When it comes to learning about a wine region, books will only get you so far. Really grasping what makes a particular viticultural area and its corresponding products unique starts with — you guessed it — travel.
That’s how Jeremy Duggan, the sommelier and general manager at the Dusty’s Cellar wine bar and restaurant in Okemos, views the world of wine education.
“Travel has always been the holy grail and also the most educational part of being a wine professional,” he says. “You can read about things in books, but until you actually are there on the ground talking to the winemakers, you really can’t understand, to a certain depth, what the subject matter is.”
Duggan is no stranger to travel. In fact, a trip to Europe more than 20 years ago turned his existing spark of interest in wine into a full-blown flame of enthusiasm that would alter the Michigan native’s entire career trajectory.
“I worked for this small little bookstore called Amazon.com, back when they just actually sold books,” he says. “That was my college job, and then they had me help open up the branch in England, and then they had me open up the branch in Germany. But between the two, I ended up with three weeks off.
“So I rented a car, and I … traveled through Burgundy. I went to Geneva. I went to the Moselle. … That really transformed my life in terms of wine.”
Duggan ultimately switched gears from pursuing graduate school to diving headlong into the wine industry. Throughout his journey, he’s explored wine regions out West — such as Sonoma, California —and even worked at Michigan’s own Fenn Valley Vineyards in Fennville. Now, Duggan is back home in Michigan and immersed in wine — including the state’s own. He even served as a judge at the 2021 Judgement of Michigan wine evaluation.
Here, we caught up with Duggan to get his take on wine and food pairings, helping tasters find vinos they enjoy, and Michigan’s “best red varietal.”
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What are the most common wine-related questions you get from guests at Dusty’s?
A: Usually, it’s like, “What’s good?” — which is not a really helpful question, because it all depends on the person that you’re talking to. It’s not so much about what questions we get — it’s about what questions we ask. You need to ask a couple questions and figure out what people like. Do they like a fruit-forward wine? Do they like an earthier wine? Do they want something that’s on the drier side? Something that’s on the fruit-forward side? So they can say, “What Chardonnay would you recommend?” But at that particular point, it’s all about what I prefer, and what I prefer is not going to be the same thing that most customers prefer. I’ve been in the industry a long time. I like high-acid white wines from northern Europe and really tannic red wines from Italy and France and small producers from Oregon and California that maybe no one’s ever heard of here in Michigan. So for me, the key is that you ask questions of the guest rather than answer questions. And so I kind of flip it on them: “Well, what do you like? What have you liked in the past? What are you looking for? What are you going to eat?” I find by engaging with the customer that way, we really have the best experience.
Q: What’s your No. 1 tip for pairing wine with food?
A: Wine’s primary goal, in my opinion, is adding acidity. A lot of things where people would think that red wine is maybe the best choice, actually a lot of white wines [are]. If you’re pairing cheese and charcuterie, you’d think a lot of people would be like, “Oh, well, red wine.” But actually, white wine is probably more suitable to most of those things. And you can even look at Austria or Germany as an example, or even northern Michigan, where those grape varietals do very well. You think of German food or Austrian food — it’s not light salad fare. It’s a lot of pork. It’s a lot of sausage. It’s a lot of savory, northern-climate vegetables and things along those lines. But the wines that they make there are white wines, for the most part. That’s because the acidity will help cleanse the palate.
Globally speaking, comparing culinary traditions from around the world, American food is low in acidity, if you compare it to, say, Japanese food, Chinese food, Indian food, Thai food, where you have more lemon, lime, vinegars, things along those lines going into it. My first job as a sommelier when I’m working with a chef is that if the chef isn’t going with acidity, that’s my job. Because acidity is like salt. It really enhances and causes the food to pop in the mouth. Without acidity, you can get a bland palate of various foods, the same way you can if you don’t have enough salt. But we have no trouble adding salt or fat to food in the United States; those are two things we do really, really well. But we don’t have a lot of acidity naturally. So if you think of squeezing a lime on top of a fish taco, that is the role of wine with so many different cuisines. The Italians would never dream of having food without wine, and they’d never dream of having wine without food. But typically, their wines are pretty high in acid, despite the fact that the food is really, really rich and dense and high in starch and high in fat. But the acidity cuts through the fat and the starch and cleanses the mouth.
Q: Do you have a favorite wine and food pairing? Maybe something unexpected or unusual?
A: I don’t know that it’s necessarily unexpected, but I love Grüner Veltliner with spring peas and green beans and radishes because it’s a savory white wine that has a little bit of a peppery note, and so it goes so perfectly well. Michigan examples are wonderful as well. If you think about a primavera style of cuisine where you’ve got spinach and snap peas and radishes and things that come out of the ground in June here in Michigan — you can even get into high-acid cherry tomatoes and things like that — I find Grüner Veltliner or a dry Riesling work really wonderfully with that.
You’ve got classic examples like Chablis or Champagne with scallops or shellfish, where everybody that you talk to is going to tell you that these are things that go really, really well together. But I find Grüner Veltliner goes well with the springtime flavors, particularly what we get from farms and tables here in Michigan. I love Michigan wine in particular, so this would be my “outside the box.” Michigan does really good Pinot Gris, Pinot Grigio, really good Riesling, really good Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay sparkling wine. I love these flavors with Indian cuisine and Southeast Asian cuisine. The savory spices and the heat — but without being an overwhelming heat — of those particular flavors go fantastic with the wines that we make here in Michigan because Michigan has really high acidity in its wine. It’s a cool climate. So that is one of my favorites: Indian cuisine with northern Michigan Pinot Gris, Riesling, or Gewürztraminer.
Q: You were a judge for the 2021 Judgement of Michigan wine evaluation. What did you learn about Michigan wine from that experience?
A: There are some red varietals in particular that are doing well here that people don’t necessarily think of. Cabernet Franc does really, really well in clay soil, which we’ve got a lot of. If you go to Southwest Michigan, over into the Peach Belt, I’ve had some cool-climate Syrah that is fantastic. These were some of the unexpected delights that I found in the last few years in Michigan. My favorite red wine from Michigan is Cabernet Franc. I enjoy the Merlots that I’ve had as well because they’re not so hot and overextracted the way that California’s Merlots are, where they’re kind of flabby and big and soft. They have real definition the way you would have in Bordeaux. But the Cabernet Franc, with its savory nature, was one of the surprises at the tasting, and I find it to be Michigan’s best red varietal. But I was also surprised by a couple of Syrahs that I tasted from Lemon Creek and places along those lines, where you’re growing them down in Berrien County. So Syrah from the south and Cab Franc from [the Old] Mission Peninsula and Leelanau would be the biggest surprises in terms of what I’ve begun to enjoy and what I think can compete with anywhere in the United States in terms of quality.