Aged to perfection: A new crop is primed to take over their family’s wine businesses

REGION – As the 2008 vintage comes onto store shelves, several regional wineries are turning out something else home-grown: a second generation that will eventually become the industry's owners and operators.

Northwest Michigan's wine industry is about 35 years old, and a first wave of the second generation started showing up about 15 years ago at some of the oldest wineries, including Chateau Grand Traverse and Leelanau

Cellars. This spring, a second wave of that second

generation has washed over both Old Mission and

Leelanau peninsulas.

– At Chateau Chantal, Marie-Chantal

Dalese, 31, namesake and daughter

of founders and owners Bob and

Nadine Begin, has come aboard as

marketing director and CEO in


– At Good Harbor Vineyards

south of Leland, siblings

Taylor and Sam

Simpson, 28 and 22

respectively, are both

back to help their

mother, Debbie

Simpson, run the

winery and fruit farm,

following the March

11 death of their

father, winery founder

Bruce Simpson.

– At L. Mawby in Suttons Bay,

founder Larry Mawby took on

partner Stuart Laing last Decem-

ber. Laing's son Mike, 29, who's

worked for Mawby the last two

harvest seasons, is effectively

apprenticing with Mawby now,

with an eye to taking over in the


And at Peninsula Cellars, son John Kroupa, 34, took on an ownership stake in late 2006 which, as part of the family's succession plan, will steadily increase until he eventually takes over from his parents, founders Dave and Joan Kroupa.

Noteworthy in this second wave are the presence of two women – Dalese and Taylor Simpson. Also striking is that most individuals are returning to northern Michigan after significant travel and experience in the wine industry, which they'll be able to apply to their home wineries.

Dalese earned a bachelor's of marketing and management at DePaul University in Chicago before heading to a graduate program in wine business at the University of Adelaide in Australia in 2003. She came back to Chateau Chantal for a year, but was lured back to the big city life she had in Chicago. She worked for three years for a distributor there and got married before deciding the time was right now.

Her title is marketing director, a new position at the winery. She's also working with winemaker Mark Johnson on building distributor relationships and assisting CEO Jim Krupka, whose title she'll take some day.

"The steps that I took were with this in mind," said Dalese, who was 15 when Chateau Chantal opened.

Taylor Simpson also worked in Chicago as a key accounts manager for distribution giant Southern Wine & Spirits, said her brother, Sam Simpson. She'll be handling sales and marketing while he'll be the winemaker and focus on production. Their mother will run the tasting room and label design.

"We're a good team. We have different skills," Sam Simpson said, adding that the family also has a cherry farm with three times their grape acreage.

Sam Simpson, who will graduate May 5 from Michigan State with a degree in finance, was headed for Minneapolis and a job at General Mills when his father's death changed plans.

"It's just kind of what you do. It's family," said Simpson. He had studied viticulture and enology at MSU as well, and said both he and Taylor had planned to return to the business – eventually.

"You always want to come back, but you don't want to come back under these circumstances," he said.

Over at Mawby, Mike Laing's prior life was as a teacher in – yes, Chicago – for four years and then two in Dubai. He's helped his parents with their vineyard since it was planted in 2003, and in 2007 he worked the harvest season for Mawby, where his mother also works in the tasting room.

Next he went to New Zealand to work their harvest in February 2008, and then spent last harvest working again for Mawby. The partnership between his father, Stuart, and Mawby includes both him and eventually his brother Peter, who currently works in Virginia and is expected to join the winery in a year or so.

"That was my dad's goal. He wants the family involved, and he wants this to be something my brother and I can take into the future, with Larry's blessing and Larry's knowledge," Laing said. "Right now I'm dedicated to growing this business and making the best wine we can make."

At Peninsula Cellars, John Kroupa graduated from Michigan State with a horticulture degree in 1998, then took a year off to see the world. Like the Simpsons, the Kroupa operation was first a cherry farm, and the family still produces about 1.5 million pounds of cherries annually.

"The winery was a way to diversify what we were growing and spread the risk out a little bit," Kroupa said. "It's grown into its own business that requires full-time attention.

"As part of our succession plan I keep acquiring more year after year."

The second wave has a set of mentors in people like Eddie and Sean O'Keefe, brothers and sons of Chateau Grand Traverse founder Ed O'Keefe. Eddie O'Keefe, 47, has worked at the winery for 24 years and as president since 1998 – though he remembers taking soil samples with his dad back when the winery started in 1974.

"Anybody that goes into a family business has to create their own opportunities and own expertise," he said. For him, that became building relationships with people who could deliver their product to market. The winery has grown from about 5,500 cases of wine in 1985, when he started, to an estimated 80,000-85,000 cases this year.

"We have very, very strong relationships with our distributors and then salespeople. That's the name of the game, for us: relationships."

"Be a sponge," advises Spencer Stegenga, the second-generator proprietor at Bowers Harbor Vineyard on Old Mission. "Be willing to listen. Be willing to make mistakes, but learn from those mistakes."

Now 36, Stegenga came back to his family's winery in 1995, after earning an economics and business degree from Hillsdale College. The winery was then producing about 700 cases. He wrote a business plan, sat his parents down and sold them on it. He echoes Eddie O'Keefe about finding your own opportunities. In his case, it was producing two wines new to Michigan – unwooded Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio. Those wines "put us on the map," Stegenga said, and production jumped up to 2,700 cases.

Initially he had a one-third ownership stake, which was upped to half in 1998. His father, Jack, died last October, and Stegenga remains co-owner with his mother. He oversees the now 9,000-case operation, including 40 acres of vineyards and three winemakers.

With many heirs now apparent, a few of the second generation members have also started the third. Kroupa and Stegenga both have two young children. Eddie O'Keefe and his wife expect their first in June. BN