Josh Rhem personally knows each and every grapevine at Bonobo Winery. Each year, he watches as the leaves sprout in the spring hoping the frost doesn’t come. Months later, he looks on with more than a little pride as the wine is bottled and labeled. “Witnessing that evolution is like watching your kids grow from infancy to young adults moving out of the house,” he says.
About 19 acres of the 50-acre property are currently planted though Josh hopes to eventually have 30 acres planted. There are 1,361 plants per acre. Like being a father, taking care of the grapevines is more than a full-time job.
Josh lives a mile down the road from the vineyard, which is located on Old Mission Peninsula in Traverse City. He grew up with the owners Todd and Carter Oosterhouse. The trio went to high school together at Traverse City St. Francis and then to Central Michigan University. “I’ve been with the winery since it was just an idea,” Josh says.
For Josh, being a vineyard manager just made sense. “I was always outside as a kid watching the interactions of nature,” he says. And being familiar with the environment is key to running a successful vineyard.
In the Field
“There is a lot of science behind growing grapes, but you have to be out there every day to really understand the land and the environment and the weather,” Josh says.
This past year was especially difficult for Northern Michigan farmers. Spring 2015 followed on the heels of two harsh winters with record-low temperatures. On May 20, a devasting late-spring frost damaged vineyards across Leelanau and Grand Traverse counties. Josh says the frost event was easily in the top five worst he’s ever seen.
The hard start to the season was followed by a severe storm on August 2. The storm came from the west with 80 to 100 m.p.h. winds and intense hail. Josh showed us vine clippings from after the storm. The east-facing half is undamaged. Josh flips it over and gray spots are scattered along the length of the vine. Those areas are dead.
“The storm was a sucker punch,” he says. “We lost a lot of fruit, and there was damage to the plants that could affect this year’s crop. I’ve never dealt with hail so extensive.”
This winter has been mild in comparison to the past few. So far, the coldest temperature at Bonobo was -2.3 Fahrenheit and the highest was 42.1 Fahrenheit, according to a weather station that was recently installed in the vineyard. The device gauges temperature, moisture, wind speed and direction, and sunlight levels. This data becomes especially important in the spring when vinters need to know when the last frost will be.
“This winter, the weather we’re dealing with has large swings in temperature and is very unpredictable,” Josh says. The variance in temperature causes the vines to shrink and expand, and the hard, woody trunks of the vines can crack causing physical injuries to the plants.
Climate change is also affecting wineries. “Because of climate change, we’re losing that familiarity we once had and the knowledge from older generations of farmers who knew the environment,” Josh says. “I can’t rely on the way I did things before. Going forward, we’re going to have to think out fo the box and find our own solutions and strategies.”
While there’re lots of risks in farming, Josh realizes there’s also incredible beauty. He’s preserved part of the property as a natural area, which is home to deer, herons, and barn swallows. “I believe there should be a coexistence of agriculture and wildlife,” he says. For example, barn swallows eat insects that can be potentially damaging to crops.
“You have to be optimistic,” he says. “There’s going to be heartache when things don’t play out the way you expect them to, and things never go exactly how you want. But the dirt covering you is tangible evidence that you got something done and that in itself is an uplifting victory.”
In the Tasting Room
Photo by Andy Wakeman, courtesy of Bonobo Winery
When Carter Oosterhouse first said he wanted to create a place that brings people together, Josh knew he wanted to be a part of it.
“Growing grapes is a unique endeavor, and I like the history behind it,” Josh says. “Throughout the world, wine is a part of shaping culture, how people approach developing relationships, and how communities interact.”
These interactions inspired the design of Bonobo. In the tasting room, guests can sit at the bar or relax in one of the several cozy nooks. A see-through fireplace connects the room to the vineyard out back and the tall windows offer beautiful views of the property.
On the left, a hallway lined with high-backed chairs leads visitors to a gallery with more seating and paintings by local artists. To the right of the tasting room, a second hallway connects to the library where an entire wall is covered with a bookshelf filled with games, magazines, and novels. Visitors can play Monopoly, Scrabble, Connect Four, and more.
“We want Bonobo to feel like your family room where you can sprawl out and enjoy the wine and the people you’re with,” Josh says. And it does.
Find out more about the Northern Michigan winery with “Behind the Interior Design of Bonobo Winery” and a “Q&A with Todd Oosterhouse.”
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