Serving up Tasty Mac & Cheese at Chateau Chantal
Serving up Tasty Mac & Cheese at Chateau Chantal

By MIKE NORTON Each November, on the first Saturday after Thanksgiving, lovers of good food and wine flock to the vine-covered slopes of the Old Mission Peninsula for one of the year's quirkiest and tastiest events . There, in the cozy tasting rooms of the Peninsula's seven wineries - 2 Lads, Chateau Chantal, Chateau Grand Traverse, Bowers Harbor Vineyards, Brys Estate, Peninsula Cellars and Black Star Farms/Old Mission -- they ease their turkey-sated palates with tall glasses of Pinot Grigio, Riesling and Chardonnay and platters of macaroni and cheese. That's right: mac and cheese. That homely staple of family suppers, TV dinners and church potlucks. That icon of bland familiarity. But here at The Great Macaroni & Cheese Bake-Off, the food is anything but humble. Some of the best chefs in the Traverse City area -- whose restaurants have been winning raves for their innovative regional cuisine -- compete each year to concoct new versions of this traditional comfort food. Consider for a moment the possibilities of a cheddar-ale mac & cheese. Or one made with, say, walnuts and gorgonzola, or lobster with brie. The cheesy possibilities are almost endless, and competing chefs in past years have blended such concoctions as cavatappi pasta blended with goat cheese and white truffle oil with crumbled biscotti cookies sprinkled over the top, or a Reuben mac with noodles, corned beef, and Thousand Island dressing. "We call it macaroni and cheese, but it's really gourmet pasta," says Liz Berger of Chateau Chantal, one of the five wineries that participate in the annual Bake-Off, held this year on Saturday, Nov. 26. "The idea is a natural, because cheese pairs so nicely with wine." The Bake-Off began some years ago when employees of the Peninsula wineries decided it would be a great way to unwind after the Thanksgiving holiday. And if they could promote their wines and raise a little money for some worthy local cause in the process, so much the better. The idea was an instant success. For years, the vineyards of Old Mission have been producing award-winning Rieslings, Gewurztraminers, Chardonnays, Pinot Grigios, Pinot Noirs and Cabernet Francs whose fresh, crisp taste has demolished snobbish stereotypes about Michigan wine. And as it happens, they go particularly well with rich, creamy dishes like macaroni & cheese. But visitors to the region are drawn as much by the magnificent setting that surrounds the wineries -- the Old Mission Peninsula is a narrow 18-mile ridge of land surrounded by the deep blue waters of Grand Traverse Bay, and it hasn't known an ugly day since the last glacier rolled out of town 10,000 years ago. It's also a great bargain. Admission to the entire event, which lasts from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., is just $40 per person, which gets you a souvenir wine glass and wine/pasta tastings at all seven wineries. Tickets can be purchased ahead of time -- and personally, I recommend getting them well ahead of time. Tickets for the Great Macaroni & Cheese Bake-Off are on sale at http://store.chateauchantal.com/store/product/198/Mac-%26-Cheese-Ticket. For more details, call (231) 933-9787. Details about other wine events can be obtained from the Wineries of Old Mission Peninsula (WOMP). Bon appetit!