Meet the Vineyard Managers Who Pair Skills with Winemakers
Making an award-winning wine takes more than good grapes. It takes a village.
To that end, Coenraad Stassen, winemaker and estate manager at Brys Estate Vineyard and Winery, has teamed up with vineyard managers Agrivine Inc.
The company, owned by husband and wife Ben and Jen Bramer, works with Stassen to grow grapes for Brys’ wines – a mission challenged by Mother Nature in no shortage of ways, from temperature and precipitation to insects, disease and even birds.
“We have almost 50 acres of vineyard, so to have the amount of people to properly take care of a vineyard would be a major task for us,” Stassen said. “Ben and Jen both have extensive agriculture experience in general, so with me as a winemaker, with viticulture experience, it’s a great relationship because we share ideas and come up with different ways to counter a growing season.”
He said he and Ben Bramer talk at least once a week, and “whenever I see the crew out in the field, I normally go out. Ben will be there,” Stassen said. “If I didn’t have him, I wouldn’t be as successful as a winemaker.”
It’s a scenario played out in settings throughout the Traverse region, with vineyard management companies lending expertise, manpower, practices and techniques to large wineries, smaller wine producers, and growers whose grapes are turned into wine by others.
The companies, whose services might run from winter or early spring pruning through fall harvest, are an unseen part of many bottles of wine.
“Ask any of our winemakers … and they will tell you that you cannot make a great wine out of poor grapes,” said Duke Elsner, small fruit and consumer horticulture educator for Michigan State University Extension in Traverse City. “So vineyard management in wine grapes is extremely important, much more so than table grapes or juice grapes. Whoever is doing it needs to be there doing it, and it needs to be timely, and intelligently applied.”
Management addresses a range of winemaking plagues: low midwinter temperatures that can cause plant injury; frosts and freezes; rain and hail; and pests and diseases. Companies need to be both planning and proactive as well as reactionary, adjusting constantly to changing conditions.
For example, a fruit-damaging hailstorm can prompt the immediate need for application of fungicides and possibly opening up the vines’ canopy so spray can penetrate to prevent rot and powdery mildew from setting in, said Sam Simpson, co-owner of Leelanau Peninsula’s Harbor Hill Fruit Farms, which offers vineyard services.
Timing can be crucial.
“The difference between a successful crop and a bad crop can be as little as 24 hours,” Simpson said.
Simpson, whose father Bruce Simpson established Good Harbor Vineyards in 1980, co-owns Harbor Hill with his sister Taylor Simpson. The two assumed their roles in the family business following the 2009 death of their father, overseeing an enterprise that includes Good Harbor; winery Aurora Cellars; a “custom crush” business line to make table wine, sparkling wine and hard apple cider for clients who want their own brand; and a relaunched vineyard services operation that had once been run by Bruce Simpson.
The company helps clients select land to establish vineyards, develop the acreage and grow and maintain varietals, and manages vineyards using mechanized equipment and crews of workers.
Harbor Hill currently manages about 300 acres, 280 of which are vineyards and 20 are hops. Over half of the vineyards are for Good Harbor and Aurora brands, with the remainder being other wineries that process their own fruit and custom crush clients for whom Harbor Hill makes wine.
The latter is becoming a larger part of Harbor Hill’s business, Sam Simpson said.
“They know that they want to have a wine brand, they will talk to us about looking for land, we will help them find land, will work up the ground for them, help them with site development, varietal selection, and then grow and maintain the vineyard until it’s ready for wine production,” he said. “We can produce the wine for them; their responsibility is to sell it and pay for our services.”
Like several other companies, Harbor Hill uses mechanical equipment that’s replaced some work done by hand. Mechanized tasks can include removing nearly all of the older fruiting wood for new canes that produce grape clusters; positioning shoots into trellis systems; clipping the ends of shoots; and removing some of the leaves around grape clusters to allow more exposure to sunlight, air and spray penetration.
