The winding country roads leading through the hills and valleys of Southwest Michigan are dotted with wineries, homage to the great growing conditions for wine grapes with climate and growing conditions often compared to that of France and Germany. It is here that Tabor Hill Winery and Restaurant, tucked among the glacial-cut rolling hillsides, has been one of the region's best-known wineries and most popular restaurants for almost half a century.
“We’re the premiere wine growing region in the state because of Lake Michigan and our slightly hilly terrain,” says Anna Mann who recently retired from Tabor Hill Winery and Restaurant in Buchanan which first opened for business in 1968. “We have special conditions here where it is cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter which is perfect for growing grapes.”
One of 15 wineries belonging to the Lake Michigan Shore Wine Country, Tabor Hill is one of the most venerable, helping lead the way to making this corner of the state one of the premiere wine growing areas.
In the beginning, Tabor Hill had 27 different grape varieties including the first European vinifera grapes planted in the Midwest, a wine cellar carved out of the hillside and a winery built from wood from a barn built in 1863. Annual wine production was about 2000 gallons.
Fast forward to today. With 55 acres of estate-grown grapes along with 400 acres of locally grown fruit and 40,000 feet of winemaking capability, wine production now tops more than 150,000 gallons a year. Green granite countertops and barn wood siding accent the wine tasting room just beyond the entrance of the sleekly remodeled winery and fronting the expanded restaurant. Here, large windows provide vistas of the vineyards, there’s access to a large patio area and the wines available for sampling include Lemberger, Cherry and Traminette, all of which won gold medals at the 2012 Los Angeles International Wine & Spirits competition, Grand Mark, winner of a gold medal and Best of Class Winner at the 2012 International Eastern Wine Competition, and the 2011 Gewurztraminer named White Wine of the Year at the 2012 Indy International Wine Competition. An enduring favorite is Tabor Hill’s classic Demi-Sec which has been served numerous times in the White House and continuously one of Midwest’s top-selling wines.
But besides offering award winning wines in their tasting room, Tabor Hill is a destination for those wanting to take walking tours of one of the most modern winery making facilities in the U.S., relax in the cellar theater to see a new video about Tabor Hill and wine making and dine at the restaurant with its farm to table driven menu.
Executive chef John Paul Verhage has been with Tabor Hill for almost a decade and not only is respectful of the traditional dishes on the menu that have been long time favorites but also likes to mix things up with eclectic offerings one wouldn’t expect to find in the countryside.
“The Grape Leaf Wrapped Wild King Salmon and the Pecan Breaded Raspberry Chicken are long time favorites,” says Verhage, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in New York. “We like to buy from local farmers and we like to use seasonal ingredients. We have area farmers growing heirloom vegetables for us to use in season.”
That would include, in the springtime, freshly foraged ramps and morel mushrooms and in the summer the abundance of fresh vegetables and fruits grown around here—tomatoes, corn, peaches, cherries, raspberries and blueberries and in the fall root vegetables, potatoes, greens and apples.
Because Verhage changes his menu frequently, one never knows what interesting item might appear. New selections so far this year have included Polenta Fries accompanied with a white truffle aioli and roasted red pepper catsup, Sriracha Shrimp-fried shrimp tossed in a Sriracha aioli with wonton chips and crushed peanuts and Beef Tenderloin Medallions Marsala served with sautéed mixed mushrooms, creamed spinach and roasted garlic and Fontina mashed potatoes.
And for those who love ultra premium chocolates, Tabor Hill is the one of the few purveyors of Norman Love Confections, considered one of the top 10 chocolate companies in the country, outside of the Norman Love Confection's Chocolate Salon in Fort Myers and Naples, Florida. Like wine, each of the chocolates has their own flavor notes depending on where the cacao beans grow. Thus descriptions of the confections sound like wine tasting notes. Tanzanie, one of Norman Love’s "Black" single-origin dark chocolates, originates in southeast African region of Tanzania with a taste both intense and subtle as well as spicy and fruity while their Peru, originating in South America, is described as having an intensive Earl Grey black tea note with a unique fruity prune bouquet enhanced by a licorice note with a hint of pepper” that is then followed by a fruity, slightly woody vanilla note creating a long lasting finish. Their milk chocolates are playful like Bananas Foster, cinnamon-infused brown sugar and fresh bananas caramelized with a touch of citrus before being blended into white chocolate and butter and wrapped in a milk chocolate shell. White chocolates include Passion Panna Cotta --a light buttermilk ganache layered with passion fruit and vanilla jam covered in white chocolate and truffles such as the Dark Chocolate Cream Truffle, a 49% dark Venezuelan chocolate made from Criollo beans mixed with cream and butter. Norman Love Confections are also available at the Tabor Hill Tasting Room in Bridgman, right off of the I-94 Bridgeman exit.
Tabor Hill Winery & Restaurant is located at 185 Mount Tabor Road, Buchanan, Michigan. (800) 283-3363; taborhill.com. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner Wednesday through Sunday. The winery can now ship to Illinois.