Northern Michigan Wineries: The year was 1973, and a 27-year-old Dan Matthies was out knocking on doors, literally, trying to earn some money during a Leelanau County summer. He was a real estate agent who in winter kept busy teaching skiing at Cedar’s Sugar Loaf Mountain Resort, and in summer sold ski condos and local properties. On this day, he was on the hunt for listings. Matthies worked his way up the east side of French Road, a swoopy, orchard-rimmed two-lane strung between Cedar and Lake Leelanau. He stopped in at every drive, gave a knock, asked if the people were interested in putting their home on the market. When he reached the road end, he started working down the west side, applying the same plain strategy: if there was a door, he’d knock on it. Eventually Matthies arrived at 2290 French Road, a classic farmhouse set amid a cluster of stout and shady spruce trees. The place was empty. He walked around. Out back, to the west, the land climbed steeply, rising to a high ridge. Untended and lush, knee-high grasses carpeted the fields under the bright sun of summer.

Later on, Matthies contacted the tax assessor and learned the land was part of an estate. He called the family. “They didn’t want to sell,” Matthies remembers. “But they were willing to rent it to me, and they said if I did any improvements I could take it off the rent.” Matthies moved in. He’d never lived without neighbors before, but, he says, “I loved it.” He even planted a little vegetable garden.

Eventually Matthies learned that the French-heritage family who once farmed here grew potatoes and that the hills were so steep in some places they’d just roll the potatoes down the hill at harvest time. The land lay fallow because the hills were considered too steep for mid-century farm equipment, and row-crop farmers had no interest in flipping a tractor on those dangerous slopes.

Many nights, Matthies would step outside near bedtime and just contemplate the land and the place and the long-ago glaciers that shaped it—the force the monstrous ice sheets must have had to push south, then retreat north, melting back to leave the hillocks of gravel, sand and clay loam that rose 600 feet above nearby Lake Michigan. But on those nights, one thing he never really contemplated was growing grapes on those hills. Because back then, practically nobody was thinking grapes in Leelanau County, and certainly not a 27-year-old ski resort real estate guy who’d recently moved North from Saginaw.

Flash forward 40 years and see how Dan Matthies’s world has changed. The year after Matthies first set foot on the farm, a librarian who lived about a mile-and-a-half southeast across Lake Leelanau, Bernie Rink, of Boskydel Vineyards, planted the region’s first wine grapes. Quickly following, Ed O’Keefe, of Chateau Grand Traverse, planted vinifera grapes on Old Mission Peninsula. The men sprouted not just grapes, but an entire industry. Matthies eventually did purchase the farm and later learned that the hills that were too dangerous for growing corn were nearly perfect for growing grapes.

Matthies still recalls the day 25 years ago when an expert from Michigan State University, Dr. G. Stanley Howell, climbed to the top of the ridge here and told Matthies that this was some of the most ideal property in the state for growing vinifera grapes. Howell remembers the day as well. “I recall being very favorably impressed by the topography, the slope and the aspect. The way the land changes elevation from north to south is just about ideal,” he says.

And eventually it turned out that Dan Matthies’s entrepreneurial bent, promoter’s heart, real estate background, love of the land and appreciation for wine all came together in a mini-conglomerate of four wine enterprises that are helping shape the future of the Leelanau wine world.

For starters Matthies, wife Lucie and son Doug operate a well-respected, award-winning vineyard, Chateau Fontaine, at that same address where young Dan Matthies walked around an abandoned farm back in 1973. The winery has won many awards over the years, but a recent pair has special significance. In 2013, for the second year in a row, Chateau Fontaine won New York’s John Rose Award, which goes to the international competition’s best riesling. No other winery has achieved back-to-back wins, nor ever won twice, in the blind tasting’s 11-year history.

