By MIKE NORTON
When Ed O’Keefe looked out over Grand Traverse Bay in 1974 from a high ridge on the Old Mission Peninsula, he saw what no one had seen there before: the perfect terrain for growing Riesling grapes.
Thus began the great “Riesling boom” that sparked Traverse City’s phenomenal wine industry, which now numbers nearly 40 wineries on Old Mission and the neighboring Leelanau Peninsula and produces a diverse range of Chardonnays, Pinots, Cabernets, Gewürztraminers and other varietals. O’Keefe’s Chateau Grand Traverse still dominates that ridge above the bay, and is still devoted largely to Riesling, the grape that started it all.
This summer, Traverse City winemakers and restaurateurs will celebrate the 40th anniversary of that event with a three-day event called City of Riesling. It’s the brainchild of Sean O’Keefe and sommelier Amanda Danielson, owner of two top-rated Traverse City restaurants – Trattoria Stella and The Franklin – as well as renowned wine writer Stuart Pigott.
Pigott’s newest book, Best White Wine on Earth: The Riesling Story, will be introduced during the event. He has visited the region twice before, and has described it as a place "where some of the best Riesling wines in America are produced." Scheduled for July 26-28, “City of Riesling” is intended to blend seamlessly into the annual Traverse City Film Festival (July 29 – Aug. 3).
“It’s fitting that Traverse City should be the location for the most ambitious presentation of my book, because it's not only the centre of one of America's most innovative Riesling regions, but also one of the most creative cities in the entire country,” ” said Pigott. “Your wines retain a lightness of touch but depth of character that is quite remarkable. That’s a pretty neat combination that a lot more ought to be talked about.”
Danielson, for her part, believes that the three-day celebration can dispel some of the myths about Riesling, which is widely thought of as a “sweet wine” unworthy of serious consideration. Like Pigott, she feels the wine should be presented as something fun and approachable.
Still the most widely-planted and versatile grape grown in the Traverse City area, Riesling is instantly recognizable by its rich fruity perfume. Best known in its semi-dry and sweet styles, it also makes a fine dry wine.
“Many sweet Rieslings are lovely, but those who avoid the grape altogether because they don't like ‘sweet wine’ are missing out on some of the best white wines on earth,” said Danielson. “This weekend is about having a great time showcasing a grape that we love in our beautiful wine country.”
City of Riesling begins with Saturday Riesling tastings at the individual wineries of the Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas. Sunday starts with a “Riesling Oyster Riot” at The Little Fleet (Traverse City’s outdoor food truck dock), followed by the world premier screening of Pigott’s short film “Watch Your Back: A Riesling Movie” and The Bar of 100 Rieslings -- a chance to taste a stunning selection of Rieslings from Traverse City and around the world that showcase the range and diversity of the wine along with light food and live music at Clinch Park on Grand Traverse Bay.
The festival concludes Monday at The Franklin restaurant with “Salon Riesling” -- an afternoon release party for Pigott's new book, Best White Wine On Earth: The Riesling Story along with TED-style educational talks enlivened with curated tastings of Rieslings featured in the book paired with food.
Details and ticket information can be found at: http://cityofriesling.com.
Riesling on the vine at Chateau Grand Traverse