Last fall we visited the Leelanau Peninsula of Michigan and left convinced that it is a wine destination that needs to be taken seriously. This spring we committed to embark on another road trip to the area but this time we decided to expand our horizons and visit both the Leelanau and Old Mission Peninsulas. During the trip it was amazing to see how many similarities are between these two AVA’s and Napa and Sonoma. Yes, Napa and Sonoma are bigger and more established, but Michigan has a thriving wine country in their backyard and we believe it’s worth the visit.
Our intent during this article is not to compare the wines of California and Michigan but to bring to light the exciting things that are happening in Michigan’s wine country and to highlight some of the similarities it shares with two of our favorite places, Napa and Sonoma.
Just like Carneros connects Napa and Sonoma on the south, Traverse City serves as the in between point for Old Mission and Leelanau. Old Mission, which is the smallest of the Peninsulas, has one main thoroughfare, Center Road, that takes you from the bottom to the top just like Highway 29 serves as the main artery of Napa Valley. On the other hand, Leelanau, which is the bigger Peninsula is more of a driving adventure just like Sonoma. Old Mission with its travel simplicity, likewise to Napa, is more tourist friendly, while Leelanau, similar to Sonoma, attracts a more adventurous traveler.
The friendly rivalry between Old Mission and Leelanau, alike to the one of Napa and Sonoma, is evident, with each side often finding ways to justify why the terroir and weather conditions are better for grape growing in their particular AVA. Grape growing might be the talk of the town these days on the Peninsulas but it was cherries what ruled the area not long ago, similar to how different fruits farms dominated the Valleys in the early days.
If Old Mission and Leelanau continue to embrace their uniqueness, commit to their vineyards and hold on to their first class hospitality we believe that these two Wine Destinations will soon be making some serious noise in the wine world.
The Old Mission Peninsula
Situated on the 45th parallel, Old Mission, is home to eleven wineries. The first of the 11 was Chateau Grand Traverse which was established in 1974 by Edward O’Keefe Jr.. O’Keefe was also the driving force behind establishing the AVA in 1987. The peninsula is 19 miles long and sits on Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay. With it being only 4 miles wide at its broadest point you can expect breathtaking views of the stunning turquoise blue waters of Lake Michigan from every turn. Although frigid temperatures invade the region during the winter months, the depth of the water in the bay along with the rolling hills of the region, create an environment in which they can grow world class quality grapes.
With a short growing season due to its cold climate, wine growers in the area have done a really good job of finding grapes that can stand up to the cooler temperatures and that ripen during the shorter season. You also have different wineries experimenting with ways to elongate the growing period. A perfect example of this is Mari Vineyards, who with their Nellaserra growing technique, sets up greenhouses over specific vineyards and adds approximately 4 weeks to the growing season. Although over 20 varietals are grown in the region, the ones that seem to have taken the forefront are Riesling, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc and Gruner Veltliner on the white side with Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir as the leading reds.
Without a doubt Old Mission is producing some of the best examples of Riesling in the world. They are elegant and often show a really nice balance between fruit and acidity. This is also one of the best places on the planet for Ice and Late Harvest wines. For those of you who prefer reds, some of the best pure Cab Franc examples we have tasted have come from both the Old Mission and Leelanau Peninsulas. We also enjoyed some really nice Pinot Noirs during our visit.
The Leelanau Peninsula
Home to around 30 wineries and close to 700 acres of wine grapes planted, this region is starting to hit its stride. Also located on the 45th parallel, Leelanau’s first winery was established in 1970 by Bernie Rink when he founded Boskydel Vineyard. The AVA was established twelve years later in 1982. Similar to Old Mission, the proximity to the lake along with the topography of the area create good grape growing conditions. A short growing season, the weather uncertainty and an ongoing concern for rot, seem to be the biggest challenges for the grape growers and wine makers of the region.
Most wineries are family run operations and it is common to see the owner being the winemaker, the vineyard manager or at the cash register checking you out. This rare occurrence, especially in today’s day and age, gives you the unique opportunity to get a real sense of the wineries true soul.
