Leelanau Wine Cellars to add restaurant, bigger tasting room

For more than 30 years, Leelanau Wine Cellars (LWC) has been offering a taste of northern Michigan to wine aficionados from all over the world through their vineyard in Omena. Now, the time has come for a multifaceted expansion that will address the growing needs of the present and allow for those anticipated in the future.

Bob Jacobson, president of LWC and one of the recognized founders of wine making in the region, says the new changes are part of a “rational and strategic move forward” for the company, and reflect both the excitement of planning and the operational challenges that accompany them.

“We’re at the point where we need to make one of those major steps forward, because the business has steadily grown,” said Jacobson. “The focus is on maximizing our existing assets, and expanding and reinvesting in the places we see serving us well into the future.”

LWC is located in Omena, 22 miles north of Traverse City on M-22. The first facet of expansion will take them south a bit, to Suttons Bay, where they have acquired 80 acres of brand-new land with high visibility to those traveling on M-22. Thirty of the acres have already been planted with a variety of grapes, including Riesling, Cabernet, and Merlot, among others, and the plan is to continue to cultivate approximately 10-15 more acres each year until the site is full.

“There are no other vineyards along the main highway in Suttons Bay, and so we see our presence there as being helpful in creating the ambiance of the region as a wine destination,” said Jacobson. “Tours increasing every year, visitors having more access to grapes can only add to the agri-tourism efforts here.”

The other component of LWC’s expansion plan involves retail. Many locals in the area recall, with fondness, the former Harbor Bar of Omena, whose doors have been closed for some time now. LWC will be opening them again, and redeveloping the spot into two businesses: a space that will serve as a newly-expanded tasting room, and another that will be a 110-seat restaurant, with about half of the seating on the patio/deck.

LWC already obtained their site plan approval and a special use permit for the facility, and is in the process of addressing a wide range of engineering, architecture, and construction issues. If all stays on task, plans are to have the building open by late fall or early next spring.

Jacobson says that “any worthwhile project comes with its challenges,” but that the response he’s gotten so far from locals and guests indicate they see the new efforts as ones that will benefit the area, the economy, wine making in northern Michigan, and tourism overall.

“We’ve been based out of Omena for 31 years, and it’s time to do a few things to build on that and put us on the main map of destination,” says Jacobson. “We have a few other things in the works, but it’s not time to talk about those yet. When we get a little more done on these projects, we will.”

One thing Jacobson is speaking about is an issue of considerable concern to just about everyone in the Michigan wine industry.

The state legislature is considering a ban on the law that allows for direct shipments of alcohol within the state to customers who are not able to purchase their wines through retail.

This practice has suddenly become the center of political controversy, with a legal case involving the state legislation and Detroit-area wine educators. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled May 16 that Michigan’s laws were discriminatory to out-of-state wine producers, who could not bypass a wholesaler and sell direct to Michigan consumers, as in-state producers could.

“Issues like these can have incredible impact on, particularly, the smaller-size and new wineries that don’t generate a tremendous volume, but rely on everything we can to put our product into the hands of customers,” reflected Jacobson. “Here at LWC, we’d like to see direct shipment of wine limited and allowed for us to ship in and out, because we believe that is important to the industry and to consumers. Issues like these are going to continue to surface as what we do has the potential to create more impact.” BN