TRAVERSE CITY — As it did more than 120 years ago, a stone wall and Markham brick structure on the former State Hospital Grounds is aging fruits and vegetables.
It’s just that there aren’t any vegetables being stored. And the fruit is squeezed and comes in barrel or bottle form.
Left Foot Charley opened The Barrel Room to the public earlier this month, offering a small tasting room among the aging wine in the 2,000-square-foot facility that dates back to 1893.
“I’ve wanted something like this my whole wine-making career,” said Bryan Ulbrich, Left Foot Charley owner and chief winemaker. “It’s a little time capsule in here.”
The northern edge of the structure located behind the Left Foot Charley along Yellow Drive is built into a hill, which Ulbrich said keeps the inside temperature between “the upper 40s to the upper 50s.” Ulbrich said there is an HVAC system from when the building housed One of a Kind Cycle, but he’s hoping not to use it.
“The part that helps this so much is that it’s built right into the hill and you can see that through the window up there,” said Left Foot Charley operations manager Meridith Lauzon, pointing toward the northwest corner. “That really helps us keep our temperatures pretty normal, more so than if it was just a free-standing building.”
“It’s got 120 years of proving itself,” Ulbrich added. “It’s not like we really have to do a whole lot. That’s the other thing we love, here’s a building that is that old and we didn’t have to build it to make it look old and pretend that it’s the real thing. (Developer) Ray (Minervini) has wanted to see these buildings come to life and when you see them back to the reason they were built and not have to do a bunch of modifications, it’s kind of a perfect circle.”
Ulbrich said he first eyed the building when Left Foot Charley opened in the Village at Grand Traverse Commons in 2007, three years after its first vintage.
A table just beyond the front entrance to The Barrel Room will host private wine tasting, mostly by appointment. Decorations range from hand chisels that carved the stones flat to antique cooper tools still used today.
The Barrel Room offers two private wine tasting options by appointment and includes a small spread of local food hosted by a certified barrel room guide. A longer option includes a tour of Left Foot Charley as well.
“Once we started putting barrels in here it kind of became evident how wine-romantic the site is,” Ulbrich said. “It offers us a chance to show people how much we’ve always cared about these wines in a somewhat more traditional setting than what we have in our tasting bar right now.
“... There are groups that are looking for a more personalized tasting experience and this will give us a great chance to introduce them or re-introduce them to our wines in a setting where we can really focus on our production methods, our growing philosophy and where our fruit comes from and bring the whole story together in a real focused setting.”
The Barrel Room also will host a reserve tasting for $20. The public event will feature a variety of changing selections, some of which are no longer for sale.
“They’ll always be surprises,” Ulbrich said.
A $25 vault tasting is scheduled for the second and fourth Thursday of every month, featuring three wines “from our library.”
In addition to the barrels, the lower level of the new space includes a riddling stand for Left Foot Charley’s sparkling wine. The upstairs at The Barrel Room features a meeting space that can also be used for a corporate tasting event.
Since Left Foot Charley gets its grapes from 18 farms around the area, The Barrel Room will become a vehicle to tell the tale of the winery.
“Each one of these barrels has a story,” Lauzon said.
“Our (story) isn’t as obvious as some where you can drive through the vineyard and you’re immersed in the agriculture side of it,” Ulbrich said. “When people are back here they sometimes don’t realize how connected we are to each of the individual farms that we work with.
“When you’re among the cooperage and you can see the barrel, the label tags and the wine tags on the barrels to know these are specific sites and this is the level of commitment that goes into every vintage, it again helps us bring wine country into the urban environment.”
One of the barrels is French oak from a tree that dated back to 1656 before it was knocked down in a 2009 storm. It blends right in with the history of the structure itself.
“There’s so much history in here,” Lauzon said. “It’s so cool to be able to taste surrounded by 125 years of that history.”
Three from the vault
Left Foot Charley's The Barrel Room will host its first library tasting event on Friday, May 26, from 6-8 p.m.
Owner and head winemaker Bryan Ulbrich will host a reserve tasting of three wines from its library. These Vault Tasting sessions are scheduled for the second and fourth Thursday of every month between 6-8 p.m.
Tickets are $25 a person and space is limited. Tickets can be purchased online at http://www.leftfootcharley.com/calendar under Three from the Vault tasting.