The roots and rise of the winemaker Bryan Ulbrich
By Janice Binkert | Oct 2, 2021
Almost 40 wineries are located in the midst of the vineyards on the picturesque, hilly slopes of the Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas, which jut into the east and west bays of Traverse City.
In contrast, Left Foot Charley has been anchored in the historic Village at Grand Traverse Commons – the former Northern Michigan Asylum – as the first and only urban winery in northern Michigan for 17 years.
And on the sunny day at the end of September when I visit the winery, the owner-winemaker Bryan Ulbrich oversees the entire grape pressing of Chardonnay for Gitali Blanc de Blanc, a sparkling wine named after his daughter.
He explains that pressing is not just pressing, but aiming to minimize the grape skins, which is desirable for a sparkling wine.
“We only want the core of the juice,” he says, adding that he will add some Pinot Noir for this year’s vintage.
While this all sounds fascinating, don’t expect to be able to try this new creation anytime soon.
“From here it is pumped into a stainless steel tank and allowed to settle overnight,” says Ulbrich. “Then we take the remaining clear juice and put it in the fermenter.”
A few months later, after bottling, it goes through a second fermentation that takes three years – then it develops a lot of mouthfeel, taste, and bubbles, he says.
The good news: The 2018 Gitali is expected to appear in early October.
Sparkling wine is the new addition to Left Foot Charley. Still wines that have already attracted a loyal following still dominate here.
First came the excellent white wines – Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay – followed later by some impressive red wines (Blaufränkisch, Gamay, Cabernet Franc).
Hard cider is another Left Foot Charley specialty, with the hugely popular Cinnamon Girl leading the way for newer favorites like Fortis Maelum and the monovarietal Antrim Cider.
AT THE BEGINNING
Left Foot Charley’s beginnings go back to 2004.
“That was our first vintage that made wine,” says Ulbrich, “but we haven’t been here in the Village yet.”
The winemaker had a production area in Old Mission and only sold to restaurants.
“But we grew faster than expected and soon needed a larger area,” he says. “In 2007 the opportunity arose to move to our current location and it turned out to be perfect for us.”
The unique location of Left Foot Charley’s new home has spawned a very different concept than that of wineries that bring their vineyards, tasting rooms and production facilities together on site.
“We saw it as an opportunity to bring a number of small winemakers together and highlight their individual contributions to the larger wine scene,” says Ulbrich.
According to Ulbrich, this would give the breeder the opportunity to taste his work with each vintage. With this agreement, Left Foot Charley didn’t have to be anchored in a single property.
“We could be anywhere,” he says.
Ulbrich noted that the Village seemed to be a good meeting place, “… which has certainly turned out to be true,” he says.
“We have set ourselves the goal of becoming a community-oriented winery, both in our nature and in our management, with 15 vineyards and three apple orchards that grow exclusively for us and work very closely with them,” he says.
One of these breeders 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 on Island View, the oldest vineyard in Michigan for this special grape variety,” 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 manager.
In his “previous life,” as he calls it, he was well on his way to specializing in history and law, but a part-time job at an Arizona winery changed his interests.
“Everything else I did was theoretical and interesting, but I wasn’t as excited as wine,” he says.
However, after studying winery management, winemaking, and farming in Arizona for three years, he was ready to return to the Midwest.
“I’m a forest-and-water guy from the north,” he says. “And although I grew up in Illinois, I’ve always had a strong bond with Michigan because my grandfather owned a family home in Arcadia, where my family used to vacation.”
At the time, the Michigan wine industry was in full swing, and Ulbrich says he liked the style of the wines that were made here.
“It seemed like a good time and place to continue on my newly chosen path,” he says.
Left Foot Charley occupies two neighboring buildings in the Village: the Main Tasting Room, which is also where the manufacturing facility is located, and the Barrel Room.
The latter is a beautifully restored former root cellar of the institution from 1900. Built in the hill behind, it provides natural air conditioning for maturing, not yet bottled red wines. Dozens of wooden barrels line the original stone walls, creating the perfect backdrop for an enhanced wine tasting experience.
“Visiting both locations is like visiting two different wineries,” says 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 wines and cider from small productions or libraries as well as wine and cider by the glass and in the bottle. ”
Small plates can be ordered in any setting to combine with tastings.
UNIQUE FLAVORS FROM THE COUNTRY
“Wine from this area needs our dirt, our lakes, our water, our air and our winter so that it tastes the way it tastes – it is a unique product,” says Ulbrich. “And in this we try not only to reflect our immediate surroundings, but also every year. It is our goal to reveal these things in every year. “
When tasting Left Foot Charley’s wines, there is no doubt that this goal has been achieved. Two wines that are particularly valued by customers are the Blaufränkisch, a red one, and the Pinot Blanc.
And of course Riesling, which has stood out for Left Foot Charley from the start.
“We stayed true to that all along,” says Ulbrich. “It was an easy decision in the sense that it has proven itself here for decades.”
Ulbrich is cautiously optimistic that 2021 will be a very special year for wine, just like his fellow winemakers in the region.
“The growing season has been very strong, there are decent amounts and the harvesting conditions are excellent right now,” he says. “This is always told throughout the season, but for us the weather in September is so crucial to the final quality of the wine, and it was just beautiful, even with the last few rains.
“So if we can take just a little more sunshine, we’re in very good shape for a great vintage.”
When he talks about winemaking, Ulbrich’s love and enthusiasm for it can be felt.
“We work in the annual cycle,” he says. “We harvest grapes from September to November, but this feeling of renewal and rebirth, of bottling and then aging of things – that temporal thing that comes with wine – is the best.”
Spring and summer bring their own joys.
“In spring there is always a lot of excitement because you are bottling the last vintage – or in some cases two years ago – and yet the new one is starting to grow,” he says. “You have that kind of reflective hope because you have another chance.”
But with autumn comes the new fruit and with it new energy.
“We’re back to the beginning, so everyone is full of energy,” he says. “At the end of this season we will be a little tired, but then you rest, drink a bottle and then do it again.
“It’s this cycle. It never gets old. “
Find Left Foot Charley at 806 Red Dr. at the Village at Grand Traverse Commons in Traverse City, (231) 995-0500. For more information on opening times, upcoming food and wine pairings, or to sign up for the wine club or monthly newsletter, visit leftfootcharley.com. Reservations for the Barrel Room and Tasting Room are recommended, especially during the high tourist season and on weekends, but walk-ins are always welcome.