‘It’s All About the People’

Michigan wine superfan Mark Hanlin talks about what makes a great tasting experience
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Mark Hanlin (center) at Fenn Valley Vineyards with his wife, Angela (far left), and friends. Photo courtesy of Mark Hanlin

Michigan’s wine scene looks a lot different today than it did 30 years ago.

Mark Hanlin, a financial planner who has lived in Marshall since the early 1990s, has had a front-row seat to watch the industry boom from fewer than 30 wineries to nearly 200. “Wineries have now become destinations,” he says.

Hanlin and his wife, Angela, are longtime regulars at Fenn Valley Vineyards in Fennville, where they’ve become friends with owner Doug Welsch, and they have visited many other wineries in Southwest and Northwest Michigan and elsewhere in the U.S.

Hanlin has learned a lot along the way. “If ever we go to a tasting bar, I ask a lot of questions about the wine,” he says. “We’ve learned what to ask about. Taste, obviously, is the most important thing, but we’ve also learned about the processing: Is it in oak barrels? Is it in stainless steel vats? How is the pressing done? What’s the Brix or the sugar level or the sweetness of the wine when it’s picked and when it’s bottled? I wouldn’t call myself a sommelier or a connoisseur, but I probably am the person that people ask when we go out with a group: ‘What do you think we should have, Mark?’”

Here, we chatted with Hanlin to learn more about his favorite Michigan wines, what goes into a great tasting experience, and how to prepare for a visit to a winery.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you tell me about a few of your favorite Michigan wines?
Obviously, most of the ones that Fenn Valley makes we like. The Classic Chardonnay — which is the one made in the oak barrels — is a good one. However, my wife doesn’t like oak, so she likes their True Chardonnay, which is [made in] stainless steel. We really like those. The Capriccio is a good red blend. Once in a while, they will come out with a specialty Merlot Reserve. We really like that.

Warner Vineyards is another winery that we spend a lot of time at because they have a tasting room in Marshall. We had the 2 Cab/Merlot — that is a good one. Also, they have the traditional Chardonnay and Rieslings there that we like. There’s a white blend that’s called Grapes of Love; it’s a little too sweet for me, but it’s still a very good wine.

And then some of the ones we like Up North are some of the more established wineries: Leelanau Cellars, Good Harbor, and Black Star are ones that we’ve all liked up there, although we don’t get to those as often as we used to.

Let’s talk about Fenn Valley for a minute. Can you tell me what you like so much about that winery and why you keep going back?
It’s the people, and like anything, if you have a great product but you don’t have somebody promoting it, it doesn’t matter. I’ve been in sales at one time or another since I was 13 years old, and it’s all about the people. And these people like people. They are always very welcoming. They’re glad to see us. If I have an issue, they take care of it. I’ve gotten to know Doug Welsch very well. I actually count him as a friend now. And oftentimes when we go there with a group, he will take our group off to a different room and do something special for us. So it’s all about the people.

Warner is the same way. We’ve gotten to know the people that are operating [the tasting room in Marshall] very well, and if you have that relationship with somebody, that’s what keeps you coming back. And that’s, in my mind, what sells your product — your relationships.

When you’re going to a tasting room, what does an ideal tasting experience look like to you?
Availability of what they have to offer [matters]. Sometimes they don’t offer all of their wines, which is fine, but I want to try at least five, and a range from dry to sweet. Even though I’m not a sweet-wine person, it still will give you a good comparison. I want to know how that complexity was developed, if it is [complex]. I don’t have a good smeller, so I rely on my wife to smell the wine and tell me what the bouquet is because if it doesn’t have a good nose, I don’t know it. I want to know why they made it this way and what were the winemaker’s decisions to go that route — if the information’s available. Sometimes, people that work in tasting bars don’t always have that information, but if they can give it to me, that’s great. If they can’t give it to me, then I just rely on my senses.

Do you have any tips for other people interested in going wine tasting?
The most important thing is to know where you’re going. If you’re with a group of people, you may want to make it a long weekend or, like we used to do, go up to Traverse City and spend the whole week. Obviously, if you’re driving yourself, you need to have a designated driver, most importantly.

I don’t think you should go in there with expectations: “Well, I’m going to try their Merlot, but I like the Merlot at this winery better, so this one won’t be as good.” Don’t go in with expectations. Go in open-mindedly, expect to experience it, don’t be afraid to ask questions — those people are there to help you — and hopefully when you walk out, you’ll have a good understanding of the wines you just had. Have fun and enjoy the experience.

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