The Root and Rise of Winemaker Bryan Ulbrich
By Janice Binkert | October 2, 2021
Nearly 40 wineries are nestled among the vineyards that dot the scenic, rolling slopes of the Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas that jut out into the east and west bays of Traverse City.
In contrast, for 17 years, Left Foot Charley has been firmly anchored in the historic village of Grand Traverse Commons – the former asylum in northern Michigan – as northern Michigan’s first and only urban vineyard.
And on a sunny day in late September when I visit the winery, owner-oenologist Bryan Ulbrich oversees the whole-bunch pressing of the Chardonnay for Gitali Blanc de Blanc, a sparkling wine named after his daughter.
He explains that pressing is not the same as crushing, but rather aims to minimize grape skins, which is desirable for a sparkling wine.
“We just want the middle part of the juice,” he says, adding that for this year’s vintage he will also add some pinot noir.
While it all sounds intriguing, don’t expect to be able to taste this new creation anytime soon.
“From there it will be pumped into a stainless steel tank and left to sit overnight,” explains Ulbrich. “Then we take the clear juice that is left over and put it in the fermenter. “
A few months later, after bottling, it undergoes a second fermentation that lasts for three years – this is when much of the mouthfeel, flavor and bubbles develop, says -he.
The good news: the 2018 Gitali should be released in early October.
Sparkling wine is the new kid on the block at Left Foot Charley. Still wines still reign supreme here, having already attracted a loyal following.
First came the exceptional whites – riesling, pinot blanc, pinot gris, chardonnay – followed later by impressive reds (blaufränkisch, gamay, cabernet franc).
Hard Cider is another Left Foot Charley specialty, with the ever-popular Cinnamon Girl paving the way for new favorites like Fortis Maelum and single-origin Antrim cider.
IN THE BEGINNING
The beginnings of Left Foot Charley date back to 2004.
“This was our first vintage to make wine,” says Ulbrich, “but we weren’t here at the Village yet.”
The winemaker had a production area on Old Mission and only sold to restaurants.
“But we grew faster than we expected and quickly needed more space,” he says. “The opportunity arose to move to our current location in 2007, and it turned out to be a perfect solution for us. “
The unique location of Left Foot Charley’s new home has spawned a very different concept than wineries that have their vineyards, tasting rooms and production facilities together on site.
“We saw this as an opportunity to bring together a number of small producers and showcase their individual contributions to the wider wine scene,” says Ulbrich.
This, says Ulbrich, would give the producer the opportunity to taste his work in each vintage. With this arrangement, Left Foot Charley did not need to be rooted in just one area.
“We could be anywhere,” he said.
Ulbrich observed how the village seemed like a good place to gather, “… which certainly turned out to be true,” he says.
“We have decided to become a community winery, both in our nature and in the way we cultivate, with 15 vineyards and three apple orchards grown exclusively for us and working closely with them,” he says.
One of those producers is Werner Kuehnis, owner of Island View Vineyard on the Old Mission Peninsula.
“Werner was an early investor in Left Foot Charley and grows Pinot Blanc for us at Island View, Michigan’s oldest vineyard for this particular grape,” says Ulbrich. “He’s my partner – my brother in wine.”
Ulbrich and his wife, Jennifer, are co-owners and managing partners of Left Foot Charley – he, the winemaker, and she, the business owner.
In his “old life,” as he calls it, he was well on his way to majoring in history and law, but a part-time job at an Arizona vineyard took his interest in another direction.
“Everything I did was theoretical and interesting, but it didn’t turn me on like wine,” he says.
After three years of learning vineyard management, winemaking, and farming in Arizona, he was ready to return to the Midwest.
“I’m the wood and water type from the North,” he says. “And although I grew up in Illinois, I always had a strong attachment to Michigan, because my grandfather had a family cabin in Arcadia where my family used to vacation.”
At that time, the wine industry in Michigan was really booming and Ulbrich says he liked the style of the wines that were made here.
“It seemed like a good time and a good place to continue on my new chosen path,” he says.
Left Foot Charley occupies two adjacent buildings in the Village: the main tasting room, which also houses the production facility, and the Barrel room.
The latter is a beautifully restored old vegetable cellar of the asylum dating from 1900. Built into the hill behind it, it provides natural air conditioning for the aging of red wines that have not yet been bottled. Dozens of wooden barrels line its original stone walls, creating the perfect backdrop for an enhanced wine tasting experience.
“Visiting the two sites is like visiting two different wineries,” explains Ulbrich. “In the tasting room you can order wine and cider by the glass, wine bottles, wine flights and cider à la carte. The Barrel Room offers exclusive tastings of small production or library wines and ciders, as well as wine and cider by the glass and by the bottle.
Small plates can be ordered in each frame to accompany the tastings.
UNIQUE FLAVORS OF THE EARTH
“The wine from this region needs our land, our lakes, our water, our air and our winter to give it the taste it tastes – it is a singularly unique product,” explains Ulbrich. “And in this, we try not only to reflect our immediate environment, but also every year. Our goal is to reveal these things in every vintage.
When tasting the wines of Left Foot Charley, there is no doubt that this goal has been achieved. Two wines that customers particularly liked are blaufränkisch, a red, and pinot blanc, a white.
And of course, riesling, which has stood out from the start for Left Foot Charley.
“It’s a question we’ve stuck with from the start,” says Ulbrich. “It was an easy choice in the sense that he has proven himself here over the past few decades.”
Ulbrich is cautiously optimistic that 2021 will be a very special year for wine, as are his fellow winegrowers in the region.
“The growing season has been very strong, there are decent quantities and the condition of the crops is currently excellent,” he says. “It is always said throughout the season, but the September weather is so crucial to the final quality of the wine for us, and it has been just beautiful, even with the recent rains.
“So if we can just enjoy a little more sun, we’re in really good shape for a great vintage.”
When it comes to winemaking, Ulbrich’s love and enthusiasm for it is palpable.
“We work on a year cycle,” he says. “From September to November we harvest the grapes, but that feeling of renewal and rebirth, and the bottling and then watching things age – that temporal thing that comes with wine – is the best part. “
Spring and summer bring their own joys.
“There is always impatience in spring, because you are bottling last year’s vintage – or there are two vintages in some cases – and yet the new one starts to grow,” he says. “You have that kind of thoughtful hope, because you have another chance to do it.”
But with autumn comes the new fruit and with it new energy.
“We’re new to the start, so everyone is full of energy,” he says. “At the end of this season, we’ll be a little tired, but then you rest, you bottle up and then you start over.
“It’s that cycle. It never gets old. “
Find Left Foot Charley at 806 Red Dr. in the village of Grand Traverse Commons in Traverse City, (231) 995-0500. For more information on hours of operation, upcoming food and wine pairing events, or to sign up for the Wine Club or the monthly newsletter, visit leftfootcharley.com. Reservations are encouraged for the Barrel Room and Tasting Room, especially during peak tourist season and on weekends, but walk-in tours are always welcome.