Tag Archives: Black Star Farms

Black Star Farms, Part 2: Sirius Winemaking

“I believe in a loving God,” Don said, “because he gave us a way to turn unremarkable grape juice into something alcoholic.”

I don’t drink wine – never developed a taste for it – but I enjoy learning about how it’s made. And Black Star Farms takes its winemaking seriously. Or perhaps I should say, “Sirius-ly” because all their beverage lines are named after stars. (To learn who Don is, and why I was here in the first place, see my previous post.)

Black Star Farms - Inside the wine cave

Inside the “wine cave”. Naturally, we could bring our beverages with us.

Here are some fun facts about winemaking that Don shared with us:

There are wineries in all 50 states today. Michigan has over one hundred wineries and is among the top grape-growing states, although most grapes (80%) go into grape juice instead of wine.

Black Star makes standard red and white wines, fortified dessert wines, and even some ice wine. They also make stronger beverages, such as cherry and apple brandy, and hard cider (which I sampled and found remarkably light-tasting and smooth).

Entrance to the wine cave. They took the top off the hill, built the cave, then put the top back on.)

Entrance to the wine cave. (They took the top off the hill, built the cave, then put the top back on.) The cave stays at a constant 55 degrees year-round.

"Exterminate! Exterminate!" (Sorry, I had a Doctor Who moment for some reason.)

“Exterminate! Exterminate!” (Sorry, I had a Doctor Who moment for some reason.)

The large vats you see here are where the wine ferments. The grape skins collect at the top of the vat and are skimmed off for white wine, or forced back down into the fermenting juice to color it for red wine. Don told us that recently a worker fell into one of these vats and drowned. “His end would have been quick,” he said, “but he got out six times to use the bathroom.” (*)

Sparkling wine is made with younger grapes, which have a higher acid content. When sugar and yeast are added to the juice, the fermentation produces natural carbonation. Instead of being aged in casks, it is fermented in the bottles. These bottles are extra thick and strong to handle the pressure of the carbonation. Black Star cannot call its sparkling wine “champagne” because that term is legally reserved for use only by the Champagne region in France.

Sediment inside a still-fermenting bottle of sparkling wine.

Sediment inside a still-fermenting bottle of sparkling wine.

The residue of yeast and grape solids is removed from sparkling wine in a multi-step process that preserves the carbonation. The bottles are set at an angle with the top pointed down, and rotated a quarter turn each day, so the solids settle in the neck of the bottle. Then the necks are cooled to freeze the plugs. The bottle is uncapped and the pressure shoots the plug out of the bottle, which is then quickly corked.

Black Star Farms - Brandy barrels

Dessert wines have fruit spirits added. This also “fortifies” the wine, which means to increase its alcohol content.

Black Star dessert wines have been served at White House dinners, and their Sirius Maple Dessert Wine remains in stock there as an example of a “truly American” wine.

Ice wine requires at least 8 consecutive days of cold temperatures for the grapes to freeze in the proper manner. Every year the farmers have to decide whether to take the chance that there will be enough cold weather to freeze the grapes and therefore to leave some on the vines after the normal harvest. The risk is that without enough cold weather, those grapes will rot and become useless.

If the weather cooperates, the grapes are harvested at the coldest time of the coldest night, picked up one at a time off the snow. Each grape yields about one drop of concentrated juice. And this is why good ice wine can cost over $100.00 per bottle.

So why, I asked innocently, couldn’t you use a freezer to create ice wine? Don said it could be done, but it’s illegal. According to Wikipedia, wineries in northern Michigan follow German ice wine laws, which dictate that “ice wine” can be made only from grapes that are frozen on the vine. So unless you want to sell “freezer wine,” I guess you’re in for some chilly harvesting.

After this marvelous tour, some of the group went off to the tasting room, while the rest of us headed to the cafe for wood-fired pizzas. Not a bad way to cap off a run!

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(*) Actually, this is an old brewer’s joke. In another variant, it’s a whiskey vat, and when someone falls in, four co-workers jump in to save him, but he fights them off.

Black Star Farms: PR Fitness, Pizza, and a Pig’s Life

Marathons, llamas and wood-fired pizzas? Count me in.

This past Saturday was the Bayshore Marathon in Traverse City, and several fellow PR Fitness runners took part. I did not, as I am running the upcoming Dexter-Ann Arbor half marathon, but I was camping in the area, so after my own run (a measly 9 miles) I joined their post-race celebration at Black Star Farms near Suttons Bay.

I’d never heard of Black Star Farms, but I learned they are well-known for their winemaking, equestrian center, and bed-and-breakfast (an impressive-looking mansion that serves as the inn). They are also a fully operational farm, raising vegetables, fruits, and livestock, which visitors are encouraged to see. And they have a cafe with the aforementioned pizzas.

Not only do llamas provide wool, they are excellent guard animals and chase away predators like coyotes.

Not only do llamas provide wool, they are excellent guard animals and chase away predators like coyotes.

One of our runners knows Don, the managing partner, and he gave us a personal guided tour, filled with stories and a fascinating description of the farm and its operations. Here are a few highlights:

– They have a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, where people prepay for shares in the farm’s produce and receive regular deliveries of fresh, in-season vegetables and fruits as well as eggs and baked goods.

– The farm is environmentally verified for farmstead and cropping by MAEAP, which means they are following practices that support the environment and reduce pollution.

This experimental hothouse is inexpensive to set up and can grow crops ten months out of the year.

This experimental hothouse is inexpensive to set up and can grow crops ten months out of the year. (Click to enlarge)

– Don tries to encourage young people who want to be farmers by making land available to them and helping get their operations started.

In addition to being a good steward of the land, Don considers it his mission to educate people about farms. “Many people have never been to a farm,” he said, and when he asked the group how many of us came from a farm family, only one hand went up. He feels it’s important to “reconnect” people, particularly urban residents, to where their food comes from. As an example, he told us about Copper the pig.

"It's our responsibility as farmers to serve the animals - that they live healthy lives. And then they serve us."

“It’s our responsibility as farmers to serve the animals – to see they live happy lives. And then they serve us.”

Copper had been raised as a pet in a residential neighborhood. But he grew too big to keep, so his owner offered him to Black Star, and Don took him. The owner brought along Copper’s blanket and teddy bear and begged that the pig be kept in the house, or else he would be lonely. Don put him in a pen with the goats. Soon he’d dug himself a wallow and happily settled in, and was a popular attraction. The goats ate the blanket and teddy bear.

One morning that fall Don entered the dining room at the inn and said hello to a family just finishing their breakfast. He asked them what they planned to do that day. “We’re going to see Copper,” they told him. “We hear he’s really cute.”

Don pointed to the remnants of the sausage on their plates. “You’ve already met him,” he said.

The hind legs of these long-haired pigs are worth $1,000 each. Sorry, Wilbur.

The hind legs of these long-haired pigs are worth $1,000 each at market. Sorry, Wilbur.

The family was shocked, as I suppose most of us non-farmers would be, but pigs are something the farm raises, and farmers cannot afford to be sentimental about their crops. “It’s our responsibility as farmers to ensure the animals have a good life,” he said. “And then they are harvested, and they serve us.” Animals, as a farm resource, are harvested when the time comes, just as vegetables and fruits are.

Oh yes, and the pizzas are very tasty (click here for a photo of one). I had the basic Margherita (cheese, sauce, basil), but other items you can have include goat cheese, chicken, and prosciutto. Guess where that all comes from.

Next up – some fun facts about winemaking in Michigan.