Wine, first and foremost, should be fun — and it certainly shouldn’t be intimidating.
So says Michael Schafer, known in the adult-beverage community as The Wine Counselor®. The lawyer-turned-sommelier, based in Troy, Michigan, teaches people — from consumers to restaurant staff to culinary students — all about the wonderful worlds of wine and spirits, making sure his students have fun along the way.
“Wine is made to be enjoyed,” he says, “preferably with food, and preferably with friends.”
We caught up with Schafer to get his take on what Michigan vintners are doing well, wine trends to watch, and food pairings.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What’s your approach to wine education?
A: I like to call it “edutainment.” If I’m educating consumers, then it’s, “Let’s have some fun and let’s learn about wine” — and Michigan wine, of course, in particular. If I’m training restaurant staff or teaching culinary students, it’s kind of the other side of the coin: “Look, we’re here to learn, and we need to learn, but we can also have a lot of fun.”
Q: Can you tell me about your focus on Michigan wine in particular?
A: Michigan wine is world-class. People say, “It’s not like Spanish wine.” Or, “It’s not like Italian wine.” No, it’s not! It’s Michigan. What drives me crazy is someone will say, “Well, it’s good for a Michigan wine.” And that last hook just gets me. No, it’s a really good wine. Period.
Q: What are Michigan winemakers doing particularly well?
A: They are learning what grapes grow best where in Michigan, and that takes time. You can’t rush that. They’re learning the terroir. Cabernet Sauvignon is not, for the most part, going to grow really well in northern Michigan — it’s too cold! Cab Sauv likes a hotter temperature. But Blaufränkisch can grow extremely well in northern Michigan. Blaufränkisch, frankly, is one of the rising stars [here]. There are some really nice Grüner Veltliners being made in Michigan. Another one is Gamay, and Michigan’s Pinot Noirs are excellent. Michigan is going to be known — it is already, and increasingly so — for rosés. Rosés are the second most flexible wine in terms of pairing food and wine; the No. 1 is sparkling, and Michigan also makes some absolutely delectable sparkling wines. Rosés are becoming more and more popular, and they pair well with just about anything, unless you’re talking about dessert.
Q: Why are rosés so easy to pair?
A: Because it’s not white, it’s not red, it’s usually pretty high in acid — depending, of course, on the grape and how it’s made. But it’s very, very flexible. You don’t really have a lot of tannins to contend with, to smooth those out. They’re made in a range of styles, too. Would my first choice to pair with a piece of roast beef or steak be a rosé? No, but for a charcuterie platter or for a lot of appetizers, rosé is right there. Rosés and Coney Islands is pretty good, actually, too.
Q: Is there still a misconception that Michigan only excels at making sweet wine?
A: Yes. That is the most prevalent, and there’s a conception that Michigan wines are really fruity. Well, the word “fruity” is kind of disingenuous. What I do, especially if I’m doing a private tasting, is pour the wines, and I will not tell the clients what they are. If a wine smells very fruity — if the nose is more fruit than baking spices or terroir or the other parts of what wines are — people will smell it, and I’ll say, “What does it smell like, other than grapes?” If it smells like pineapple or tropical fruit, as a Pinot Grigio might, then it kicks in: “OK, if it smells fruity, it’s sweet.” Not necessarily so.
Q: When a wine lover is at the grocery store, why should they consider grabbing a Michigan bottle off the shelf?
A: Nine times out of 10, they’re going to be pleasantly surprised. There are a lot of great values in the marketplace. There are some Michigan wines that are rather pricey as well. And there is so much diversity now in Michigan wine that they can get a bold red if they want. They can get their sweet wine. They can get a crisp, zesty, zingy, refreshing white wine. They can find a wine that is going to complement their meal — easily, very easily. And, again, we’re world-class.
Learn more about The Wine Counselor® and his classes, events, and trainings at thewinecounselor.com.
This Q&A originally appeared in the 2022 Michigan Wine Country magazine.