Leelanau Wine Cellars to triple space

OMENA – Leelanau Wine Cellars is poised to upgrade and then move into the former Northern Michigan Fruit Co. facilities in Omena, more than tripling the space available for its winery, according to state and county documents.

Robert Jacobson, president of Leelanau Wine Cellars, recently told colleagues on the Michigan Grape and Vine Council that his winery is enlarging its operations from 10,000 to 36,000 square feet as part of its move into the facility.

The move puts Leelanau Cellars squarely on the side of Michigan vintners who feel the state needs more capital equipment and production capacity. Jacobson, in particular, has argued that Michigan vintners need more tanks to store the juice they produce.

That could pay dividends if vineyards break production records this year due to a mild winter and early spring. It would also position Leelanau County's largest winery to exploit the steadily rising demand for Michigan wines even more effectively, experts say.

According to David Creighton, promotions specialist for the Michigan Grape and Wine Council, sales for the state's wineries overall are increasing at restaurants, stores and their own tasting rooms.

"We don't seem to be saturating the market within Michigan at all."

Leelanau Cellars' president also told the state panel that his winery has put 50 to 60 additional acres of vineyards into production over the last four years, the wine council's minutes indicate. About 40 of them are on M-204 between Suttons Bay and Lake Leelanau, according to published reports.

A representative of Leelanau Wine Cellars would not provide details on the move, saying the winery wanted to clear any permit or regulatory hurdles before making an announcement. But some minor office refurbishing has apparently taken place at the site.

No site plan has yet been submitted for the property, said Leelanau County Zoning Administrator Deb Serwin. The key regulatory issue is likely to be wastewater treatment, although the industry has learned how to deal with the run-off, often using biological processes paralleling winemaking itself.

"Everyone knows how to handle the problem now," Creighton said.

Leelanau Hilltop LLC, a firm affiliated with Leelanau Wine Cellars, bought the former fruit-processing site in December 2005 for $540,000, according to documents on file with the Leelanau County Register of Deeds.

State records indicate that Michael H. Jacobson, Robert's father, is the official agent for Leelanau Hilltop LLC, which shares an address with his development firm in Novi. The elder Jacobson co-founded the winery in the late 1970s, making it one of the first in the Grand Traverse area.

His limited liability corporation bought the former cherry-processing facility after the Northern Michigan Fruit Co. ran into severe financial problems several years ago. J.P. Morgan Chase Bank took over ownership of the site and sold it to Leelanau Hilltop.

The move to the facility at 7161 NW Bayshore Drive in Omena would follow another Leelanau Cellars' project: the opening of a tasting room in the rehabbed Harbor Bar in Omena last fall. A new restaurant, called "Knot, Just Another Bar," will share space in the building.

Leelanau Township recently agreed to ask the Michigan Liquor Control Commission to allow "Knot, Just Another Bar" to sell Leelanau Cellars wine "out the door." BN