Rob Manigold’s family has been growing fruit on Old Mission Peninsula for 4 generations. “When somebody comes up from Detroit or Chicago, they always go to the sand dunes in Leelenau County and they always go to the end of Old Mission Peninsula,” says Manigold, who is also the supervisor of Peninsula Township and an ardent voice dedicated to preserving the Peninsula’s rural nature.
Old Mission Peninsula is an 18-mile-long finger of land surrounded by the crystal-cold waters of Lake Michigan and its deep east and west bays. At its widest, it’s three miles across, with watershed views at every point and a unique micro-climate that encourages fruit-growing moreso than any other place in northern Michigan.
Today, it is also home to 7 wineries, 4 inns, 5 restaurants and 8 accessible farmers markets or orchards, a great place to unwind and sample season-sweet fruit just off the vine.
Old Mission’s wine industry began in 1975, after 100 years of farming cherries, apples and potatoes. Tall ships can come within 30 feet of shore at Bowers Harbor, which has always made it easy to export local crops, says Mark Johnson, winemaker and a co-owner of Chateau Chantal, a winery, bed-and-breakfast and restaurant that opened in 1993.
Johnson grew up here, but left for college and a social work career in Germany. After four years, he “burned out. My wife got a job in a wine-growing region, and I said, ‘I’m going to take a year off and do some grunt work and be tired at the end of the day and be able to sleep at night,'” he recalls. In the process, Johnson fell in love with winemaking. He did an official apprenticeship, then brought his European expertise to his hometown.
Settled in 1842 by a Presbyterian minister, Old Mission Peninsula is home to families who’ve lived there since the Civil War. Located at the 45th parallel like many of the great winemaking regions of the world, the peninsula offers warm, sunny summers that linger long into fall.
The winemakers of Old Mission Peninsula are like a fraternity of sorts, since they know “we will [all] be judged by the worst bottle of wine that anyone tastes from us,” Johnson says. They are “very collegial,” meeting monthly and sharing equipment, supplies and knowledge. Together, they produce 90,000 cases of wine a year from 100% vitis venifera grapes.
In the summer, Old Mission Peninsula is a definite destination. A significant percentage of its 5,200 residents spend winters in warmer climates then return here for summer, along with tourists who favor the cove-like quiet of the Neahtawanta Inn with its yoga room and fruit-based breakfasts and the peninsula’s 50 miles of scenic shoreline. Winery tours, tapas lunches and restaurants decorated with local art are but a few attractions; every Thursday night, Chateau Chantal features a jazz trio and on September 8, the entire peninsula comes together in an annual wine and food celebration.
“The magnificence of the place is really breathtaking,” says Johnson. “The state of Michigan’s motto is, ‘If you seek a beautiful peninsula, look around you.’ We say that about Old Mission Peninsula. We really think we have it all.”