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Posted on Tue, May 1, 2012 : 5 a.m.

Michigan wine: An interview with Channing Sutton, tasting room manager at 45 North

By Sarah Smallwood

I am the first to admit I don’t know much about wine.

I had always been a white wine drinker, whatever was sweet and cheap, getting the two-for-one specials to accommodate my large family at holidays. Recently, however, my friends had turned oenophile, bringing bottles to the table upwards of 20 bucks a pop and insisting they tasted cherries or cinnamon in the tall black bottles. I tasted cough syrup, and soon after, Diet Coke.

So when I got the opportunity to meet with Channing Sutton, assistant tasting room manager at 45 North in Leelanau Peninsula, I thought I would finally get some insight into how “tasting” wine is different from drinking it.

That’s how I found myself in their parking lot, alone, a large dog trotting determinedly toward me.

I do know a thing or two about dogs. One: don’t run from them. They hate that. And they show hate by chasing and eating you. Two: If they are approaching you steadily, stand your ground, check for a collar, and above all act like you absolutely belong there.

I walked steadily toward him, calling in a cheery voice. Instantly, his tongue rolled out in a smile. Jack, as he was named, followed me into the tasting room, where I was greeted by an orange pit bull rolling on its back. I wandered up to the bar, where three other patrons were chatting and tasting. I put down my bag and picked up a paper tasting menu.

“Hey there,” a young curly-haired woman greeted me. She is slight and striking, with blue-green eyes and freckles on her nose. “What can I get for you?”

I told her I was looking for Channing.

“That’s me!” She shook my hand and offered me a tasting while she called someone over to cover for her. In the short time it took to pull relief from the back, I had tasted Pinot Gris, a blush, a red I couldn’t handle and a peach fizzy thing that took me back to the first time I got my little sister drunk.

Now buzzed, Channing asked if I would mind taking a walk, since the weather had stayed so nice. I agreed, a little swayingly. Three dogs followed behind us into the vineyard, where she related the sad tale of the vineyard’s beginnings:

“Between the deer and the birds, they ate two tons,” she said, showing me what remained of the grapes. “The next Monday, another ton was gone.” The dogs are ahead of us, and then behind, then ahead. The property is vast, and is one of the more beautiful vineyards of Leelanau. I noted that the hills remind me of Scotland.

“Right?” she responds, in that easy mid-20s way. She is immediately the older sister you want to impress, if your older sister were seven years younger and 10 times more together. And she has to be: late October is the harvest season, and tomorrow, Saturday, is the busiest day of the year.

“If it’s raining, people come in because they can’t take out their boats — and if it’s nice out, we’re slammed.” She concedes that the party buses — the bachelorette parties or company outings — are largely annoying. They can take up 20 spaces at the bar, talk loudly, complain about what they don’t like, take advantage of the complimentary pours — and usually don’t buy anything.

“They’re basically coming up here to get drunk,” she says. It’s typical behavior on the harvest weekends — when several vineyards host special events, largely for tourists, and the tasting room gets so busy that employees are relegated to bartenders.

“My favorite days are Wednesdays in the fall,” she says, “when the locals come out, the people who come up on Columbus Day weekend, like they do every year. They love the area, they want to know where else they should go — they want to talk, and we have time to talk to them.”

She squints into the sun at the topmost hill.

“Wanna take a little hike?” she asks.

Suddenly I’m puddle jumping, jacket tied around my waist and purse tucked under my arm. She’s leaping from branch to rock, calling back teasingly to get me over the brook. All the time, she's gesturing up to the hills, to the side of the small pond in the valley between upper and lower vineyards, talking of plans for the landscape: a gazebo for weddings, boardwalks — even tracks for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing now that Sugarloaf has closed down.

She takes me to the top of the hill overlooking the vineyard, and we stand quietly, marveling at the view.

“I am so spoiled,” she says finally.

She didn’t realize it at first. She was born here (alas, not one of the Suttons of Suttons Bay; although she is willing to fake it). Her whole family lives in the area — her younger brother works at the winery, her mother is a massage therapist in Lake Leelanau, and her father lives in Traverse City. It would be your typical born-and-raised story — except for three years, this local wasn’t even a resident.

