Fall Foliage Road Trip: A Tour of Michigan Wineries

Airline pilot-turned winemaker Lorenzo Lizarralde pours samples at Chateau Aeronautique.

Airline pilot-turned winemaker Lorenzo Lizarralde pours samples at Chateau Aeronautique.

Experience the state’s latest and greatest vineyards

By Susan R. Pollack

Wineries are popping up in Michigan almost as fast as champagne corks on New Year’s Eve. Together, they welcome more than 2 million visitors annually and boost the state’s economy by some $300 million. 

At last count there were 123 wineries rooted in every corner of the Mitten and even a handful farther north in the Upper Peninsula. The best-known wineries are clustered near Traverse City on the Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas that jut into Lake Michigan and adjoining bays. 

Located on or near the grape-friendly 45th parallel (think Italy’s Piedmont, France’s Bordeaux and Cotes du Rhone regions and Oregon’s Willamette Valley), they boast easily navigable wine trails and host special festivals and events year-round, from the cleverly named “Harvest Stompede,” to “The Hunt for the Reds of October” and “Sips & Soups.”

Statewide, Michigan’s award-winning wines — Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Grigio and Pinot Noir — are served in tasting rooms that range from restored barns, one-room schoolhouses and even a former chicken coop, to historic buildings and Old World-style chateaus. One winery, Boathouse Vineyards on the Narrows in Lake Leelanau, can be reached by boat, bicycle or car.

 

Wine flights

In southern Michigan, in an airpark community near Jackson, a pilot for a major airline is turning out award-winning French-style wines in an airplane hangar-turned winery he named Chateau Aeronautique. Texas native Lorenzo Lizarralde created his dream winery seven years ago, featuring a gazebo tasting room overlooking a grassy airstrip and a VIP tasting room in his basement. 

A self-taught winemaker who frequently travels to France on winery research expeditions, Lizarralde enjoys hosting personal tours of his barrel-filled hangar when he’s in town. Standing in the shadow of his vintage 1956 Cessna 172, he explains how he ages, bottles and labels 14 varieties of wines, including Aviatrix Crimson and Aviatrix Passion. 

The winery is so popular that Lizarralde recently expanded the tasting room to 1,700 square feet. The new space, called The Gallery, sits atop a wine cellar that’s accessible via a spiral staircase from Italy. 

And Lizarralde is planning a second tasting room at a new location in Michigan’s Irish Hills.

“It’s neat how he incorporates his passion for planes and the winery,” says Sylvia Ney, a visiting Texan, at the tasting bar. After sampling sweet and dry flights of red and white wines in Chateau Aeronautique’s signature oversize glasses, she and her husband, Brant, purchased a half-dozen bottles to take home to Keller, Texas. 

 

Star-power

Now celebrating a successful first year, Bonobo Winery opened to much fanfare last summer on the Old Mission Peninsula. It’s the longtime dream of TV home improvement guru Carter Oosterhouse (“Trading Spaces,” “Carter Can,” “Million Dollar Rooms”). 

The winery, on a former 50-acre cherry orchard near their childhood home, is a joint venture with his brother, Todd Oosterhouse, sister-in-law, Caroline, and actress wife, Amy Smart, whose credits include “Just Friends,” “The Butterfly Effect,” “Crank” and “The Single Moms Club.” 

Contributing to the Bonobo buzz is a small plates/pairing menu curated by celebrity chef Mario Batali, who owns a summer home in Northport on the nearby Leelanau Peninsula.

Oosterhouse put his carpentry skills to work in the winery, building a long, oversize tasting bar from old barn wood. Chandeliers from his wedding hang overhead. The industrial-modern building features multiple spaces — a library, art gallery, patio, sitting area with fireplace and various nooks — designed to encourage lingering over a glass or bottle of Bonobo wine, including Rieslings, Chardonnays and Pinot Noir. 

“We wanted to create an environment where people could relax and hang out, enjoy the space, instead of bouncing to the next winery and the next one,” Oosterhouse says. 

To those unfamiliar with 21st-century Michigan wines, he promises: “Come up and try them for yourself. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.” 

Wine tasting time at Bonobo Winery, celebrating its first anniversary on Old Mission Peninsula.

Wine tasting time at Bonobo Winery, celebrating its first anniversary on Old Mission Peninsula.

 

Secret garden

Lavender lemonade and blueberry iced tea, the essence of summer, and just a few of the sweet treats on the menu when the Secret Garden opened in July at Brys Estate Vineyard & Winery. Also located on Old Mission Peninsula, Brys began producing its award-winning wines, including some of the region’s best fruit-forward Rieslings and red wines aged in traditional French barrels, in 2004. Winemaker Coenraad Stassen is recognized for his work with Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Franc.

Hidden from roadside view, the new 12-acre Secret Garden shimmers with more than 5,000 lavender plants. There’s also a pretty perennial garden, plus U-pick strawberry and blueberry patches. The winery worked to develop custom-flavored ice cream featuring its garden bounty with Traverse City’s nationally recognized Moomers Homemade Ice Cream.

The new Secret Garden ice cream flavors are served at the winery in single-serve cups and include strawberry, vanilla with strawberry pinot noir jam swirl, lavender lemon with white chocolate chips, and chocolate with strawberries and fudge pieces.

In a white farmhouse-style garden shop with wraparound porch, visitors can browse an array of handcrafted lavender- and fruit-infused goodies, including soaps and other bath and beauty products and fresh and dried bunches of lavender.

