Late harvesters enjoy the county’s bounty

CEDAR – Leelanau County's newest winery, Longview Winery, has already won 22 medals in state, regional and international wine competitions for 11 wines in its 2005 vintage. But winemaker Alan Eaker isn't done yet. His 12th offering, a cherry mead (an alcoholic beverage made from fermented honey and cherry juice concentrate) will be entered into New York's Finger Lakes International wine competition later this year. It's the first mead to be commercially-produced in Leelanau County.

Since opening his tasting room last June, Eaker has sold out of six wines, including his Double Gold Medal and "Best of Class" 2005 Cherry Wine, which was honored during the August 2006 Michigan Wine & Spirits Competition.

He plans to make more cherry and ice wine this year.

"I think we'll do about 20 percent more production this year."

Nouveau winemaker

For his 60th birthday five years ago, Eaker, a retired art department chair and professor, received a classy, Italian-made vehicle any new vintner would be proud to drive-a Landini tractor.

"I wanted a Lamborghini," Eaker said jokingly of his wife's gift.

After 25 years in the classroom and 10 years as an administrator for the University of Southern Florida, Eaker embarked on a new career in a new town, the latter at the urging of his wife.

"I came home one day and told her I'd do absolutely anything for her. She said she wanted to buy a farm on the Leelanau Peninsula. I said, 'Great. Fine. Where is the Leelanau Peninsula?'"

Wife Linda Ackley-Eaker, a successful bronze sculptor who grew up near Flint and worked in East Lansing after grad school, fondly remembered a student internship spent in Leland. At her husband's urging, she traveled to the northwest corner of Michigan's lower peninsula and scouted property, falling in love with a 103-acre farm in the Gill's Pier area. He bought it for her, sight unseen.

Once they made the move to Leelanau, Eaker said he was inspired by the sight of his neighbor's (Charlie Edson of Bel Lago) 40-acre vineyard to the east and thought to himself, "I could do that." Raised and educated close to California wine country, with visits to Morgan Hill-a winery that became the inspiration for his tasting room-he already had an affinity for the idea, if not the process. Plus, the thought of decades in retirement with nothing planned to do didn't hold much allure.

"You look at the future and think about what you're going to do for 30 years. You can only fish so much."

Eaker began asking questions of his eventual mentor, Elmer Kalchik, an area orchardist who supplies the cherries and apples found in Longview's fruit wines. (The 2005 Cherry Wine is dedicated to Kalchik.) He next invited some of his Florida friends to help him plant 10,000 vines. After three days of trellising and digging posts, they decided he was crazy. Nonetheless, 10 acres of vines were planted that year (1998) and Eaker sold his first grape harvests to Bel Lago from 2001 to 2004.

He has so far produced 1,500 cases of wine, making him one of Michigan's "boutique" winemakers. Though Eaker said a winery's first "sweet spot" is 5,000 cases, he is content to produce less than 2,000 cases.

"These stages allow you to 'eat the elephant' in bites," he said.

A taste of Leelanau Peninsula

His goal is to make wines that are all about the Leelanau Peninsula, with its characteristic 45th parallel, cold-climate viticulture and glacial moraine. For that reason, he doesn't irrigate, instead preferring that the unique characteristics of seasonal differences flavor his estate-bottled wines.

He is learning the art of winemaking with the help of Leelanau Cellars' Shawn Walters, whom Eaker calls a "consummate winemaker." So far, Eaker is most proud of his Sweet Winter Ice, an ice wine made from Cayuga grapes. It's the first ice wine made with that appellation and is his "contribution" to the industry.

"It's been a worthwhile adventure," Eaker said. "We like the idea of a legacy, building something than can be shared with our children and granddaughter."

Annabelle, his toddler granddaughter, picks grapes, squeezes them and tastes them.

"It's very rewarding, and there's an intimate involvement we don't usually get with our work," he says.

Family affair

The Longview Winery tasting room is located next door to the Cedar Rustic Inn, a non-smoking, 63-seat restaurant, offering American regional cuisine. It's owned by Eaker's wife, Linda, and operated by Linda's son, Aaron, a Culinary Institute of America graduate, and his wife, Nikki. Both businesses are located on the site of the former Eddie G's Restaurant, at the corner of Good Harbor Trail and South Schomberg Road.

Linda said it was the family's intention to develop the 1.6 acres as a destination for food, art and wine. The Cedar Rustic Inn, serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner six days a week and brunch on Sundays, will seat an additional 24 in its outdoor garden this summer and offer musical entertainment on weekends.

Behind the restaurant in a two-story barn is Linda's bronze foundry, where she casts the sculptures she designs and sells through her company, Third Millennium Arts. She is perhaps best known in Michigan for her bronze life-sized "Sparty" sculpture on MSU's campus.

Her name is also well-known among the international ATHENA women's organization. In 1982, while still a grad student, she was commissioned to design a sculpture that celebrates women's achievements in the community. Since then, she has cast more than 5,000 of the bronze ATHENA awards.

A third building on the couple's property will be converted to an art gallery, opening hopefully in July. It will contain the couple's artwork and pieces from artists they admire.

More information about Longview Winery is available at www.longviewwinery.com.

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