Against the odds, a trailblazing Michigan winemaker inspired a thriving industry in The Great Lakes State.
Crystalline lakes, gorgeous woodlands, charming coastal towns- northern Michigan has long been a tourism mecca. However, this region is home to another burgeoning industry. The Michigan wine scene has established itself as a force to be reckoned with.
According to UpNorthLive, over twelve Traverse City-area wineries took home 82 awards at the 2022 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, including two “Best of Show.” Another 57 were won at the 2022 TEXSOM International Wine Competition—with three winning the top Judges’ Selection Award.
Bragging rights, anyone?
Seeking the story behind the ascent, I journeyed to Traverse City’s Old Mission Peninsula, ground zero for the region’s wine production. Cherry blossoms glazed the rolling hills in white, while the waters of Lake Michigan glowed an arresting aquamarine.
Here, I had the pleasure of chatting with Eddie O’Keefe, owner of Chateau Grand Traverse (CGT). Northern Michigan’s first commercial winery, this full-spectrum operation grows, produces, and bottles on-site. His father was the late Edward O’Keefe, an ardent crusader for northern Michigan wines. With a backstory fit for Hollywood, Edward was an Olympic gymnast, served as a Green Beret paratrooper, then operated as an undercover narcotics agent reporting directly to J. Edgar Hoover.
Seeking a quieter life for his family, in 1874, Edward planted 30 acres of Riesling grapes on the Old Mission Peninsula. While situated on the same latitude as Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Oregon’s Willamette region, no one at the time believed grapes could survive northwestern Michigan’s harsh winters.
Said Eddie, “My father was told by Michigan State University and Germany’s Geisenheim Viticulture Institute that, empirically, it was not commercially viable. He heard that and said, ‘bullsh**.’ He found that the areas conducive to grape growing around the world had very similar characteristics to the Grand Traverse area. A large body of water, sandy soil, elevation, right on the 45th parallel… and being from Michigan, he was not keen on the wines produced here. It was all hybrid grapes, and he was very adamant against that.”
Michigan boasts five American Viticulture Areas. Back then, only two existed—the Fenville AVA and Lake Michigan Shore AVA—both in the state’s southwestern corner. These grew hybrid, cold-resistant grapes bred by the University of Minnesota, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Merlot. Not so at CGT. Edward was convinced that Old World grape varieties could thrive in the region’s unique microclimate, where East and West Grand Traverse Bay moderate the winters.
And thrive they did.
In 1978, CGT Riesling won the Michigan State Fair. Last year, CGT’s 2022 Late Harvest Riesling was the #1 selling Michigan Wine. Per Traverse City Tourism, there are now 10 wineries on the Old Mission Peninsula and over 20 on the neighboring Leelanau Peninsula. Agritourism is a thriving sector, with visitors able to tour wineries by bicycle, bus, and boat.
What was once scornfully branded “O’Keefe’s Folly” paved the way for the current attainments of Michigan’s Wine Coast. “Riesling is what we made our name on,” Eddie explained. “It’s our best-selling item and what I believe grows best in this area.” Yet diversity is a common thread in this AVA.
Eddie continued, “We grow thirteen different varietals. I’ve been going over our projections for next year, and hey, quite a bit of red! Sales have been positive on those.” Many northern Michigan wineries similarly balance whites and reds. Reds like Gamay Noir and Merlot share vineyards with Pinot Grigio and Gewürztraminer. Cherry and ice wines are both regional specialties.
“It’s been said that the original winery of an area tends to be an incubator for other wineries,” O’Keefe concluded. “People acquire skills there and move on. One winery once called us The Mothership.” On Michigan’s Wine Coast, the O’Keefe family’s success paved the way for the region’s many award-winning wineries.