Michigan winters are notoriously brutal and yet its winemaking industry thrives, owing much of its success to a particular microclimate created by ancient glacial activity. While there are five AVAs in the state (Fennville, Lake Michigan Shore, Leelanau Peninsula, Old Mission Peninsula and Tip of the Mitt), the two most prominent (Leelanau, Old Mission Peninsula) got their start more than 10,000 years ago as powerful glaciers formed the Great Lakes and created the peninsulas.
Surrounded by the waters of Lake Michigan, the Leelenau Peninsula and Old Mission Peninsula AVAs enjoy the moderating influence of the lake effect on winter’s bitter temperatures, extending the harvest season and ultimately benefiting the aromatic, acid-driven varieties that do best here. Traverse City is the central point between both AVAs, which together comprise the Traverse Wine Coast, an easily navigable tasting trail comprising 40 wineries, making it the largest collection of winemakers in the Midwest.
The glaciers may have done the landscaping, but most locals agree the Michigan wine industry really owes its reputation to the late Ed O’Keefe, the founder of Chateau Grand Traverse winery. According to Mike Kent, public relations manager for Traverse City Tourism, in the 1970s, O’Keefe ‘had the crazy idea that because of the moderate microclimate on these peninsulas, you could pursue winemaking. He was right, and in just 30 years we’ve seen tremendous growth and our wines have won many prestigious awards’.
Today, the Traverse Wine Coast and its two peninsulas are home to 60% of Michigan’s total wine production. The focus in this area is on cool-climate aromatic reds and whites such as Riesling and Pinot Gris, as well as rosé made from Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc – and the occasional Lemberger (Blaufränkisch). Incredible views of Lake Michigan framed by picturesque hillsides topped with quaint lighthouses can be found throughout the region.
Any visit to this area must include a stop at O’Keefe’s pioneering winery. It’s a great place to watch the sunset while enjoying a flight of wines paired with seasonal menu offerings. It also has accommodation – The Inn at Chateau Grand Traverse – if you want to make a night of it. Left Foot Charley in Traverse City has a century-old historic root cellar where it now ages its wines. Try the Sparkling Island View Vineyard Pinot Blanc 2018, crafted from Michigan’s oldest Pinot Blanc planting (dating back to 1995).
On the Leelanau Peninsula, Ciccone Vineyard & Winery is well-known for red expressions, especially the Cabernet Franc and Lee La Tage Bordeaux blend, both medal-winning wines. You may recognise the name – the owner and founding winemaker is pop star Madonna’s father. Black Star Farms, recognised for its quality Riesling, has wineries on both peninsulas, but the Suttons Bay location (5km away) delivers an all-in-one winery experience with a luxury inn (Inn at Blackstar Farms), restaurant (Hearth & Vine Café), and access to several hiking trails spread over 64ha. Just a 10-minute drive away, 45 North Vineyard and Winery, so named for the 45th latitude line that runs right through its winery, invites visitors to wander a lovely 5km trail that winds throughout the vineyards; or take a seat by the fire in the tasting barn, featuring handcrafted posts and beams, and indulge in the lemon cream notes of its extremely popular Unwooded Chardonnay.
Michigan: stay & eat
Traverse City and its wine coast are well known as havens for delicious farm-to-table cuisine. If you love a food truck, visit The Little Fleet, a permanent selection of food trucks serving up everything from local brews and wine to burgers and barbecue. More upscale, consider the waterfront dining option at the Boathouse, on Old Mission Peninsula – pair the local speciality, smoked whitefish pâté, with a crisp unoaked Chardonnay.
Village Cheese Shanty in Fishtown, Leland, features more than 60 types of cheese and local cherry preparations; people have been known to drive long distances to eat one of its epic sandwiches.
For an immersive wine country stay, book at Chateau Chantal on Old Mission Peninsula, which offers cooking classes and wine dinners, and rooms with a view over Grand Traverse Bay. Park Place Hotel is one of the oldest hotels in town and a landmark in Traverse City, while the sprawling Grand Traverse Resort and Spa, 13km from Traverse City, is owned by Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, offering everything from gambling to golf.