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Q&A with Heather Durham-Birley, operational manager and director of wine education at Rove Estate in Traverse City
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Heather Durham-Birley. (Photo by Grace Photography for Rove Estate)

Born and raised in Traverse City, Heather Durham-Birley left Michigan when she was 18 and traveled the world for about five years. Along the way, she met her husband in England and received a degree in applied food science in London. “It was a convenient way to continue to travel on the weekends throughout Europe because of the proximity,” she says; in total, she has visited 27 countries.

A wine tourism internship brought her to Château Sigalas Rabaud, a small family-owned producer in France’s Bordeaux region, where she gave English-speaking tours and learned to love sweet wine. Durham-Birley, whose love and knowledge of wine increased after working in fine-dining restaurants in Michigan and London, is currently working on her WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) diploma through the American Wine School, based out of Chicago.

Q: How did you go from being a wine lover to studying it and making it a career?
A: It started out as intrigue when we were tasting the wines at the first restaurant I worked at. My boss was telling me all these things she smelled, and I just got hooked. I wanted to try all these different wines and get better at tasting and understand why these wines smelled and tasted the way they did. Then when I moved to England, every decision I made seemed centered around wine: Where we would go for dinner? Where we would travel? What kind of wineries or wine bars did they have? What could I cook tonight to pair with this wine? Literally everything! Just one day I realized it was more than just a hobby but my life’s passion.

Q: Can you tell us about your two roles at Rove Estate?
A: I assist the owners in day-to-day activities while making sure everything runs smoothly and is organized at the winery. Although I love the business and marketing side, my passion is wine education. That is something I have been working hard on is to educate the staff as well as our customers.

There is a quote that I found that I wholeheartedly believe: “Wine is not just an object of pleasure, but an object of knowledge; the pleasure depends on the knowledge.” — Sir Roger Scruton. I think that the key to enjoying wine is to know more about it. That is why when I started with Rove Estate, I just naturally loved sharing and teaching what I knew to help the staff have a deeper appreciation into what they are pouring as well as an understanding at how much hard work goes into it. Now we do formal educational tastings, usually once a month in the busy season and try to have them once a week or every other week in the off-season. These formal tasting trainings focus on all different topics, such as wine taste, wine and food pairings, wines of the world, how our wines compare to other wines. The best thing about learning about wine is that there is an element of theory and reading but you use the practicality of tasting to apply this theory!

Q: What would you like people to know about Michigan wine?
A: I think wine is a lifestyle, not just an occasion, and Michigan wines fit that bill perfectly. They are naturally higher in acidity (which can make them fantastic food wines) as well as full of flavor and generally naturally lower in alcohol. You can have them during the week with dinner or out to lunch with a friend as part of your everyday life.

I honestly have seen the region grow as my own wine journey has grown. Every year when I would visit my family, there would be a new winery that I would go check out or go to old favorites where the wine kept getting better and better.

Q: What did you learn from your travels, and how do you use that knowledge?
A: I think what is special about each of the wine regions I visited is that they have found how to make their unique wines shine. They stay authentic and true to themselves and just focus on making quality wine and sharing that story and their passion with others. I also think that is true for Michigan wine. We are unlike any region. It is impossible to compare our terroir to another place in the world. They may have one thing similar, like soil type or climate, but not the whole package. We are totally unique and special, and educating the staff and our guests in the quality and immense potential of this region excites everyone.

Q: Why should people visit Rove Estate?
A: Rove Estate really has something for everyone — whether you are looking to do an in-depth tasting with a member of staff or just hang out on the patio with a glass of wine and charcuterie board with your friends. The view is spectacular at all times of the year. The wines are estate grown, and whatever Mother Nature gives us shows and truly lets the good fruit express themselves naturally. A warmer vintage might see riper styles of wine, a cooler vintage might be presented as drier and crisper wines, so the key is just to make it balanced and delicious.

The wines are micro boutique quantities, so we do sell out of wine and sometimes the next vintage we do something different or change it up. You will not be tasting the same wine year after year; it’s always a new and fun surprise.

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