Brys Estate’s brick and mahogany tasting room radiates an elegant, Old World feel. Last summer saw the creation of another innovative outdoor experience with its long, white “Bridge Above the Vines,” built over five rows of Chardonnay vines. Within view of the winery’s new, elevated Upper Deck patio, the observation area at the end of the boardwalk quickly became a popular spot for selfies and wedding proposals, offering a sweeping view of grapevines stretching down toward East Grand Traverse Bay. 

 

Star- and sun-power

TV fans and history buffs know Michigan energy mogul Marty Lagina from his relentless quest for pirate gold and artifacts on a remote island off the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada. His exploits, along with his brother Rick and son Alex, are chronicled in the popular History Channel series, “The Curse of Oak Island,” which recently finished filming its fifth season.

These days, Lagina is devoting his efforts to another kind of treasure: Mari Vineyards, which opened in mid-June. Old Mission Peninsula’s newest winery specializes in bold red wines created from blending exotic European/northern Italian grapes new to northern Michigan, including Nebbiolo, Teroldego and Refosco, with more familiar varietals such as Malbec, Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. 

Nearly three years in development, the striking, Tuscan-inspired winery sits on a hilltop, complete with a tower and patio overlooking East Grand Traverse Bay. There’s a massive stone fireplace in the large tasting room, huge ceiling beams reclaimed from century-old barns and furniture custom-crafted from huge slabs of local maple and ash. 

But visitors are surprised to find that three-quarters of the building is buried deep below in a vast underground cave structure. There, up to 300 barrels of wine will be stored for years of slow aging at a carefully controlled 55-degree temperature. The caves are oriented so that the rising sun shines down the east-facing tunnel through a domed oculus (circular opening) structure on the morning of the summer solstice. The winery plans annual solstice celebrations and will use the unique space for special events year-round.

Lagina, a successful natural gas prospector who now works with wind energy, introduced another innovation in northern Michigan wine-making circles: seven of Mari Vineyards’ 50 acres use the Nellaserra technique, which means that temporary, plastic-covered greenhouse structures, or “hoop houses,” were installed to create warmer daytime temperatures and enhance the ripening of the grapes, effectively extending the growing season.

“These higher-end, obscure red varieties really thrive with this method,” says Cristin Hosmer, the winery’s operations manager. “We get four to five extra weeks of ripening.” And, she adds, thanks to northern Michigan’s cool nights, the ripened grapes are able to preserve their acidity.

The winery is named for Lagina’s grandmother, whose maiden name was Mari (rhymes with “sorry”) and whose family roots were in Istria, a sub-alpine wine region in what is now Croatia, Hosmer says. Before emigrating to Michigan’s western Upper Peninsula to work in the iron and copper mines, Lagina’s grandparents lived in the same northeastern Italian region as the Mondavi family, who went on to become pioneering American winemakers.

“The Mondavis used to ship them grapes,” Hosmer says. “Marty (Lagina) remembers as a kid being in his grandmother’s basement in Iron Mountain watching her make wine.” 

Like their Oak Island TV and treasure-hunting projects, the winery is a family affair. Lagina’s son Alex manages Mari Vineyards, which planted its first vines in 1999 and celebrated its first official harvest in 2005. Sean O’Keefe, who was a partner at the pioneering Chateau Grand Traverse winery nearby, signed on as Mari Vineyards’ winemaker in 2009 and is now working to develop white Riesling wines in addition to fulfilling Lagina’s quest for big reds made from his family’s ancestral grapes. 

 

Sensory tours

These days, even long-established Michigan wineries such as Chateau Chantal, Bonobo’s Old Mission Peninsula neighbor, are creating fresh experiences, such as seven-course wine dinners and blind-tastings, to attract travelers’ attention in the increasingly crowded field. They’re also keeping old favorites such as free Thursday night “Jazz at Sunset” sessions, a long-running summer tradition so popular that the crowd typically spills outside to the patio. 

Vacationing in Traverse City, Gretchen Kuhns and Jayson Miller, of Irvin, Pa., participated in a 90-minute “Sensory Tour” that they credited with giving them a new appreciation for wine.

The session started with wine served in black glasses to conceal its color. Even the experienced wine buffs in the group couldn’t always tell the difference between reds and whites simply by taste. Another experiment about the musical influence on tasting was equally intriguing. Guests then had a guided tour of Chateau Chantal’s vineyard, cellar and winemaking process followed by a small plates tasting and pairing. 

“Wine seemed like a simple thing to start, but so much goes into it,” says Kuhns, a self-described wine novice. All I knew coming in was that I preferred beer over wine. This was an eye-opener.” 

Among Chateau Chantal’s offerings are “Naughty” and “Nice” reds and whites and a sparkling wine called “Celebrate!” The winery was founded in 1993 by Robert and Nadine Begin, a former Catholic priest and Felician nun who switched paths and married in 1974. Today, their daughter, Marie-Chantal Dalese, is the winery’s president and CEO.

Reservations for Chateau Chantal’s year-round bed & breakfast are advised far in advance during peak season, mid-May through November 1. Sensory tours run through Labor Day and tasting dinners run through October. 


By the numbers

A few facts about Michigan’s vibrant and growing wine industry:

Nearly 3,000 acres are devoted to wine grapes, making Michigan the nation’s fifth largest state for wine grape production.

Vineyard area has doubled over the last 10 years. 

Michigan’s 123 commercial wineries bottle more than 2.5 million gallons of wine annually, making it 10th among the states in wine production. The vast majority of production is from Michigan-grown grapes.

 Most of Michigan’s quality wine grapes grow within 25 miles of Lake Michigan. The so-called “lake effect” not only protects the vines with snow in winter but retards bud break in spring. That helps avoid frost damage and extends the growing season by up to four weeks. 

Source: Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council