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Thursday, 16 September 2010 02:01

Last Friday I popped in to see Larry Mawby, near Suttons BayLarry Mawby. He was busy-as-ever in his cluttered-as-ever winery backroom -- tanks, lab equipment, desks, multiple computers and screens jumbled into a way-too-small space that looked like its last top-to-bottom cleaning came a decade back. Maybe longer.

The day before, on September 10, he began to pick Leelanau Peninsula grapes for L. Mawby sparklers -- his second-earliest harvest start-date ever. He mentioned that this year's weather totally scrambled the vineyards' usual ripening order. Since grapes for sparkling wine start life with way less sugar than their non-bubbly brethren, he's among the first to kick off northern Michigan's 2010 grape harvest.

Being first in the region isn't an unfamiliar role for Larry. By my reckoning, this is his 33rd harvest on Leelanau. His vines went in shortly after Bernie Rink's at Boskydel, but before just about anyone else on the Peninsula.

In the early years, he made eccentric still wines with whimsical names and poetry on the label. By today's standards, most of them weren't very good. And the poetry? Well, I've frequently called him Michigan's answer to Randall Grahm, of California's Bonny Doon. Some of his articles for Michigan Wine Country magazine were classic; they're still preserved on his website .

L. MawbyOver the years, I've imposed on him several times, and he's seldom been too busy to help out. In 1998, he accepted an invitation to be our first-ever winemaker-in-residence at the annual MoCool wine bash. When MichWine started in 2007, he was the go-to guy for a piece to extol northern Michigan wine country. His response -- the blank-verse "Ode to the Leelanau" -- remains one of MichWine's most-visited pages.

That's a common theme when you mention Larry in northern wine circles: he's always available to help. In an industry whose public face of goodwill among friendly competitors can mask behind-the-scenes backbiting and petty jealousies, I've seldom heard an ill word about Larry. Instead, other winemakers go out of their way to talk about how he proffered much-valued advice when they were starting up, or lent them a piece of equipment, or offered to make their sparkling wine at his winery.

M.Lawrence SexOver the years, some things changed. His wines improved, developed bubbles, and began to receive national recognition. He married. He wrote less. He fought and beat cancer. He took on a partner.

These days, he's mayor of his home town, Suttons Bay. And his M. Lawrence brand -- made in a separate facility where it gets its bubbles from secondary fermentation in tanks -- brought the business success that had previously eluded him, especially through its most talked-about label, "Sex". Larger production quantities require him to import some of the M. Lawrence base wines from outside Michigan, although the L. Mawby brand remains Leelanau-grown.

On this visit, Larry mentioned that he now distributes wine to ten states. But he'll need to slap a new name on the latest M. Lawrence creation -- "Detroit" -- if he wants to sell it outside Michigan. It seems that Federal regulators -- who didn't bat an eyelash over approval of "Sex" -- recently decided that the new wine's name falsely implies it's made in the City of Detroit. It won't be allowed to cross state lines without a different moniker.

It's nice to know that some things never change.

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Recently-deceased Korean dictator Kim Jong Il was a wine geek (and reputed alcoholic) with a 10,000-bottle cellar, according to ex-Slate wine columnist Mike Steinberger. Kim earlier gave up Hennessy Cognac on doctor's orders.