Jay Briggs: ‘Drink Michigan Wine’

45 North’s seasoned vintner talks Judgement of Michigan wins, the new wines he’s making, and more
Photo courtesy of 45 North Vineyard & Winery

Jay Briggs is the winemaker at 45 North Vineyard & Winery (a position he’s held for nearly 10 years), but over the course of his career, he’s had experience in both the cellar and the vineyard. This summer, his wines took home medals — including one of only eight Double Gold medals awarded — in the first-ever Judgement of Michigan. Here, he talks about how he got into the industry, what’s new at 45 North this fall, and Michigan wines.

Q: How did you get into winemaking?
A: I got into the wine industry through beer, actually. I was brewing a lot of beer living in Lansing at my house, and I thought I wanted to be a brewer, but I instead heard about a program at Michigan State that had to do with wine and vineyards, so I took a couple classes and ended up liking it a lot. I started at MSU in 2000, and in 2004, we moved up to Traverse City. I was the vineyard manager at Shady Lane Cellars from ’04 to 2012, and moved into the cellar and the winery more around 2010 there. And then in 2012, [I] took this job at 45 North, and that’s kind of where I am now. I thought I would always be a grape grower, but I guess not!

Q: What can guests look forward to this fall at 45 North Vineyard & Winery? Why should people come visit?
A: The atmosphere of 45 North, we like to think of it as family. It’s a family-run winery for the most part. Pretty much all the people involved with the winery day to day are related to the ownership as well. Everybody likes to treat everybody like family here. It’s relaxed — the wines are serious, but the atmosphere is pretty relaxed.

We have covered areas on our deck so people can not feel pressure to sit inside, especially now, but by all means we do have tables inside the tasting room as well. Fall into winter, I’m not sure when the igloos will be put back up, but we’ll put the igloos back up at some point, probably in November. So look for the reservation for those to go live. They were pretty popular last year for obvious reasons. That’s a neat thing, to come sit outside but inside. So [we’ll have] a couple of really cool seating options.

We’re rolling into fall with seven red wines on the menu — that’s a lot for us. I think that’s a lot for most Michigan wineries. We’re pretty much focused on Cabernet Franc and Merlot and that blend, but we also have Pinot Noir, and we have a Lemberger right now, and we have another blend — a semidry red blend — as well. So there’s something for everyone in the red wine category, from really light to, in my opinion, a heavier Cabernet Franc–Merlot blend.

Q: Could you tell us about your Cabernet Franc and Merlot blends and what makes them special?
A: So, Cabernet Franc is planted pretty widely up here — Merlot as well, but not as much. Cabernet Franc overwinters well for us, but Merlot ripens better. So the two of them, they work really, really well together.

Our four blends are almost the same percentages as far as Cab Franc­–Merlot goes. There’s a little bit of difference (there’s a vintage difference in one of the wines), but we have our house red, which is 45 Red. That’s Cabernet Franc–Merlot. That’s the everyday drinking [one] but still pretty serious. It has a little bit of American oak, a little bit of French oak, some old barrels — not very many new barrels in that program. We like to keep the fruit pronounced a little bit more there. Our straight Cabernet Franc–Merlot label is getting more into … new oak, probably in the neighborhood of 15% to 20% new oak. And a lot of that new oak is going to be American oak, because I think that product does really well with a nice smoke and bigger toast that American oak lends to that profile.

And then we have two brand-new releases that are basically just barrel specific. We have a product called Veritas, and that’s a limited production, right around 100 cases. And that’s specifically [in] puncheons, which are twice the size of a regular barrel. That keeps the fruit really bright. Red fruit — raspberries, cherries — the tannins are really supple. They’re not as pronounced. It’s more of a round tannin than a typical dry-your-mouth-out tannin. So that’s pretty cool. Really aromatic, very pretty. And the last one is definitely the heaviest one. It’s called SPG. And that’s an ode to our late proprietor of 45 North — those were his initials. It’s four different barrels: two American oak and two French oak barrels. It’s a very deep, dark color, lots of black fruit as opposed to the red fruit. Some tobacco, some leather. And it’s just a bigger wine than the other three. And that’s another 90-case production as well, so very limited.

Q: 45 North recently won a Double Gold medal at the first-ever Judgement of Michigan. What was that like?
A: Definitely humbling. All of us are used to the Michigan Wine Competition, and those were always cool, to get the “Best of” [awards]. To have this competition be so much different and be judged by people who are actually out doing the work of selling the wine — it was very humbling to get the recognition of Double Gold, that’s for sure. It’s very humbling for those folks to say, “Hey! This is really good.” And I think giving less medals out does a couple things: It keeps everybody honest, and it doesn’t dilute the competition as much, either.

Q: What would you like people to know about Michigan wines?
A: Drink them. There are so many now, and the quality surpasses anything that people used to say or still say about Michigan wine. Our wines are not only winning awards in our own state but winning awards nationally, getting recognized internationally. It’s really hard to break into the public, with so much [from] Washington, Oregon, California, but I would just say, just drink it. Go out, take a chance. It’s not all sweet, unless you like sweet, and there’s plenty of sweet wine, but the old adage that all Michigan wine is sweet and we can’t make red wines, those days are over. There are a lot of people making very serious wines in the state all over. If you can’t find something that you enjoy that’s made in Michigan, then you really don’t like wine a whole lot.

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