Snow is joy, not a four-letter word, at this idyllic Midwestern getaway

Entertainment,Robin Tierney

Can a self-professed wine snob find nirvana on Lake Michigan? Yes, says John Wolff, an Arlington connoisseur who has toured wineries around the country. "The Traverse City area is beautiful, with rolling vineyards and orchards overlooking blue-water bays."

Among Wolff's best-ever finds: "the absolutely stunning" Chateau Chantal. "I am convinced their ice wine can compete with some of the world's best dessert wines, and the late-harvest riesling is stellar."

For ice wine, the juice must be pressed from grapes while still frozen on the vine, said Mark Johnson, who established Chateau Chantal on Michigan's Old Mission Peninsula in 1983. "What gives fruit, and subsequently wine, its flavors are volatile compounds formed in the last three to four weeks of ripening. When fruit is harvested in warm climates, many of the volatiles simply escape ... [and thus] can't be tasted in the wine." Lake-moderated harvest temperatures help the grapes retain those compounds. "That equals great wine!" said Johnson, adding that in international competitions, "our wines have proven they can hold their own with the best in the world."

Locally, Traverse City wines inspire such celebrations as spring's Sip & Savor Wine Trail Festival and the autumn Harvest Stompede.

North Michigan beaches also surprised Wolff, with breathtaking sunsets over waters dotted by sea kayaks. Attractions change with the seasons. Come winter, golf courses transform into cross-country ski trails. Donkeys watch over fences as skiers and snowboarders head for Schuss Mountain. Whisked uphill by lift, snow tubers whoosh down in tandem. In Traverse City's Warehouse District, artists perfect enormous snow sculptures through the night.

Here, snow is not a four-letter word.

Torch Lake, ranked by National Geographic as the third-most-beautiful in the world, reflects ethereal colors 300 feet deep. Grand Traverse and Shanty Creek resorts offer freshly rejuvenated homey-luxe accommodations. Local delectables span tangy cherries, pepper-flaked artisan chocolates and Short's Pandemonium Pale Ale.

Like the produce, Traverse City talent is homegrown. Schuss ski instructor Jan Marie Clark inspires can-do attitudes on and off the slope. In the delightful, family business-filled downtown Traverse City, Poppycocks flavor maven Josie Butzier uses produce from her one-acre garden for made-from-scratch cuisine, and at Morsels, the Neidorflers hasten the bite-sized confection trend.

From slopes to shops, a theme emerges. After college, many left for bigger mountains, oceans and cities -- then returned home for the peaks, waterways, forests, farm-fresh food and sense of community.

Like ice wine, the pull of universe Traverse is hard to resist.

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