Born into the Chateau Grand Traverse wine dynasty, Sean O’Keefe studied winemaking in Germany and returned home to launch an innovative small batch series at his family’s winery and make himself an international emissary for Northwest Michigan’s wine community. Sean has recently assumed the role of winemaker at Old Mission’s Mari Vineyards. We caught up with him to get perspective on cutting-edge viticulture and what to expect from local red wines in the October 2015 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine

As a seasoned winemaker, what’s your perspective on producing red wines in 
this climate?

We’re on the margins of where you can successfully ripen these things. This climate doesn’t tolerate lax work in the vineyards, so it’s a matter of having principles and paying constant attention to the vines. In an effort to make authentic, balanced wines we can’t be afraid of acidity or push the wines too far to get darker color. Blending is an important tool.

Mari Vineyards is the only winery to grow grapes under hoop houses. How do they work?

They enable a 10-to-15-degree increase both day and night during critical ripening time in September and October, which essentially bumps us up a climatic zone and allows us to fully ripen grapes like cabernet sauvignon and nebbiolo. It also protects the vines from insects and mold, so we only have to spray very minimally. Economically, it’s very expensive to grow grapes this way so we use that fruit primarily to blend in our other wines.

With challenging harvests the last two years and lean inventories, where should we look for local reds?

At Mari, we’ve held most of our reds from 2010 to 2013 in the cellar, so we’re lucky to have plenty of red for the next two years. Many of the 2012 wines still in the market are very good but for 2013 and 2014, I’d look to lighter, more vibrant reds like Gamay. 2013 produced a heavy crop of cabernet franc, and we had to be very meticulous in the vineyard to get wines that weren’t green and astringent.

What’s on your table this fall beside those bottles of red?

I think our wines are really well suited to lamb, so I love lamb burgers or lamb sausages on the grill. If you just want to enjoy the wine on its own, pick up some aged, crystallized cheese, like Parmigiano.

More Northern Michigan Wine

Photo(s) by Todd Zawistowski