Leelanau Wine: Do-It-Yourself Vintners

These days they’ve taken to growing their vines low, allowing them only to stretch as high as the first trellis wire during the growing season. It makes for backbreaking work come fall harvest—and would be disastrously costly in terms of time and labor for a large-scale vineyard—but for the Schuberts, the low vines are a perfect solution to keep the buds from freezing in winter. When snow falls, Art simply runs the snow blower alongside the row, blanketing the vines under the natural insulator. Whatever works.

Wine grapes—high quality wine grapes especially—are fickle. Different grapes react differently to different soils, climates, length of growing seasons, plummeting and skyrocketing temps. There is no perfect condition nor is there a perfect wine grape. (One species, Vitus vinefera, the grand pappy of all classic Old World wine grapes, has emerged at the top of the pack in terms of consistent quality, but even it has hundreds of varieties.) There is, however, one tactic a wine grower can use to better chances for success: Match the variety to the conditions you’ve got, says Duke Elsner, agricultural extension agent at Michigan State University’s experimental horticulture station in Leelanau County.

Here in Northern Michigan, we have a fairly short growing season. Some sandy soil, some clay. And in most places, our winter temps dip below what the buds of a high quality wine grape would tolerate. But some places, like Old Mission and Leelanau Peninsulas, are more temperate. Their conditions mimic many wine-growing regions like Bordeaux and Burgundy in France and areas around the Rhine in Germany. And that offers Northern Michigan winemakers, even the backyard variety, a clear shot at growing quality wine.

Our pioneer commercial vintners first planted vines nearly 30 years ago. Vineyards expanded slowly for the next couple of decades, but in the past 10 years, they surged ahead, earning international and national acclaim. Leelanau County now has nearly 20 commercial winemakers and Old Mission Peninsula has five.

Elsner says Rieslings and Chardonnays have proven themselves a mainstay. The Pinot Grigios, Pinot Blancs, even the temperamental Gewürztraminers—a couple cloudy days during bloom means minimal fruit—are showing lots of promise. But as is the tradition in winemaking, experimentation is ongoing, Elsner says. And that’s where backyard vintners have a leg up.

Because of their vineyards’ small scale, backyard vinters can dabble in more tender vines, which typically translates to more flavorful grapes and, ultimately, wines. In the backyard garden, a big harvest isn’t the goal, and profit margins aren’t a factor in decision-making. Quality is what matters most. As for how to achieve it, says Elsner, “There are all sorts of games you can play.”

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