During our visits, it has been amazing to see the diversity of vinifera grapes being grown in this region. This is where we were introduced to Auxerrois and where we fell in love with Blaufränkish. That said, it is their Cabernet Franc and their Riesling that are leading the charge in making this a world class wine destination. We also found some really nice examples of Pinot Noir, Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc during our travels through the area.
One of the great things about visiting the wineries of Old Mission and Leelanau is the diversity of experiences you get to enjoy. Most of the wineries in both of the peninsulas are family owned. From enjoying an intimate tasting at Amoritas Vineyards to enjoying the beautifully Italian inspired tasting room of Mari Vineyards, there is something for everyone.
Following, in alphabetical order, are some of the wineries that we think are must visits if you are in the area. It’s important to note that we still have more than half of the wineries in the area to visit and that to this day we have not had one bad experience in any of the wineries we have visited. This list is only to serve as a reference in case you have a limited amount of time when visiting the region:
* Aurora Cellars - Leelanau Peninsula
* Bel Lago Vineyards and Winery - Leelanau Peninsula
* Black Star Farms - Leelanau Peninsula
* Blustone Vineyards - Leelanau Peninsula
* Boathouse Vineyards - Leelanau Peninsula
* Bowers Harbor Vineyards - Old Mission Peninsula
* Brys Estate Vineyard and Winery - Old Mission Peninsula
* Chateau Grand Traverse - Old Mission Peninsula
* Forty-Five North Winery and Vineyard - Leelanau Peninsula
* Mari Vineyards - Old Mission Peninsula
* Rove Estate - Leelanau Peninsula
* Shady Lane Cellars - Leelanau Peninsula
* 2 Lads Winery - Old Mission Peninsula
Things to Experience
With both of our trips to the area being short and us trying to maximize our winery visits, we have not been able to explore the area as much as we would have liked. However, we always find time for some fun. Without a doubt enjoying a sunset on the white sands of Lake Michigan should be a priority when visiting. Leland, aka Fishtown, is a historic fishing town which is also home to some really cool shops and places to eat. Speaking of food, while exploring Fishtown, make sure to grab a sandwich at the famous Village Cheese Shanty.
We only drove through Traverse City on our way to Old Mission but it looked like a really cool place to spend some time. Since food is always a necessity, you might want to head to Jolly Pumpkin on Old Mission for some grub and beer. It is full of character and in 2018 USA Today voted it the 4th Best Brewery in America. The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park is for sure a must visit for nature lovers. If you do not mind a bit of chilly weather, we suggest you visit during the fall when mother nature puts on a color spectacle in Northern Michigan.
How to Get There
Most people think of Northern Michigan as a hard place to reach but the truth is that it is fairly simple to get to the Peninsulas. The easiest way to get to the area is by flying into Traverse City. From some cities you can find direct flights but you are most likely looking at 1-stop flights, no different than if you are flying to Napa or Sonoma. As far as driving is concerned, Traverse City is approximately:
4 hours from Detroit
5 hours from Chicago
5 hours and 45 minutes from Milwaukee
6 hours from Cleveland
6 and a half hours from Indianapolis
7 hours from Toronto
If you are a wine lover within driving distance of the area and you have not visited, we suggest that you get in your car and start driving. If driving isn’t your thing or you are too far away to drive, go to one of the travel engine websites and you will be surprised at the amount of flight options and how affordable they are. Don’t let the misconception of reaching the area be an obstacle for visiting such a breathtaking region.
We would like to thank all of the people and wineries that have welcomed us with open arms during our visits to the region. Thanks also to the Leland Lodge for their hospitality and for all of the help with the planning of our trips. They have made us feel completely at home and we have no doubt that they will do the same for you if you decide to stay with them. To the Wineries of Old Mission Peninsula Wine Trail, thanks for your help with our schedule, all of the suggestions and in helping us secure accommodations. The cottage at Brys Estate Vineyard and Winery is a dream place to stay.
If you enjoy nature, good wine and first class hospitality then Old Mission and Leelanau are for you. These two emerging Wine Destinations, comprised mainly of family run wineries, give you the opportunity to get close and personal with the people of the region, the vineyards, the winemakers and the winery owners. Here you can feel at home while enjoying an unforgettable vacation.
We hope you get the opportunity to visit, we are already planning our next trip.