Sitting on the porch at WaterFire Vineyards’ new tasting room feels like home. Except you’re tucked between vines and forest and just one mile from Torch Lake’s turquoise water.
Here’s why else we love it …
WaterFire Vineyards is the first vineyard outside of California to earn Sustainability in Practice (SIP) Certification. The rigorous process requires growers to farm in a way that protects both natural and human resources taking it a step beyond organic certification, which focuses on prohibiting synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, says owner/vineyard manager Chantal Lefebvre. SIP vineyards and wineries must offer competitive wages and medical insurance to employees, use alternative fuels and energy sources, introduce beneficial insects and more.
“The organic program is focused exclusively on how you farm, which is very important, but one of the things that bothered me about it is they don’t make a distinction between what’s really harmful to the environment and what’s considered a natural derivative of the environment,” Chantal says. “If you’re using a product that’s organic, meaning not manmade or synthetic, it can actually be harder on the environment than a synthetic product. That to me was a big concern.
“There are a lot of materials you can put out there that are organic products and yet still rather harmful to the soil, to insects, and to the water quality of our wells and lakes. SIP requires the use of ‘reduced risk pesticides,’ organic or not.”
Chantal appreciated the intensity of the application and SIP’s third-party evaluation process. The former environmental scientist has more than a decade of experience specifically studying water quality and the ways water becomes polluted. Now working in the farming industry, one of the main culprits of water pollution, Chantal wanted to do things differently.
“Surrounded by so much water, it’s easy to get complacent about water conservation,” Chantal says. “We’re still very crisis driven when it comes to a lot of public policy and water is no exception, even in the Great Lakes Basin.”
SIP focuses heavily on water conservation and clean water. Certified farmers must regularly monitor soils, plants and weather; only irrigate vines when needed, grow grasses to reduce erosion and filter storm runoff, and filter water for reuse.
Chantal spent several years searching for a certification program that matched her values. SIP’s vineyard program piloted in 2008, a year before Chantal planted her first vines. Its winery program was developed in 2016.
“A lot of what we do out here is still experimental. As we become more successful as a farm—producing high-quality wines and a similar yield of grapes as other growers—other wineries may start to think, ‘We can do this too.’ It’d be amazing to have our entire region recognized for sustainability at this scale.”
The WaterFire tasting room opened May 13 serving five white wines made from estate grapes: 2013 Grüner Veltliner, 2013 Pinot Noir, 2013 Riesling, 2013 Sauvignon Blanc and the 2014 Riesling (sold out). The wine is made by Bryan Ulbrich at Left Foot Charley. “He really sold me on Michigan wines. He makes these remarkably delicate, aromatic wines. I wanted to be a part of what he and his wife, Jen, were doing, but on the growing side.”
Guests can enjoy a glass on the deck or sip while they walk the 26-acre property (6 acres are wooded/off-limits). Or create your own picnic and find a spot on the lawn. Chantal carries grape leaves, hummus, whitefish pate, naan bread, olives and baguettes from Cellar 152 in Elk Rapids and has picnic blankets you can borrow. Eventually, Chantal would like to create a menu based on the produce she grows and develop trails to give visitors easier access to the property. She’s also in the process of starting a wine club.
WaterFire Vineyards is located at 12180 Sutter Road, Kewadin.
Go on a vineyard retreat! Book the one-bedroom apartment attached to the tasting room for a wine vacation. More details on Airbnb.
More photos from our visit to WaterFire Vineyards!
I commend Chantal for her commitment to sustainability across both the human and natural environment. SIP, while relatively new, seems a step in the right direction as a holistic farming practice. However, it’s not correct to state that it is “beyond organic” when it actually only requires 85% of the fruit inputs to be SIP certified. That’s a far lower standard than the USDA Organic. Not looking at labor practices doesn’t make Organic weaker, just different. There are lots of other certifications a farmer or business can seek to verify labor, business or other standards. SIP appears to be putting more of them under one umbrella which is interesting and hopefully it can maintain high standards across all practices. This is a very positive direction for the industry and I hope Chantal inspires other vineyards near and far.