Towering sand dunes plunge steeply into the clear waters of Lake Michigan at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, while in the distance sleek sailboats cut through the turquoise waves. Endless rows of cherry trees and bucolic farmland greet the eye as you drive from one charming small town to the next along winding country roads. Culinary standouts such as Traverse City’s Farm Club, The Cooks’ House and Modern Bird offer diners locally sourced, inventive cuisine paired with exciting wine lists. Paddle boarders, water skiers, windsurfers, kayakers, slushie surfers, wake boarders and other freshwater fans delight in the golden sandy beaches and lakes large and small. The glittering shores of Northern Michigan have long drawn Midwestern summer crowds eager to soak in all the area has to offer. Add to the list of attractions increasingly acclaimed wines produced in the Great Lakes region.
In recent years, the relocation of talented winemakers from Napa, Bordeaux and the Willamette Valley coupled with the presence of long lauded local vintners has added to the Great Lakes’ luster. Situated along the 45th parallel—a distinction shared with notable winemaking localities, including France’s Burgundy and Italy’s Piedmont—the freshwater shoreline and glacial soils shape the character of the wines. The area’s three AVAs—each with its own unique grape-growing terroir— include the Leelanau Peninsula, which stretches from Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes to the western arm of Grand Traverse Bay, straddling two bodies of water (Lake Leelanau and Lake Michigan); Old Mission Peninsula, situated just across the bay from Leelanau; and the state’s newest AVA, Tip of the Mitt.
Michigan’s fate and the vitality of its vineyards are inextricably linked to the health of its waterways—a critical resource, even in a region that appears to have more than enough. You needn’t look further than the ongoing Flint Water Crisis to understand that Michigan, though surrounded by fresh water, faces serious public health and environmental issues, much of it rooted in deteriorating infrastructure, government misconduct and social inequality. The Great Lakes ecosystem, which contains roughly 20% of the world’s fresh water, also faces myriad conservation issues, including the effects of aquatic invasive species, coastal development, climate change, overfishing, contamination of watersheds due to runoff, erosion and over-farming— unfortunately, that is merely the tip of the iceberg.
“The very reason that we’re able to grow grapes this far into the interior of the continent is because of the water,” says winemaker Sean O’Keefe of Mari Vineyards. “Being here on Old Mission Peninsula, there’s no vineyard view that doesn’t offer a glimpse of the water.” It is a constant reminder of the responsibility that comes with growing in these parts. Dave Bos of Bos Wine in Elk Rapids says, “I’ve been growing organic and biodynamic wine for the past 13 years in Napa, and when I moved back to Michigan I had a vision of making world class wine and changing farming in the region to create a healthier system.”
Perhaps the best way to appreciate the natural beauty and fragility of the Great Lakes— besides sampling its tantalizing wines—is to get out on the water. Here, some of the biggest names in the Northern Michigan wine world share their favorite places to play on, over, around and, of course, in the water.
Secret Swimming Spots
Taking a dip at Old Mission State Park with Sean O’Keefe, Head Winemaker, Mari Vineyards
Swimming locales are kept under tight wraps, but there is one trick of the trade worth sharing. Depending on which way the wind blows, warm water pools in the harbors and coves around Old Mission Peninsula—Haserot Beach and Lighthouse Park are great swim spots—and once you’ve lived here a long time, as O’Keefe has, you get a read on it. The water is inviting from May through November as long as the air is warm, and a chilled bottle of Mari Vineyards’ lush, citrus-leaning Late Harvest Riesling suits the mood no matter the season.
Kayaking Elk Rapids Day Park with Dave Bos, Owner and Winemaker, Bos Wine
In the summer months, when it stays light well past 10 p.m., dinner on the beach is the preferred way to end the day. Bos stocks the cooler, stows the kayaks in the back of the truck (you can also rent boats from Bayfront Beach and Bike) and heads to Elk Rapids Day Park, a family friendly beach with picnic tables and grills—not to mention great paddling. Bos Wine Garden, a few miles down the street from the beach, offers tasting flights paired with dips and charcuterie boards (and a less sandy dining option).
Golfing at Arcadia Bluffs Golf Club with Doug Olson, Director of Winemaking and Grape Growing, Boathouse Vineyards
With sweeping panoramic views of Lake Michigan and natural sand dunes incorporated into the links, Arcadia Bluffs is a bucket-list course that lucky locals play regularly. As a public course, all are welcome. Nearby Traverse City is the place to stop for a bite to eat: Boathouse Restaurant, Modern Bird, The Cooks’ House, Trattoria Stella are all favorites of Olson’s.
Floating over Lake Leelanau with Nicole White, Owner, Dune Bird Winery
Taking to the skies in a floatplane offers a new perspective on the area’s immense beauty and a bird-eye view of the seasonal changes. You may see the snow receding to reveal spring’s greenery, or careen over shores alight with the fiery rich colors of autumn. Lake Leelanau’s colors shift from Caribbean blue in the shallows to deep cerulean. Once back on land, White will commemorate a flight with a bottle of one of Dune Bird’s aviation themed reds: AV8, a rich, dry red that marries Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah varietals and Woolsey’s Red, a robust blend of Blaufränkisch and Merlot.
Mountain biking at Glacial Hills Pathway and Natural Area with Thomas Houseman, Winemaker, 2 Lads Winery
Tucked between Torch Lake and Lake Bellaire you’ll find 31.5 miles of Michigan’s finest mountain biking and hiking trails. During the warmer months, this forested area is a mushroom forager’s paradise if you know where to look. Houseman has found morels, oyster mushrooms, hen-of-the-woods and chanterelles galore. Which incidentally pairs perfectly with a chilled bottle of 2 Lads Winery’s versatile Cabernet Franc Blanc.
This article originally appeared in the February/March 2023 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!