When her grandfather passed away in 2005, Channing used her inheritance to buy a house in Traverse City. She decided not to go to Western University to run track as she had planned, but rather to pursue Child Psychiatry at Wayne State.

Like so many other students, she realized in her fourth year that it wasn’t what she wanted to do.

“It was just so disheartening,” she sighs. “I thought it would be great, because I loved kids,” she says, “but you realize, you see these kids three times a week… and then they’re going right back into that same environment.”

Eager for a change, she moved to Georgia with her boyfriend, and they become engaged soon after. She insisted on paying for the wedding herself, so she took another job — this time, as a waitress at Seasons 52 in Atlanta, where George Miliotes was the master sommelier. She was not yet 21, so tasting was under the table.

“He said ‘licorice,’ and I thought, now I got it!” It was such an eye opener, she explained, to have someone take her through a tasting, suggesting flavors and exploring her palette. Her experience built on the foundation of her first wine influence, Alan Eacker. This is the kind of guy who didn’t just answer questions — you’d find yourself still talking after four hours, several more answers and questions spiraling from the original.

“He’s the reason I love wine the way I do,” she admits. It wasn’t a realization; she was getting a foothold into something she’d always been.

She considered being a sommelier, or a buyer. The problem was, she wanted to focus on Michigan wines — not just a list of wines that she could tell flavors and acidity and guide you through a tasting. She was getting a worldview of wine, she said, but not enough of the process.

She moved to Northern California after she and her boyfriend separated. She took advantage of some friends in the wine business, touring Napa and St. Helena, and she loved the less commercial, purely wine-passionate atmosphere.

“I wasn’t planning on coming back here,” she says, watching the dogs rolling in the leaves. Last August, she came back to Leelanau for a girlfriend’s wedding. While driving up 22, Channing remarked to her friend how spoiled they were to have grown up with so much beauty around them. The friend, who had never left the state, thought she was nuts.

“What are you talking about? I can’t wait to leave!” She went on with words like ‘boring’ and ‘farming’ and ‘Chicago,’ as so many Midwestern teenagers will do. Channing was baffled.

“I thought, ‘You do not understand what this is, here.’”

Two months later, she was back in Leelanau. She was hired at Shady Lane, and worked there for about two weeks before the ex-tasting room manager of 45 North called and offered her a job.

“They paid more, so I went.” she laughs.

It was the confluence of growing, production and tasting that she had been looking for. Since all of the employees are local, everyone involved has a personal stake in the winery. “We’ve all grown up here, had to make money, we all had three jobs to pay the electric bill.”

“This is not just about wine tasting,” she says. “This is our heart.”

I confessed that, until two years ago, I had no idea that wineries even existed in Michigan. Channing is not surprised.

“Within the last 10 years, there’s been a change in the wine industry,” she affirms. Despite the economic — and seasonal — climate, the wine connoisseurs have started to take notice. Michigan wines are finally starting to get respect in the larger circles — and thank goodness.

“If it weren’t for [the wine industry], I wouldn’t be here.”

Her mother instilled Channing and her brother with a love of travel when they were young. “You travel, you go see the world, find what you want to do.”

“I love Thailand, I love the canals — I like the ocean in California; the redwoods are awesome. But the diversity that you get here, it’s like nowhere else in the world. Five minutes in any direction in Leelanau County and you hit fresh water. That is nowhere else in the world. And I took it for granted, growing up here. It took being away to realize it.”

Sadly, her journey is far from over. If she wants to do it all — winemaker, tasting room manager, cellar master and vineyard manager — she’s the first to admit she’s got a lot to learn. She has plans to go back out west, to be immersed in the industry for two or three years to learn how to fix any problem, solve any crisis, before she owns her own vineyard.

She was originally interested in a parcel of land on Leelanau, but the asking price was $12-14,000 per acre. On top of planting costs for seven acres, she just didn’t have the overhead — not surprising for a 23-year-old.