But Matthies’s legacy may be most remembered in how he and his companies have helped others start vineyards of their own. He tailored his Peninsula Properties Real Estate company to identify and sell the premium grape growing property in Leelanau. Son Doug started a vineyard planting and maintenance service called Big Paw Vineyard Services that helps vineyard owners plant and grow the best grapes possible on their land. And most recently Doug and his wife Laura started what the industry terms a custom crush facility, named French Road Cellars. The facility gives new wineries access to state-of-the-art winemaking equipment and pairs it with consulting from winemaker Shawn Walters, one of the state’s most respected vintners (don’t call them—their capacity is maxed out). Taken together, Matthies’s juggernaut expresses a rising-tide-lifts-all-ships philosophy that’s helping put Northern Michigan wine country on the national map.

“I think ultimately they will be looked at as a midwife to new wineries,” says Claudia Tyagi, master sommelier—one of only 133 master sommeliers in North America. Speaking of the crush facility, she says, “This is the way it’s done all over the world—mentoring is part of the wine culture—and kudos to them for making sure that the first vintages of new wineries are of a top quality.”

Wine people say winemaking starts in the vineyard. And the verve of that truth is naturally most palpable at harvest time. For the 2012 crop, the moment arrives the last week of September, and on the 26th, harvest crews are out at 8 a.m. in the vineyards up the hill behind Chateau Fontaine’s tasting room.

About 10 a.m., Dan Matthies is ready to take a drive through the fields. But before heading out the door, he insists on stopping to show something important. In the wine vault, where pallets of treasured wine cases are cinched in giant Saran Wrap and stacked more than head high, there’s a special place on the wall that pays tribute to Bruce Simpson, Matthies’s own mentor.

Simpson started Good Harbor Vineyards, one of the earliest wineries in Leelanau County, but he died unexpectedly in 2009 at the age of 55; his adult children now run the vineyard. Matthies points to a photo of Bruce inset against a row of vines. Labels from four Good Harbor wines are clustered around. “These are labels from four of the best wines he ever made,” Matthies says. “On the back of this one, this 2007 chardonnay, it says, ‘the grapes that have gone into this were from our neighbor Big Paw Vineyards.’ ”

When Dan and Lucie were beginning their first harvests back in the late ’90s, Simpson visited. Matthies recalls the moment: “He said, ‘Why don’t you come over and use our facility to make some of your wines when we are not using it.’ And that was a saving grace, it really was. I’ll just never forget that and never forget all he did to help us out.” That place on the wall makes it easy to see why mentoring remains at the heart of Matthies’s business philosophy.

Matthies climbs into his black pickup and he eases up the hill. His son Doug and Shawn Walters power past in the same direction, jostling in a black Jeep. They’re headed into the vineyard to check grape ripeness. It’s a row-by-row, variety-by-variety judgment call, and their opinion will direct where picking happens today.

A moment later, a man driving a four-wheeler passes going downhill. It’s loaded with a bright yellow bin holding 1,000 pounds of golden-hued pinot grigio grapes destined for the crush pad. With a broad wheelbase and low center of gravity, four-wheelers are far more stable than the tippy tractors that farmers drove back in the ’70s and can navigate the vineyard slopes.

Matthies continues on up the hill, and the picking crew soon comes into view. About 20 people working down two rows of vines. They drop grapes cluster by cluster into five-gallon pails. They wear hooded sweatshirts—gray, blue, red—and gloves to fend off the late-September morning chill. The soft sound of Spanish floats through the air.

The hill steepens and the truck engine revs to take on the slope. Matthies detours to survey the many grape varieties strung along the drumlins. The deep purple clusters of pinot noir, cabernet franc and syrah. The glowing green-golden orbs of chardonnay, pinot grigio, and Auxerrois. Birds flit through the vines feasting on the sweet bounty. “Those guys can do a lot of damage in no time,” Matthies says. To keep them away, a small array of sound weapons can be heard in the background: an occasional BOOM! that sounds like a shotgun; the terrified screech of a dying starling streaming from a life-sized plastic owl; a radio wrapped in plastic and strapped to a pole with Rush Limbaugh’s voice turned up loud, blasted across the vineyard to scare away God’s creatures big and small.