Harbor Hill employs 24 people for vineyard services, nearly all of whom are seasonal. Twenty come from Mexico under the federal H-2A program that allows agricultural employers who face a shortage of domestic workers to bring non-immigrant foreign workers to the U.S. for temporary or seasonal agricultural work.
Simpson said that without the recruited labor, there was “zero chance” of being able to service the acreage that Harbor Hill needs to.
“We decided three years ago that we had to go into this H-2A program because we were not able to find enough domestic workers who were willing to consistently do the work and stick with it,” he said. In addition to seasonal workers, Harbor Hill has two year-round employees who oversee viticultural and managerial/operational areas.
At Mutual Farm Management Company LLC, manager Jay Budd said vineyards can be a full-year responsibility. Mutual’s work includes pruning once vines are dormant for the winter, tying canes to wire or conducting bud selection once the weather starts to warm, training new shoots into trellis in the summer, and spraying.
Mutual manages about 200 acres of vineyards and orchards mostly on Old Mission Peninsula and provides varying degrees of management services to wineries and private growers, Budd said via comments emailed for this story. He said Mutual employs 25 to 30 people, including seasonal employees and 10 or 11 full-time personnel.
The company is owned by Mari Vineyards’ owner Marty Lagina and manages all of Mari’s vineyards, encompassing about 60-75 acres. Services at Mari include land preparation, planting, care and harvesting of the vineyards, and Budd is responsible for the day-to-day operations of vineyard field staff, general farming and grounds maintenance.
Mari winemaker Sean O’Keefe said Mutual is responsive and open to trying new practices and finetuning them, as with Mari’s technique of growing grapes under hoop house tunnels that trap heat. The tunnels “warm things up so we get a head start on the growing season” and raise temperatures again in the fall.
Budd was instrumental in customizing the tunnels to Mari’s needs, O’Keefe said.
“Every winemaker and every winery has their own particular thing they want to do,” he said. “Mutual has been good on all levels.”
Budd said there are challenging aspects of vineyard management.
“You have the challenges of a work force, regulations, changes to the fabric of the area (rural to more suburban), client tastes, winemakers,” he said. “[And t]he biggest challenge of all is Mother Nature.”
For Black Star Farms winery owner Kerm Campbell, vineyard management company Legacy Vineyard Services LLC provides critical support.
The company, under father and son owners Jerry and Nick Stanek, is responsible for about 170 acres on the Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas, including some 120 acres owned by Campbell and 50 acres owned by growers who sell grapes to Black Star.
Legacy began after fourth-generation Leelanau fruit farmers Stanek Brothers in 2007 sold just under 500 acres of cherry and apple orchards to Campbell. After Campbell planted grapes, he asked Jerry and Nick Stanek to manage.
“There’s no way with my involvement in many other things around the country that I could be a full-time farmer,” Campbell said. “And even if I were, I would still need the expertise that they had. What was so wonderful about Jerry and Nick, [they] had complete knowledge of the land.”
The two in 2008 started Legacy and and co-own the Leelanau County-based business with Jerry Stanek’s wife Pegy. Jerry Stanek said the vineyard business was “little bit of a learning curve” from his background farming cherries and apples but he gained knowledge through MSU classes, attending meetings and talking with other growers and people in the vineyard business.
“It all comes down to, no matter what you’re growing, making the best quality that you can, for the crop that you are growing,” Stanek said.
He said that when he first got into the business most work was done by hand but he moved into mechanization, purchasing equipment that he saw as being more cost-effective for clients but also efficient in taking care of vineyards while producing quality fruit.
Legacy employs an average of 20 people, including three supervisors and workers from Florida and Texas. Stanek also taps a base that’s familiar: high school students. The longtime area downhill ski coach and current interim head coach at Traverse City Central last year started recruiting sports-participating students for summer work in the vineyards, providing a paying job that might otherwise be hard for students to arrange around ongoing commitments like weight training.