In Oregon, she explains, she can get $8-10,000 per acre. Her plan is to buy acreage there, start her vines, split her time between Leelanau and Oregon, and when her own vines start producing she will ship them back to Leelanau if there is still land available. All this in the plural; “we’re going to Oregon; we’re going to own our own vineyard.”

I ask her who the ‘we’ refers to.

“My dogs,” she laughs. “We’re always ‘we.’” She has several tattoos dedicated to the dogs, and she gets a new one every year on her birthday. One, I noticed on her pinky finger: a sunset.

“Or sunrise,” she is quick to add. “There’s always another day to come.”

I ask if she’s using 45 North as a model of her own vineyard. She nods, then pauses. “We’ve had a lot of things go abysmally wrong out there,” she says with a smile.

For all that went wrong, a lot went exactly right. “I have to say, for only being in our third year, every day, our parking lot is full. The staff is educated, and everyone here wants to be in the wine industry.”

Even David Hill, the winemaker that replaced Sean, grew up in the area. Despite the terrible harvest, Dave produced 13 wines in his first year as a winemaker. Between the Pacific Rim and Long Beach Grand Cru competitions, those wines won nine awards.

Dave Hill wanders by. He and Channing chat while I collect my notes, one of the dogs drooling on my jacket. Channing returns bearing apples from a barrel at the distillery door. I ask her the question that makes employees balk: How is Steve Grossnickle as a boss?

She immediately lights up. “I throw him behind the bar when he’s up here,” she laughs. “‘Go, Steve, talk to people.’ He has such a passion, loves blending flavors… he just has the heart behind it.” He’s getting increasingly involved in the tasting room and website, which makes the staff happy. She acknowledges that all the changes have been hard on him, but he’s rolled with them.

“Everything you do wrong, you learn not to do next time.”

Dave returns with two glasses: one of a white, still fermenting, and one of a cold, delicious-looking red. The white is still in the barrel, slightly foamy and full of bubbles. In its unfinished state, it tastes like mimosa.

The red turned out to be a cabernet that was too young to have turned dry. As a red wine wimp, I can’t handle dry wines. It was basically the best grape juice you ever had, and thick like blackberry syrup. I wanted to pour it on pancakes.

With two obviously knowledgeable winemakers in front of me, I can’t resist asking a stupid question: a wine recommendation for me and my boyfriend. He drinks red, I like white. He likes spicy food, I can’t stand it. Can we ever agree on a wine?

“Our semi-dry Riesling,” she says instantly. “With spicy food, it’s wonderful, because there’s a slight pucker on the palate—not a sweet Riesling, it needs to be a little dry. I love it with Pad Thai.” I confess an overwhelming love of Pad Thai and add the label to my notes.

I told her that on my last wine tour, we visited nine wineries, and I only came home with three bottles. One was the cherry dessert from 45 North. She looks ashamed for a moment, and then recalls a night where she and a friend made brownies — with the rather genius addition of dried cherries, chocolate chips, and cherry dessert wine straight into the batter.

“It was sinful,” she says. “We ate the entire pan.”

After we chat for a while about wine — Dave about the process, me about the flavor, and Channing about everything in between — Dave drives back up to the road, waving and saying that it was nice to meet me. It’s getting chilly in the shade, an in a strange moment, we get up and tacitly agree to walk back to the tasting room. It is exactly that quality of Northern Michigan: the sense of place directly tied to the land, the contented state that only happens at the side of Lake Michigan.

It would be wistful, I think, if it weren’t so tied to the present, to possibility. Like Channing, like all Up North natives, to be at once excited for the future and yet in no particular hurry to get there. You can’t be: the land is wine, the people are company, and the view is home.

As I’m leaving, a couple at the bar recognizes Channing, exclaiming “Oh my God, you are still here!” She goes over with smiles and handshakes, catching up with them. I walk back out to the parking lot with the semi-dry Riesling, two bottles of the pinot gris, and the cherry dessert.

When I reach my car, Hemet, the Yorkie, is at my feet with a stick. I throw it dutifully, not needing to pretend that I belong.

Sarah Smallwood is a freelance writer living and working in Ann Arbor. She can be found by email at heybeedoo at gmail dot com.