As soon as you cross over the border, you'll see the billboards promoting wine tastings and Redamak's burgers. But Harbor Country has come a long way, with boutique wines and hand-crafted beers, not to mention restaurants that do so much more than flip burgers.
It's part one of my month-long series of road trips as we head to a part of southwestern Michigan where they're focused on both good food and drinks
Michigan's wine industry isn't in the same class as France or California, mainly because producers up until recently focused on lesser-known grapes, or varietals. It's a tourist industry, afterall. But at Hickory Creek, near the town of Buchanan, the pinot grigio, riesling and cabernet franc grapes are all tended with care.
"I tended to like the more craft type wines anyways, so we went after the smaller batch, hand crafting. Picking exactly when were gonna harvest those grapes. Selecting the grapes, said Mike deSchaaf, the Winemaker.
DeSchaaf and his team are incredibly hands-on, constantly monitoring every aspect of the production.
"There was a lot of people who were making lots of big batches of wine so we went the opposite direction," he said.
In addition to chardonnay and riesling, he also produces a late-harvest ice wine that would be at home on any Chicago restaurant's wine list. He says being east of Lake Michigan is crucial.
"It prevents us from warming up too quickly in the spring, so we don't get the spring freezes. And it keeps us warmer in the fall," said deSchaaf.
A few miles away, Scott Sullivan is another hands-on artisan. He started Greenbush Brewing Company this year, after messing around with a porter and finding people loved it. The brewery is barely a mile off the expressway, and produces outstanding Belgian ales, IPAs and stouts, often tied to seasonal produce.
"When the fall harvest come we use squash and pumpkins to do pumpkin ales or kind of derivative types of things like that," Sullivan said.
The beer is brewed in a giant copper kettle, and is just starting to show up in Chicago. Sullivan says by staying small, he can get really creative. Beer geeks will want to order up a flight to taste a bit of everything.
Just a mile away, farm-to-table is the mantra at Soe Cafe - located on the old Red Arrow highway - where everything is picked up from local farmers.
"Everything is generally within a hundred mile radius...And to me, that's how I grew up eating. You know we only ate asparagus in the spring, we only ate tomatoes in the summer, we only ate fresh apples in the fall, said Chad Miller, the Chef at Soe Café.
Miller's leg of duck confit is balanced by ripe peaches and vegetables, set over a blackberry puree and topped with micro greens; all the pasta is handmade, like the fettucini with tomatoes, lemon zest and parmesan. Even his whitefish sandwich is notable, fried to a crisp, moist inside, slathered with homemade remoulade and highly-addictive hand-cut fries. Miller says there would be no restaurant without the farmers.
"We support a lot of local farmers; a lot of farmers all over the state of Michigan and northern Indiana," Miller said.
On Saturday October 8, the fifth annual New Buffalo Harvest and Wine Fest gets under way. Local wineries and vendors will be there, plus lots of activities for the kids.
12868 Red Arrow Highway
Sawyer, Michigan 49125
Hickory Creek Winery
750 Browntown Rd.
Buchanan, Michigan 49107
Greenbush Brewing Company
5885 Sawyer Rd.
Sawyer, Michigan 49125
Other Michigan breweries worth mentioning:
Livery Brewing in Benton Harbor (190 Fifth Street) has a Bohemian pilsner and a dark Czech lager, www.liverybrew.com
About forty-five minutes north in Saugatuck is Saugatuck Brewing Co. (2948 Blue Star Highway, Douglas), www.saugutuckbrewing.com
In Holland, New Holland Brewing (66 E. Eighth), www.newhollandbrew.com and has a Kolsch, among more than a dozen other varieties it brews. The New Holland beers are pretty readily available at Binny's; the space is charming - wood-planked floor, tin roof and very much reminiscent of Holland, MI a hundred years ago. Then there's quirky Odd Side Ales in Grand Haven (41 Washington), www.oddsideales.com
This weekend, it's the 5th annual New Buffalo Harvest & Wine Fest on Saturday, October 8th from noon to 10pm. The festival will take place in Lion's Park adjacent to the boat launch and beach parking lot in downtown New Buffalo.
The Harvest & Wine Fest boasts a farmer's market, wines from Southwest Michigan, food from area restaurants, hayrides, a pumpkin patch and more. Participating wineries include The Round Barn Winery, Free Run Cellars, Lemon Creek and Domain Berrien. Round Barn Brewery will be at the helm of the beer tent with several of their microbrews. Musical talent includes Libido Funk Circus (7:30p), Top Secret Band (5p), Alligator Blackbird (2:30p) and The Solution (12p).
Planned in conjunction with the well-established "Harbor Country Harvest Days" (www.harborcountry.org) the New Buffalo Harvest Fest will serve as a focal-point to this three-day tradition. Harvest & Wine Fest kicks off at noon until 10pm. Suggested donation at the gate is $5 per person -- children 12 and under are free. For updates and more information, please go to www.newbuffalo.org or call Colleen Ryan at 773.791.1809.
12:00-5:00- Horse drawn hayrides through town-FREE
12:00-4:00- Kids art activities, pumpkin painting and more-FREE
12:00-6:00- Pumpkin Patch- pumpkins, gourds, corn, mums
12:00-9:00- Bounce House