“We want as many of them as we can get,” Stanek said. “What we’ve found is that kids that are involved in athletics are pretty committed to working, whether they’re working with weights, or they’re working physically out in the vineyard.”
DATA FROM DRONES
This summer, Campbell’s vineyards will also host another type of student assisting in vineyard management: Teams who will test applications for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) or drones, through a joint MSU Institute of Agricultural Technology/Northwestern Michigan College program. The UAS in Agriculture training program includes field work at Campbell’s vineyards and other agricultural sites, applying drone technology to problems or issues owners face, said Alex Bloye, director of NMC’s aviation division.
For example, drones could provide Campbell and Stanek with data on micro climates, to help identify where and when frost might occur. “It’s a win-win for everybody,” Bloye said. “The students get real-life experience in applications. And we share all of our data with the owners.”
Such information can go into the recipe for vineyard care, which Campbell said is “a hands-on business, that’s evolving all the time.” He said it’s not just certain services that Legacy provides that are particularly valuable.
“It’s really everything,” he said. “But I think what is really, really important is that Jerry and Nick are almost part of my family, in a sense of, we’re so close, and we depend on each other.”
THE ‘DREAM MAKERS’
From tending to vineyards one-half acre in size to 100-plus acres, management companies assist a variety of owners, from full-blown business enterprises and farmers to people simply chasing another life pursuit.
Take Big Paw Vineyard Services LLC in Lake Leelanau. The company, started in 1996 by Doug Matthies, has clients who also produce wine through French Road Cellars, a custom-crush facility owned by Matthies and his wife Laura.
“We install vineyards and manage them through and through,” Matthies said. “Most of my clients are people who aren’t here all the time, they have other careers, so most of them don’t have the time … they’re not farmers. They’ve summered up here or come up here to fulfill their dream, and that’s what we do, we’re dream makers.”
Matthies, whose parents own winery Chateau Fontaine, manages about 150 acres that include 22 at Chateau Fontaine, 27 acres that are his, and five other vineyards. Once a vineyard manager at Leelanau Wine Cellars, Matthies launched Big Paw to help afford equipment needed to care for Chateau Fontaine vines as well as respond to business opportunities with other parties interested in planting vineyards.
He has a crew of 25 workers from Texas and four or five other employees, and all work is done by hand, with no mechanization, Matthies said.
“Doing it all by hand gives us the best possible outcome,” he said. “Our vines are taken care of perfectly that way. It is harder, but no machine is going to duplicate the human hand.”
At Old Mission Peninsula’s Agrivine, it’s the tenth season for a business that began after Ben and Jen Bramer met while working at a vineyard management company and subsequently married. Ben Bramer said what started as a small business “has grown into a lot more than we originally planned,” now managing some 148 acres, including 44 at Brys Estate, 14 acres at Bowers Harbor Vineyards, and 90 other acres of vineyard parcels.
Bramer said the majority of clients have full-season service agreements, from February through November harvest and removal of bird netting protecting ripened fruit.
One practice he began in 2015 at Brys, is to bury grapevine canes in snow so they aren’t damaged by cold temperatures that could harm fruit production. He and winemaker Stassen built the plow used to cover the canes with snow, and Bramer said “you have to do it every year. You can’t anticipate if you have a cold spell.”
Agrivine has about seven year-round employees and an additional seasonal crew of 21. Bramer said this year is the first he has used the H-2A program to recruit workers from Mexico and while it’s meant considerable paperwork and effort, attracting enough reliable workers in past years has been a major source of stress.
Like others managing vineyards, Bramer finds reward in what months of efforts produce.
“Pride in growing something, seeing how it looks … the most rewarding is the growing and the quality of fruit at the end of the season,” he said.
Amy Lane is a freelance journalist and former reporter for Crain’s Detroit Business, where she covered business, state government, energy and utilities for nearly 25 years.