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Buzzing in Benzie

Wine enthusiasts can soothe their need for mead at St. Ambrose Cellars

Tucked away in rural Benzie County, west of Traverse City, sits St. Ambrose Cellars, a honey of a winery — I mean, meadery. Given its remote location, it’s unlikely to be an accidental drive-by while exploring the beautiful northwest region near Sleeping Bear Dunes. But whether skiing at nearby Crystal Mountain in the winter or touring in the summer, it is well worth taking the time to buzz over to St. Ambrose and check it out.  

Depending upon the time of year, visitors may first be struck by the hundreds of bee hives resting behind the winery/warehouse/production facility/tasting room. This is not a typical winery. The utilitarian tasting room is sandwiched between stainless steel fermentation tanks and the business end of the winery — no frills here. The tasting room staff is friendly, and the visitor might even be greeted and hosted by the passionate and affable proprietor/wine maker, Kirk Jones. 

A visit here can be a three-for-one experience, presenting the opportunity to taste a variety of meads, traditional grape wines and a variety of honeys created by sister company, Sleeping Bear Farms — one of the largest apiaries in the country.  Indeed, its bees pollinate almond trees in California, star thistle in Benzie County and tupelo trees in Florida. That tupelo honey can be purchased at the tasting room or in its fermented form as the delicious tupelo mead. 

Mead is one of the oldest fermented beverages. In its traditional form, mead is a combination of honey and wine, but it is sometimes flavored with other additives. Michigan has an ever-expanding array of wineries making wine from grapes, but very few with an added mead specialty. 

The St. Ambrose Benzie County star thistle mead is a traditional style with overtones of citrus, flowers and honey in the nose, a soft, viscous texture and a sweet edge — but not too sweet. It is light-bodied with a citrusy component to the bouquet, and is a good food wine. The tupelo ambrosia mead presents with pronounced honey aromas and deeper, richer flavors with a lasting finish. There is also an oak barrel reserve mead, adding a layer of complexity including notes of vanilla, apple, citrus and a tangy acid component on the finish. Semi-dry Riesling drinkers may enjoy this mead, although Riesling typically does receive oak aging.

Crossing over into hybrid territory, Dancing Bear Amber is made from 34 percent grapes and 66 percent honey. A semi-sweet pyment (mead made partially with grapes), it presents with a sweeter profile but still smells of star thistle. A rosé ambrosia, with a similar blend, leans more toward a traditional grape wine nose with a peppery component. There is also elder flower nectar, made with elder flower petal infusion and star thistle honey and cherry amoré — a tasty combination of cherries, local grapes and honey. Cherry dominates this flavor profile. It is not too tart, with cherry cobbler and cherry cough syrup components (in a good way) and a cleansing finish.  

St. Ambrose also has an expanding portfolio of 100 percent grape wines, including a port style wine made from the Frontenac grape, showing pipe tobacco overtones and chocolate torte. There are also a variety of traditional wines including Cabernet Franc, Marsanne-Viognier (a southern Rhone style white wine which is rich and complex), late harvest dessert wines from Vignoles and Riesling, Traminette from southwest Michigan’s Berrien County, Pinot Noir from Benzie County, Merlot and Cabernet Franc from the Herman Vineyard in Berrien County and a variety of other offerings.  

A visit to the winery/meadery/apiary is both fun and educational.  For an advance virtual taste, check out stambrose-mead-wine.com and sleepingbearfarms.com. 

MSU Museum Wine Tasting Benefit 

Closer to home, mid-Michigan wine aficionados simply should not miss the MSU Museum Wine Tasting Benefit at 7 p.m. March 15 at Kellogg Center. This is a premier annual wine tasting opportunity. Approximately 25 tasting tables will present more than 150 wines from dozens of national and international wineries.  

Consumers can taste a variety of wines in distribution, make evaluative decisions about wines to purchase for the cupboard or the cellar at home and either order the wines on site for later delivery at Goodrich’s Shoprite or construct a list of wines that can be ordered later.  

The event also includes appetizers, live music, and a silent auction. Many of the wines will be presented by importers, distributors and proprietors who will answer questions about the wines.  This event is akin to 25 tasting rooms wrapped up into one giant event.  

Tickets are $45 and available at the MSU Museum store, Goodrich’s Shoprite and online at museum.msu.edu. As a bonus, your ticket will provide a dinner discount at Kellogg’s State Room restaurant before or after the event. 

Don’t miss this opportunity to expand your wine knowledge — and your cellar! 

In Vino Veritas

(Michael Brenton is president of the Greater Lansing Vintners Club. His column appears monthly.)


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