Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Between the Lines: Of Wine and Murder

by Zinta Aistars

for WMUK 102.1 FM
Southwest Michigan's NPR affiliate

Between the Lines is my weekly radio show about books and writers with a Michigan connection. It airs every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., 11:55 a.m., and 4:20 p.m. (or listen anytime online), on WMUK 102.1 FM, Southwest Michigan's NPR affiliate. I am the host of Between the Lines.

This week's guest: Aaron Stander

A glass of Michigan wine, served with murder. The eighth in Aaron Stander‘s Ray Elkins’ Mystery Series, Murder in the Merlot (Writers & Editors, 2016), takes readers to yet another story set in Northern Michigan — this time to the vineyards.
“I started writing this series about 20 years ago but I didn’t publish the first one until maybe 14 years ago,” Stander says. “It was about my experiences up here in Northern Michigan.”
Stander grew up in metro Detroit and later taught in college there, but he moved north to Traverse City in 2000. The area was familiar because of many visits during his youth.
“I needed a protagonist for my first book,” he says. “So this series has been about this local sheriff and it mostly it takes place in Leelanau County. Part of it has to do with place — the lakes up here are just so amazing. So place is always a character. But the series is also about the differences in people and the economics that play such an important part in the sociology of this region.”
Along with teaching workshops on crime writing, Stander also hostsMichigan Writers on the Air on Interlochen Public Radio. Any other free time finds him paddling his kayak, where he often muses on plots and other writing ideas. He also builds kayaks, the small, narrow boats pioneered by the Inuit people of the Arctic.
A little-known fact about Stander’s family history is that ...

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Cheers to Local Wines

by Zinta Aistars
Published in Welcome Home magazine
Fall 2016 Issue

Cheers to Local Wines
By Zinta Aistars

For many years, when wine drinkers considered fine wines, thoughts have traveled overseas to Italy or France, or cross-country to the West Coast. Michigan wines, however, are collecting awards and bringing those wine-tasting thoughts back to home shores. Michigan is now the fifth largest state in wine production.

According to Michigan Wines, the official website for the Michigan wine industry, nearly $800 million is added to Michigan’s economic value from the wine industry, adding about 5,000 jobs. Our wine industry accounts for about $42 million in state and local taxes.

Most of Michigan grapes are grown in wineries 25 miles from Lake Michigan. The lake effect adds about four weeks to the growing season, producing a large variety of grapes for reds and whites, dry to sweet, along with fruit for fruit wines.

“We encourage people to explore Michigan wines,” says Dean Bender, co-owner along with Crick Haltom of the Lawton Ridge Winery on Stadium Drive, with vineyards next door in Lawton. “It’s an evolving and fast-improving industry. At our price point of $12 to $19 for a variety of reds and whites, we hold our own with wines from across the world.”

Lawton Ridge Winery opened its doors in 2008 with a production facility and tasting room, but its vineyards are rooted back in the 1980s.

“Up until the 90s, a group of five of us made wine in our garages,” Bender says. “What fruit we didn’t use, we sold to St. Julian until 2007. But then we decided to create our own winery—Lawton Ridge Winery. The convenience of being so close to our vineyards was a real advantage.” 

Lawton Ridge Winery currently sells 14 varieties, red and white, although, Bender says, that number varies each year, depending on what the vineyards produce. Their most popular wine is Two-Handed Red, a blend of three or four grape types, giving the wine a fruity character.

Tempo Vino Winery, downtown Kalamazoo on East Michigan, has their own unique approach—they work with customers to develop each their own wine, including customized labels. The customized wines are especially popular for special occasions such as weddings and anniversaries.

“We opened in 2005, so we are now celebrating our 11th anniversary with lots of wine specials, introducing new wines, and fun events,” says Alex Mantakounis. He co-owns the winery with wife, Irene.

“I was a homebrewer/wine maker as a hobby,” he says. “I met Irene, a chemical engineer, when she was looking to make a career change and she wanted to do something in the wine business. She came across this business plan of the small boutique winery and decided that would be a good fit for us. Since I had experience in fermentation, it seemed the natural thing to do.”

Mantakounis grew up in a wine-loving family. His father was a wine aficionado and collector and owned his own vineyard. Mantakounis squashed his first grapes into juice at age 5, and today, he is a certified somelier (wine steward) and certified beer judge.

“We are the only winery in the area where people can come make their own wine,” Mantakounis says.  “We manage and take care of the wine while it ferments and ages at our store. When it is finished, the customer comes back to bottle it up and take it home.”

 Making your own wine, Mantakounis says, is an easy process. The staff guides the customer throughout the process, helping to select grape types. The first step is the best: sampling ready wines. The winery carries about 25 types.

“By tasting the wines, we narrow down what kinds you like and develop a recipe to suit your tastes. Each batch of wine makes 25 to 30 bottles of wine,” Mantakounis says.

