Saturday, October 1, 2011

[EID Feature] Chateau de Leelanau: An old winery in an even older barn gets a facelift with new owners

All photos by Nicole Rupersburg.

If you're driving up M-22 on the Leelanau Peninsula to do a little tour of Leelanau's roughly 20 wineries, you'll pass right by Chateau de Leelanau. And if you're anything like me, as you're passing by you'll think to yourself, "Well what the hell, it's right there," and you'll stop in to check it out. And that's kind of what they're banking on.

New owners Matt Gregory, his brother Andrew, their uncle Don, their cousin’s husband Mark Miezeo, and the "wine scientist" Roger Veliquette took over this musty old winery in February 2010 and opened in June 2010. "Musty" refers less to the wines - which Matt admits were decent enough - and more to the whole brand overall. The Chateau de Leelanau label was still stuck in that stuffy faux-"fancy" font that tends to signify an amateurish idea of what good wine should look like; the tasting room itself was cluttered with trinkets and tchotchkes that looked like the attic/basement/garage/living room of a crazy old cat lady. Sure, the blue hairs vacationing in wine country loved it, but that image wasn't exactly going to endear the winery to the new era of young wine connoisseurs curious to explore what northern Michigan has to offer.

Owner Matt Gregory with Ann Hoyt, cheesemaker for the Leelanau Cheese Company at Black Star Farms.

"I call it the seven-dumpster remodel," Matt jokes. When they bought the winery they inherited everything - the tanks, the barrels, the juice, the remaining bottle inventory, and the cluttered tasting room which happens to be in a prime location. Anyone making a trek out to visit prominent LP wineries like Black Star Farms, L. Mawby or Shady Lane Cellars will inevitably pass right by this place, conveniently located directly on M-22 in a plaza which is actually a 150-year-old barn. They gutted the place entirely, opened it up and made it feel fresh and fun. "We wanted to make this a younger, more fun place to hang out," Matt says.

Freshening up the image also meant doing a bit of re-branding. Their new wine labels ditch the fussy old cursive font in favor of a more playful logo which features a simple image of a barn with a wine bottle as a silo (paying homage to the barn they're in as well as their own farming history, and just the slightest bit of playfulness with the whole traditionally snooty Chateau concept).

The Gregory family has a long history as area farmers. They are fruit farmers - cherries, apples - with vast amounts of property on the Leelanau Peninsula just north of Suttons Bay (they also sell some of their Cherry Bay Orchards products in the tasting room, and if you're going to try anybody's cherry wine it should be theirs). Growing grapes was simply a natural progression from there. "We had an opportunity to get into an existing business [with Chateau de Leelanau]," Matt explains. "Their [farm] property was right next to the property we already owned." When the opportunity presented itself for them to purchase Chateau de Leelanau, it just seemed serendipitous.

Their first vintage was 2009, a tough growing year which most wineries struggled to make the best of. When they inherited the inventory, the juice was already in the tanks and barrels but they were at least able to finish them to their own tastes, and in doing so also inadvertently introduced what would become some of their signature wines.

"Hawkins Red," named for the 150-year-old barn in which the tasting room is located built by the Hawkins family, came about by accidental necessity. Because 2009 was such a rough year - the grapes just didn't ripen as they needed too, particularly the red - they knew that their Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc would sell out fast (because there was so little of them) but still needed to have a red wine available for people as they came in. When they inherited the place, the only red in the tanks was the Regent grape, a hybrid used almost solely for blending purposes and almost never as a stand-alone varietal. Since they had nothing to blend it with, they took a (big) gamble and made it into a varietal wine called Hawkins Red. The end product is very similar to a Shiraz: a light body with notes of strawberry and a peppery finish. It has a little bit of an unexpected kick to it, which is exactly what Matt and Roger try to achieve with their wines to set them apart.

Hawkins Red has since become one of their flagship wines that no one else is even making. Another flagship wine unique to Chateau de Leelanau is Bianca. Bianca is a hybrid Hungarian strain of the Bouvier grape (which is grown primarily in central Europe). It's a hearty little grape that resists frost and ripens early, a common sense grape for this region. However, Chateau de Leelanau is currently the only winery that is growing it. But Bianca is a lovely mistress - similar to a Sauvignon Blanc, Bianca is a soft, light white with notes of tropical fruits like mango and tart citrus balanced out with crisp pear. She's a sleeper grape, and one that will surely command some serious attention for Chateau de Leelanau. (Another fun note: when ripe, Bianca is fluorescent orange.)

With the 2010 vintage Chateau de Leelanau was 100% harvested, pressed and blended by the new owners and the label became entirely their own. People are still learning about this "new" old winery, and one of the most important things they want people to know is that they're in it to have fun. "If you want to talk about the idiosyncrasies of wine that's fine," Matt says. "But if you want to just drink and hang out, that's cool too."

I did a little of both. After talking idiosyncrasies and the history of the winery, I drank and hung out, then Matt and I climbed into the Chateau de Leelanau van and took a trek out to the vineyards to see the grapes at work getting all fat and juicy (the growing season isn't quite completely over, but it's looking like 2011 will be a good year). There are certain wineries that are "musts" if you're making the trip up to the Traverse City's wine country; Chateau de Leelanau needs to be added to that list, and with its convenient location there's really no reason not to. Stop in, say hi to Matt (he's pretty much the "face" of Chateau de Leelanau and handles all the marketing and sales), hang out, drink some wine. It's fun without the fussiness; exactly what a wine country experience should be.

Want to see more? Check out the Flickr set here.