I have to admit, I’m a self-proclaimed wine snob. Living in California, I was weaned on Napa Valley vintages and Sonoma chardonnays. When I went to culinary school, I discovered the joys of French and Italian wines — Bordeaux and Burgundy, pinot noir and pinot grigio, all with a delicate, complex body and flavor that seemed to put my native California varietals to shame. I would drink French or Italian wines, and nothing else.
Happily, all that changed during a recent visit to Michigan’s wine country. Michigan, a state I had not even known produced wine until I took a tour of Old Mission Peninsula, turned my ideas of what is “good” wine and where it is grown completely upside down, and I’ve never been more thrilled to have been proven wrong.
We set out on our tour of Old Mission Peninsula during autumn. The weather was cool and the days were sunny, making it comfortable to drive the long and winding roads from vineyard to vineyard. We set out from Traverse City, our home base, and planned a route that wound its way up and down the Old Mission Peninsula.
Traverse City and the surrounding area are rich in campgrounds, so you shouldn’t have a problem finding a full-hookup spot to call home. Traverse Bay RV Resort — rated a 10/10/10 by Trailer Life Campground Directory — is an adult-only RV park with 217 big-rig sites with full hookups and 50-amp service, free WiFi and cable, complimentary use of bicycles, a tennis court, library, computer room, fitness center and much more.
We decided to follow the Old Mission Peninsula Wine Trail north the length of the peninsula and work our way back to Traverse City. Our first stop was the charming Chateau Chantal. Part winery, part inn, this 65-acre estate overlooks Old Mission Peninsula and West Grand Traverse Bay. The winery is renowned for its top-notch cuisine and award-winning wine. Chateau Chantal also offers an educational experience all its own, ranging from cooking classes to daily Tapas Tours in the summer to Wine Immersion Seminars with exclusive instruction on pairing wine with food. Thursday evenings throughout the summer, the estate hosts Jazz at Sunset.
After soaking up the atmosphere at Chateau Chantal, we headed down the lane to the newest addition to the Old Mission Peninsula circuit: Two Lads Winery. If Chateau Chantal was a study in whole-package hospitality, Two Lads was a study in vibrancy and passion. You could call Cornel Olivier and Chris Baldyga upstarts, given that their fledgling winery is less than five years old and encompasses a relatively small 13 acres of established vineyards, but these guys really know their wine. Two Lads Winery is groundbreaking, introducing gravity-flow processing — a method of transporting wine throughout the winemaking process that preserves the aromatics, colors and flavors of the grapes, while being more energy-efficient than standard pump or filter methods. After sampling their exclusive selection of delicate whites, we chose the 2007 “Off Dry” Pinot Grigio, with its ripe pear and apricot notes and slightly sweet finish, as our favorite.
From Two Lads, we circled around to another vineyard on the peninsula: Brys Estate Vineyard and Winery. Owned and operated by Walt and Eileen Brys, Brys Estate was established in 2003, and now occupies 80 acres of choice peninsula land, perfect for growing their extensive range of wines. The Bryses are a charming couple with a genuine love of the region and their work — but it’s their vintner, Coenraad Stassen, who’s had a major hand in the success of their vintages. His skill is evident in the depth and variety of the wines at the estate, not to mention the many awards the vineyard has amassed. The estate’s smooth, clean and complex gewürztraminer was particularly impressive and it pairs well with spicy food and curries.
From Brys Estate, we embarked on a lightning round of visits that included Black Star Farms, Peninsula Cellars and Bowers Harbor Vineyards before stopping for lunch. Home to the infamous Cooper, a massive Bernese Mountain “wine dog” with a sweet disposition and his own vintage — a subtle blend of Riesling and chardonnay that was dry and crisp — Bowers Harbor Vineyards is an “old school” winery, with rows of grapes, hand-labeled by vintage, growing practically up to the front door. After an affectionate greeting, Cooper trotted off down the rows on his afternoon patrol.
Roadside fruit and veggie stands dot the peninsula, and their produce is amazingly fresh and flavorful, making it easy to stop for a picnic lunch supplemented by the fresh pick of the day. After satiating ourselves on locally grown cherries, we continued on to Chateau Grand Traverse, the largest vineyard in this region. Established in 1974, Chateau Grand Traverse occupies a staggering 174 acres: 117 on site, and 57 contracted vineyards throughout the Old Mission Peninsula. It is the oldest commercial winemaking operation in northern Michigan, is one of the country’s largest producers of Riesling wine and has the most sophisticated winemaking operation of any of the vineyards we visited — bottling more than 75,000 cases of wine in 2008. It was here at Chateau Grand Traverse that I sampled an ice wine, something the region is famous for.
The climate of Old Mission Peninsula is regulated by the surrounding waters of Grand Traverse Bay, which makes the peninsula optimal for the growing of high-quality vinifera (wine) grapes. The soil is sandy, with good drainage, and the temperature, sunlight exposure and precipitation are ideal. Winter damage is minimized due to snow cover, and the grapes are likewise protected from frost. Ice wines are produced when an early hard freeze allows the grapes to be harvested while frozen — something that does not happen every year. They are characterized by their clean, refreshing sweetness (the grapes freeze before fermentation, rather than after, allowing them to retain their sugar content) and make excellent dessert wines.
Of course, our visit would not be complete without sampling some of the region’s cherry wine — which we did at nearly every vineyard we stopped at. Michigan is perhaps even more well known for its cherry production than for its wine, harvesting more than 200 million pounds of cherries each year. The self-proclaimed “cherry capital of the world,” Traverse City is proud of its cherry culture, hosting an annual National Cherry Festival each July.
And now, months after returning from the wine connoisseur’s paradise that is the Old Mission Peninsula, I find myself still searching for those elusive Michigan vintages — the aromatic gewürztraminer, the crisply sparkling blanc de blanc, the voluptuous pinot noir and the distinctive Riesling ice wine that is the region’s best-kept secret.
They may be difficult to find outside of their home state but, after all, isn’t that part of what makes them priceless?
FOR MORE INFORMATION Bowers Harbor Vineyards (800) 616-7615,
Brys Estate Vineyard and Winery (231) 223-9303,
Chateau Chantal (800) 969-4009,
Chateau Grand Traverse (800) 283-0247,
Indigo Bluffs RV Resort (800) 224-4488,
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (231) 326-5134,
Travel Michigan (888) 784-7328,
Traverse Bay RV Resort (231) 938-5800,
Two Lads Winery (231) 223-7722,