BY MARTA HEPLER DRAHOS
TRAVERSE CITY — Apple tart with maple mousse and caramel. Chicken mole in a cornmeal crepe. White chocolate cranberry lollipop with salted pistachio.
A bite on the ABC series "The Taste" or a sweet or savory small-plate offering at the Leelanau Peninsula Wine Trail event, "Taste the Passion?"
If you guessed the latter, you're right. In a relatively new twist on the popular February event, the food now is as important as what it's paired with.
"In the past few years we've really tried to make the food more interesting," said Kathy Calcutt, event director for Bel Lago Vineyard and Winery in Cedar. "With Traverse City becoming more of a food destination, we've all thought that if we're going to get people to consider Leelanau wine, we have to feature it with (creative) food."
The winery is among 20 on this year's "Taste the Passion" tour, Feb. 2 and 3 in Leelanau County. Participants can chart their own course over the weekend, collecting a souvenir glass at their first stop, then enjoying special pours and food pairings at as many stops as they can fit in between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.
"We get between 800 and 900 people for this event. It's in the top three," said Andrew McFarlane, spokesman for the Leelanau Peninsula Vintners Association and the Leelanau Peninsula Wine Trail, one of four organized wine trails in Michigan which promote the state's nearly $790 million grape/wine industry. "This one is my personal favorite event because it's the one event where pretty much the people doing the tour are the only ones on the trail. You see the same people on the stops. It's a lot more intimate event, and because it's wintertime, a lot of owners and winemakers are working because they don't have anyone to work for them.
"One of the great things is you get to learn so much about the wines and how they're made."
Good Neighbor Organic Vineyard and Winery in Northport will present a roasted vegetable, ham and bean soup served with mini cornbread muffins. They'll be paired with the winery's newly released "dry, earthy and full-flavored" Pinot Noir.
"When people come to these events, they're coming to eat," said cider maker, manager and chef Benjamin Crow. "You buy a $30 ticket, you expect to eat good food, not a little spoonful of Jell-O. But it's hard to pair a wine with beans and ham."
A fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants kind of cook whose food and beverage background includes stints on the Grand Traverse Dinner Train and in Alaska and Hawaii, Crow also will pour the perfect wintertime dessert: Chocolate Cherry Crafted Hard Cider.
"It's like biting into a chocolate-covered cherry," he said, of the semi-sweet carbonated concoction.
Bel Lago will stick with its signature Decadent Triple Chocolate Cake drizzled with Okemos chef Steve Hammar's Balaton Cherry Sauce.
"We always try to jump on the sweet side so we can use the Balaton cherry," said Calcutt, noting that the tart cherry variety was discovered in Hungary, introduced to the U.S. and developed for northern Michigan's climate by Bel Lago proprietor Amy Iezzoni, one of the world's foremost cherry experts. "The Balaton is a different kind of tart cherry.
"It's a tart cherry by classification, but it's sweeter and has more solid flesh, more meat and less juice. It has a flavor that makes you think of cloves, cinnamon and allspice. It's very rich."
Calcutt said the dessert will be paired with Bouquet, a semi-dry red wine blend of Pinot Noir and cherry wines.
"It has some of the spice you get with Pinot Noir, which has a bit of the black pepper note on the finish, tempered by the cherry, which is sweet but not too sweet, with flavors of the spice," she said.
Besides tasting, Bel Lago will offer "Passion" participants the opportunity to make valentines, one of several special events and activities at wineries along the tour.
"It's always very close to Valentine's Day, so we get a lot of people who are making it their weekend Valentine's Day getaway," Calcutt said. "We get a lot of women, but also couples."
Forty-Five North Vineyard and Winery in Lake Leelanau will serve up White Chocolate Brie Cups (in miniature phyllo tarts) topped with orange marmalade, paired with the apricot dessert wine 45 Gold.
"It's Fredrickson's local cold-pressed apricots put into Buffalo bourbon barrels so it gets a spicy, smoky flavor, and fortified with brandy," said tasting room manager Channing Sutton. "It's 18 percent alcohol. We like to make everything really worthwhile."
Sutton said the winery will be pulling out all the ambience stops for the event, with a fire in the post-and-beam tasting room, milling winery dogs and groomed cross-country trails tour participants can ski, snowshoe and hike.
"It's beautiful up here in the winter and it's very cozy," she said. "There's more decadent food you can do at this event, people bust out the port in the winter. And there's more locals that come out for this event."
For tickets or more information, visit www.facebook.com/lpwines.
Grandpa's Southern-Style Cornbread
1 can pinto beans, with juice
1 box Jiffy cornbread mix
White onion, chopped
Bake cornbread according to package directions and crumble it in a bowl. Over the stove, warm pinto beans in their juice. Spoon beans over the cornbread. Top with onion. Sprinkle white vinegar over all.
--Good Neighbor Organic Chef Benjamin Crow
Balaton Cherry Sauce
3 T. granulated sugar
1﻿½ t. cornstarch
¼ c. cherry juice
½ t. cinnamon
3 c. pitted fresh Balaton cherries or 1 lb. frozen, thawed, pureed and strained
½ t. lemon zest
1 T. cognac (optional)
Whisk sugar and cornstarch in a medium non-reactive saucepan and add juice, cinnamon and cognac, if using. Whisk until well blended. Stir in pureed and strained cherries and cook over medium heat, stirring until the mixture boils and thickens, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and add lemon zest. Let cool for 15 minutes before serving.
--Bel Lago Chef Steve Hammar
White Chocolate Brie Cups
1 package (1.9 oz.) frozen miniature phyllo tart shells
1-½ oz. white baking chocolate, chopped
2 oz. Brie cheese, chopped
⅓ c. orange marmalade
Fill each tart shell with chocolate, then cheese. Place on an ungreased baking sheet. Top with marmalade. Bake at 350° for 6-8 minutes or until golden brown. Serve warm. Yields 15 appetizers.
--Forty-Five North via tasteofhome.com