ve known Sam since college — we actually were in college together — and he was in the wine program for a short while before he ended up going into finance. This was something that we had all kind of talked about for a long time, just seeing if we could all end up working together at some point.
Q: How would you describe your three wines that won Jefferson Cups this year?
A: I was actually happy across the board just for the last few that have won because it sort of covered a full range of wines that we make, between red, bubbly, and now these are all three different white wines. So this is nice to get acknowledged for this, just because this is what we’re supposed to be doing well, and this is what Michigan’s supposed to be known for, especially up here in northwest Michigan. The “aromatic white wines” is our thing, so if we can get attention for that, I think that really goes a long way, especially these varieties: Grüner, Riesling, Gewürz.
When it comes to dry Rieslings, generally speaking, I try to make it a little bit more appealing across the board to a broader audience. Some people can take dry Rieslings in a really kind of searing direction that can isolate it a little bit to where it’s just a food wine. And we try to make them so they’re a little bit more appealing across the board where it doesn’t have to rely on food but can still pair well with things.
Gewürz, in general, it’s one of those wines where it ends up being kind of a cult wine. And Sam and Taylor got to a point where I think they realized they needed to hit a new audience with Gewürz because people had been making these dry, really perfume-y, kind of bitter and astringent Gewürzes that, while they’re bitter, didn’t have a lot of acid to structure it out. So we decided to go in a different direction, and we’ve been making, under the Aurora brand, more of a medium-sweet style just to kind of draw in a new audience.
Grüner’s one of those where it can go in a lot of different directions. That Grüner, that was definitely more of a choice on our end in terms of the winemaking staff where we could have gone in a direction that was a little more abstract, but I wanted to dry some different aromatics out of it, and so that, I guess, was appealing to some people. We wanted to dry some different aromatic profiles out of it that I really hadn’t been experiencing, and I actually really am pleased with that result.
Q: What does it say that your wines — along with others from Michigan — can hold their own in a national competition like The Jefferson Cup?
A: It’s one of those [things] you always kind of wrestle with, because you’re always happy that you get that recognition; part of you always says, “Well, we’re supposed to; this is what we do well, and people just don’t know it.” But [to] the same extent, we need to acknowledge that, yeah, we are still a relatively young industry. We do have some limitations in terms of the size of our industry, where we can grow, and so it’s good to be recognized and to be recognized for what we really can do well routinely — to not just have a random home run out of the park. We’re doing well consistently, and we actually have something that we’ve developed here. What we have is unique, and we have a unique landscape, unique growing region, and we have a lot of pretty brilliant minds up here.
Q: Are there any other wines you’re making at Aurora Cellars that you’d like to highlight?
A: We had the Blaufränkisch that we had won [a Jefferson Cup] for previously. I feel like year in, year out, that is a red wine that we can do very consistently, and we can make what is a true varietal expression of what it should be. That’s always a good one. And frankly, the sparkling program, that’s something I think we’ll always be able to do well, and that’s something that I’m looking forward to in the future as we grow, as we evolve.