Tempo Vino Winery also offers wine education classes and sponsors events in partnership with other Kalamazoo businesses.

On Sprinkle Road in Portage, The Sangria Shop offers another unique twist on local wines. Frances Vega and Fernando Costas brought their family traditions and heritage from Puerto Rico to Kalamazoo—in the form of Sangria.

“When my wife Frances and I moved here, we were invited to a potluck,” Costas says. “That was something new to us. In Puerto Rico, we have Sangria at all our gatherings, so that’s what we brought to this party. All my friends tend to be beer drinkers, but when they tasted our Sangria, they always asked us to bring more.”

The recipe for the Sangria was Frances Vega’s, a blend of spices and fresh fruits, and sells for about $13 per bottle. There is no comparison, Costas says, to what is sold in supermarkets.

“We do everything by hand,” he says. “We process the fruit by hand, nothing canned, and we try to use fruit from local farmers whenever possible. No preservatives, no sulfites, no artificial flavors. We even make the labels by hand.”

The Sangria Shop opened its doors in 2012 with part-time hours: Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays with limited hours, although Costas encourages customers to give him a call with a special order. He’s happy to open the doors by appointment.

“Right now I’m working as a chemical engineer at Pfizer,” says Costas, “but I’m hoping to someday make this a full-time job.”

Costas and Vega also sell their Sangria at farmers markets in Portage and Battle Creek. The wine has a shelf life, refrigerated, of up to three months because of the fresh fruit content. Different flavors are released according to season and available fruit. In October through February, The Sangria Shop will stock their popular Ambrosia, similar to a mulled wine and meant to be lightly heated. Other offerings include Fragum, with strawberries; Clasica, with citrus and seasonal fruits; Stone Fruits, with a mix of seasonal summer fruits; Tropical, with pineapple and other tropical fruits; and Wildberry, similar to a blush wine with tart fruits.

Unable to choose? Drop by the tasting rooms of these wineries to tempt your palate, and enjoy the fruits of Michigan.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

A Secret Love and a Love Shared

Published in "In the Key of G"
Fall 2016

By Zinta Aistars

Keith Peterson was enjoying the scenery and the warmth of Julie’s arms wrapped around his waist from behind him on the motorcycle. For a moment, he had allowed his eyes to wander away from the road. One moment was all it took.

“I didn’t see the pickup in front of us stop,” he says. “My brakes locked, and we spun out. I went flying over the handlebars, and Julie fell off the back of the bike.”

Keith and Julie had been dating for a couple of years, but since they worked together at the same bank—Keith headed up the legal department, and Julie managed human resources at National City Bank (now PNC Bank)—they thought it was a good idea to keep their office romance quiet. When friends and colleagues heard about the accident, the jig was up.

“So we got married!” Julie laughs.

Bike riding in the country, however, was only one of their shared passions. There was another, much safer, one—music.

The couple today shares their Portage home with three cats and a still-growing collection of 13,000 music CDs. Several hours a day, Keith sits in a leather chair, centered in the Peterson living room, and listens to music, sometimes with a cat curled in his lap.

While Keith now works at Plunkett Cooney, a legal firm, Julie is regional manager at PNC Bank. Julie became familiar with The Gilmore Keyboard Festival through PNC Bank’s sponsorship of The Gilmore.

“We host clients by taking them to concerts,” she says.

The Petersons donate to The Gilmore in a variety of ways for a variety of reasons.

“Donating to the Rising Stars Series is our favorite way of giving,” Keith says. The Rising Stars Series brings outstanding young artists from around the world to Kalamazoo.

“Every year, we choose one young artist to sponsor,” Julie adds. “We have dinner with them, and we talk about everything, not just music. This will be our fourth year sponsoring Rising Stars.”

The Petersons also take advantage of the PNC Bank matching gift program.

“We give the maximum amount to get the highest matching gift,” Keith says. “It’s a wonderful gift to your employees.”

The Petersons make an additional gift to The Gilmore during annual fundraisers. “After all, you need operating funds,” Keith says.

But there’s more. The Petersons have thought into the future. They have added The Gilmore into their will.

“Think of it this way,” Keith says. “You won’t miss the money. But planned giving can be critical to The Gilmore as it grows. It can be the most significant gift of your lifetime.”

Planned giving can be a monetary bequest, a life insurance policy, a donation of property, or a range of other giving options.

“When it comes to giving to the Kalamazoo community, The Gilmore knocks it out of the park,” Keith says. “They bring the world to Kalamazoo. These artists are heavily subsidized by donor gifts. That’s why The Gilmore so appreciates its donors.”

“And why we so appreciate great music,” Julie says. “Our kids say that we’re the only house where the kids have to ask the parents to turn down the music when they come to visit.”