New wineries sprout among Old Mission’s vineyards

TRAVERSE CITY – Old Mission wineries have been in a state of ferment lately, and their winemakers are ready to savor the new flavor of their local industry.

Peninsula Township is getting a Black Star Farms winery in the old Underwood Farms facility on McKinley Road, and, in a separate enterprise, winemaker Cornel Olivier and partner Chris Baldyga are establishing the Two Lads winery on Smokey Hollow Road.

" I think it's great," said Emily Ulbrich, the new winemaker at Peninsula Cellars. "The more wineries we have here, the more draw there is to get people to come up here. It focuses everyone's attention and forces us to continue to improve."

Black Star Farms, a long-time Suttons Bay operation, will concentrate on the distillation of fruit brandies and the production of wines from Old Mission harvests at the new location. And Two Lads will focus on red wines and champagnes. So far, Two Lads has established vineyards on 13 acres of a 58-acre farm, and is planning on another 13 to 17 acres over the next few years.

Wine connoisseurs can be forgiven if they have a hard time keeping track of staffing changes accompanying the new ventures.

For example, Coenraad Stassen has come over from Chateau Chantal to take over chief winemaking duties from Olivier at Brys Estate Winery and Vineyard. That move comes on the heels of Bryan Ulbrich's move from Peninsula Cellars to his own winery, Left Foot Charley, in Traverse City late last year. His wife Jennifer has joined him in that project, and his sister Emily, formerly his assistant, took over his duties at his former winery.

"There have only been five wineries here, so this is quite a stir," Olivier said.

Not to mention the travel itineraries: In mid-March, Mark Johnson, the head winemaker at Chateau Chantal, was busy visiting the operation's winery in Argentina, and Emily Ulbrich was just back from a visit to study vineyards along the Rhine in Germany.

The ferment comes at a time when northern Michigan wineries have increasingly made their mark in competitions and wine lovers are discovering the peninsula's offerings.

"We are an area to be reckoned with," Olivier said.

Red wines are the one area where the recognition has mostly been lacking, however, and Olivier wants to change that. In his new enterprise, Olivier said he wants to produce the best possible grapes for his red wines with good vineyard management.

Too often, wineries haven't emphasized that enough, he said.

Olivier was already working on these improvements at Brys. Its Pinot Noir '04 was an award winner at two international competitions in 2005.

"Over the past few years, we have worked really hard on improving the quality of the fruit," he said. "That's where it all starts."

He said he and Chris Baldyga have also made a conscious decision to keep production down to 5,000 cases a year.

"I am not saying doing a 5,000-case winery is cheap, but your overhead is less than it would be for a bigger winery," Olivier said.

The partners still haven't decided whether they will join Wineries of Old Mission Peninsula, or WOMP, a local promotional cooperative, Olivier said.

On the plus side, they would be included in promotional materials, advertisements and maps directing visitors to their winery. On the minus side, he and Baldyga might be able to use their promotional dollars effectively on their own.

"We are still debating this," he said.

In any case, Olivier said the pair will advertise their wines and winery and capitalize on existing relationships within the industry. To this end, they are planning winery tours for representatives of restaurants and wine stores.

Peninsula Cellars is one of the participants in WOMP, and new head winemaker Emily Ulbrich said she sees the organization's value.

"I think, as more and more wineries come, it is going to be more and more important to have a presence in print media and other places," she said. "Our advertising budgets are small, and WOMP has helped us get into some publications that an individual winery might night get into."

So far, low output has generally limited the impact of Old Mission's wines on the regional and national markets. They and other northern Michigan wines have had trouble penetrating even a nearby market like Chicago, said David Creighton, a wine expert and promotion specialist at the Michigan Grape and Wine Council.

"Yes, the wines are getting to be better known, but basically only by industry insiders who have had a chance to try them. They know how good these wines are. But we probably do have a better reputation among the experts than we do among the general population."

Cooperative efforts like WOMP could indirectly help wineries put more acreage under cultivation and boost production, he said. Given the small production on Old Mission Peninsula, promotional efforts like WOMP could lead to better prices for the wines. And that in turn would improve wineries' income, giving them the financing to expand their vineyards. BN