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Leelanau Peninsula vineyard at sunset.
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With talented chefs Traverse City, Michigan, is having a food evolution.

“Twenty years ago, we weren’t sure we could make a living here as chefs and restaurateurs, but we loved what the region had to offer,” says Chef Dave Denison, owner of the European-style restaurant Amical in the heart of Traverse City, overlooking West Grand Traverse Bay. “The creativity that flows into the area entertains, fulfills and inspires all of us.”

A Synergistic Evolution

“Our chefs are so creative and so well trained, they can bring in nuances and expand traditional dishes,” says Charlie Edson, winemaker for Bel Lago Winery. “Our winery’s consulting chef will taste a wine and match its flavors and textures to his ingredients. I call it a synergistic evolution.”

Traverse City's Emergence

Long known as the nation’s leading producer of cherries, the Traverse City area emerged in the 1980s as a small, but impressive, wine region. The wines, grown on two stunning peninsulas that jut into Lake Michigan, earned a loyal following and paved the way for Traverse City's reputation as a food destination. In 2010, Traverse City stepped into the national spotlight as one of Bon Appétit’s Top Five Foodie Towns in the country, and in 2014 the Daily Meal listed it as one of America’s 11 Best Small Towns for Food. Traverse City is now home to Great Lakes Culinary Institute at Northwestern Michigan College, an array of inventive eateries, an exploding craft beer scene, and a wine country with 40 wineries and tasting rooms spanning Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas.

Traverse City, known for its tart cherries

Traverse City, known for its tart cherries
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Flavors of the Reigon

“Our wines are almost always fruit forward with bright flavors and a nice acidity that pushes the brightness,” Edson explains. Wine critics often use words like “pretty,” “delicate” and “balanced” as they praise these food-friendly wines. If you enjoy long, thoughtful, multicourse meals, you can easily sample a different wine with each plate without overwhelming your palate. This opens all kinds of doors for you to taste the region’s amazing bounty from an array of fabulous signature cherries to apples, peaches, corn, potatoes, root vegetables, wild mushrooms, walleye, perch, lake trout, poultry, cheeses and more.

Synergy Between Wine and Food

“Northern Michigan is very locavore driven and the farm-to-table culture has so much to draw on from its farms, waters and crops,” says Lee Lutes, winemaker and managing partner for Wineries of Black Star Farms. “Our wine grapes experience a long growing season with a very cool beginning and a very cool ending. As a result, our wines are delightfully bright, acidic and aromatic.” This same climate affects the flavor of other local vegetables, fruits and even livestock, which tend to fatten early and develop compelling flavor profiles. “There’s definitely a synergy between the region’s wines and food,” Lutes says.

Everything from Scratch

Fred Laughlin, director of the Great Lakes Culinary Institute, says that local terroir plays a large part in the school’s curriculum. “We make everything from scratch and are very careful to incorporate local products,” he says. The school emphasizes eating seasonally and works closely with local farms, dairies, breweries and wineries to procure fresh ingredients all year long. “It’s true that wine pairs well with the food that comes from the same soil,” Laughlin says. “We use a lot of local wines in our cooking and also pair them with dishes, and everything works so beautifully together.” Laughlin, who has lived in the region for 24 years, is excited about the enthusiasm locals have for growing and consuming foods and beverages with local roots. “One of our local golf courses was sold recently and the land is being converted to a hops farm,” he says. “That’s very telling as to what’s important to us here.”

Tasting local flavors at a winery

Tasting local flavors at a winery
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Exciting Times

Chef Eric Patterson, whose restaurant The Cooks’ House focuses on local and sustainable fare, thinks this synergy is only starting to evolve. “Traverse City is such a young wine country, but it’s already beginning to happen," he says. "One example is whitefish pâté.”

But who can go wrong with great whitefish from Lake Michigan and amazing wines from the peninsulas? “It’s an exciting time to be part of the food scene here,” Patterson says. “And an exciting time to visit.”

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