Eventually Matthies pulls to a stop at the top of the ridge, gets out of the truck and surveys the scene. If ever you wanted to fall in love with the notion of winemaking in Leelanau, this would be the time and the place. The land laced with vineyard rows falls away to the south and east. To the north, neighboring vineyards arc over the adjacent hill. There are hills beyond hills, folding one upon the other, with hints of autumn reds and yellows framed by summer’s remaining green. To the east glows a golden rectangle of wheat field, and in the distance the land rises again. A speck of a shiny metal roof reveals the place of Boskydel Vineyards, where Rink planted Leelanau’s first grapes. Another flicker of metal is Ciccone Vineyards—Madonna’s dad’s winery.

Matthies is a fan of thinking broadly, and standing on this hilltop vantage point naturally brings out the biggest kinds of thoughts. “What I would really like to see—and many people have questioned me on this—is an appellation for French Road, called French Road Plain,” he says. An appellation is a name given to a designated wine-growing region, and only wines with grapes grown in the region can use the appellation name on the label. Currently Michigan has four appellations—Old Mission Peninsula, Leelanau Peninsula, Fenville and Lake Michigan Shore. A French Road Plain appellation would formally acknowledge the area’s unique land and climate—the notion of terroir in vino-speak—lending special credibility to wines grown there.

Of course, a French Road Plain appellation would benefit each of Matthies’s businesses. His wine would have more cachet. The wine land here would gain in value. The vineyard services would likely have more customers. And the crush facility would stay busy. But there’s more than self-interest in the notion of a French Road Plain appellation, because as with other Matthies initiatives, it’s as much about nurturing his own business as it is about nurturing the industry overall.

Find more evidence of that in Matthies’s approach to vineyard real estate. He has studied the land to understand the secrets and most nuanced nuances of Leelanau’s microclimates. The way cold air flows over the land like water, running downhill, settling not just in obvious valleys, but pooling in even in the tiniest of depressions along the way; or the way heat can become trapped and held by some slant, fold or cup of the land; or the way prevailing winds move through a set of hills and valleys—and what that all means to grape vines. “These days, everybody thinks they have wine land to sell,” he says. “But 75 percent of the land I look at is not right for grapes.” Even his own land, he assesses with a calculated eye. “I have 90 acres, but only about 30 is prime grape growing land,” he says.

And, he applies the same kind of calculation to potential customers. “I used to say one in a hundred people who call me are truly candidates for the wine industry because of the dollars and commitment you need,” he says. But these days, with wine on everybody’s minds, he says, “That number is more like one in a thousand.”

It’s not so much that Matthies is trying to play kingmaker in the French Road wine world, but more like he’s building a team. He understands that for the industry to reach the heights that he feels it’s capable of, and that recent awards indicate is possible, it will take the right kind of players. “The thing we don’t need is for somebody to get into this and find out how much work it is and how expensive it is and walk away from it and have these vineyards get diseased and the spores be blown through this county to ruin it for others.”

Matthies even began offering a one-on-one consultation designed to give prospective winery owners an eyes-wide-open view of the business. “That is one of my quests,” he says. “I stress to people, if you are getting into this business, do it right. I don’t want them to have any hidden costs, and I try to lay it all out there for them.”

And along the way, Matthies has earned the respect of his fellow vintners.

“Dan is a valuable asset for everyone because not only does he promote his own wines, but he promotes directly and indirectly everybody else’s wines, and he’s really helping people get started,” says respected winemaker Charlie Edson of Bel Lago Vineyard and Winery. And one more compliment: “Dan is the consummate gentleman.”

So, the awards, the accolades, the praise of his peers, what does that mean for Chateau Fontaine? Matthies deflects the question, turning once again to that rising-tide-lifts-all-ships philosophy. “It’s not just about Chateau Fontaine,” he says. “And it’s not just about any other winery that wins an award. It’s about Michigan. We’re making Michigan known in the wine world today, known for growing vinifera and making quality wines.”

This article is also featured in the July 2013 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Get your copy now!

Photo(s) by Todd Zawistowski