Northern Michigan wine touring is wonderful in any season. Here’s a fun way to literally wander from Leelanau County winery to winery, on skis or snowshoes. So head out this winter. A glass of wine awaits!
Harvest time is typically peak tasting season in Northern Michigan; winter, not so much. But 45 North’s tasting room, tucked between the villages of Lake Leelanau and Suttons Bay, is hopping on this icy cold, snow-and-sun-glazed day. The parking lot is filled with cars sporting Thule roof boxes stuffed with skis and snowshoes, and roof racks mounted with fat tire bikes. Inside, the tasting room is elbow-to-elbow with rosy-cheeked patrons shedding layers and chilling with glasses of wine. Meet winter, the new autumn at 45 North Vineyard & Winery.
These winter crowds have a lot to do with a brilliant idea that dawned on Brian Grossnickle four years ago. That was shortly after the lean, perpetually tan and perpetual-motion snowboarder/mountain biker moved back from the mountains of New Mexico to help his parents, Steve and Lori Grossnickle, manage their 104-acre vineyard. From spring pruning to autumn harvest, Brian’s days are jam-packed. But as he points out: “There’s nothing for a vineyard manager to do in the winter.”
On those cold, boring days, Brian started envisioning the two-tracks that wind through the rows of vines as winter recreation trails. Brian concedes he wasn’t the first person around Northern Michigan wine country to think that customers would enjoy sweating their way around a frozen vineyard. Several vineyards were already welcoming folks with their snowshoes and skis. But Brian is pretty sure he is the first to take it to the full-blown, groomed-trail level.
Brian’s first groomer was a Vietnam War–era Bombardier with an open cage to ride in, two joysticks to operate it, and huge metal treads. “It was a scary piece of equipment. Dangerous,” Brian recalls. And it was slow. “One lap with one machine would take me three to four hours.”
Nevertheless, more and more skiers and bikers began showing up—which translated to more après glasses of wine sold inside the tasting room during the deepest dip in the off-season. Brian asked his family’s permission to purchase a new machine. He laughs, recalling that if he weren’t the owners’ son he probably never could have convinced the vineyard owners to shell out $13,000 on a new Ski Doo Skandic that tows a roller that imprints a sweet, five-foot swath of corduroy—and takes a scant 20 minutes a vineyard lap. By mid-January last year, Brian had logged 300 hours caring for a 3.2-mile loop, hours he says that are worth it because he’s found that the more time he spends grooming the more people show up to use his trails (at no charge by the way). Sometimes their dedication amazes him, such as the woman he saw last winter skiing in a 10-degree blizzard. “What?! Are you a Viking?!” he recalls thinking.
This story is featured in the December 2017 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Get your copy!
I am not a part of the fat-tire bike crowd, at least not today. I’ve asked my daughter (toting her baby) and her friend (with baby and preschooler) to check out 45 North’s trails with me. Not your average group for this outing. But both moms are outdoorsy, and Northern Michigan wineries have become increasingly family friendly, so we decided to give it the three-generation try. The plan was to snowshoe—babies in packs and preschooler in sled. But that ended up feeling way too complicated, so we hiked with the sled in tow—making sure to stay out of the ski tracks. We felt guilty leaving boot marks in the corduroy, although Brian says he calls it an activity trail, so hiking, snowshoeing, biking or skiing are all fine with him as long you respect the trail. So pick up any dog poop on the trail. Please. No. Dog. Poop.
The trail meanders through a thick stand of ancient cedars, across a creek, up a hill and round the vineyard. I will remember this day as rosy-cheeked babies, sled-rides down hills, chatting, relaxed moms, and pauses at the top of ridges to take in a view that sweeps to meet the neighboring Blustone Vineyards. The sky was a cloudless blue. But if the weather had turned, Brian would be here cruising the vineyard, making sure that anyone who might become disoriented—whether from a snow squall, a little too much vino or both—got safely back to the tasting room. But rest assured, the trail is obvious and very easy to follow.
At trail’s end we head into 45 North’s rustic (rough-sawn post and beam) hip (corrugated metal) tasting room. The preschooler beelines for the box of crayons set on a low table in front of the fireplace; the infants are a hit with the folks around us at the bar, and arms stretch out to help while the babies’ moms and I prepare to hydrate with a glass of bubbly Peach Crémant—a house specialty. No Gatorade after that workout. Which is, of course, exactly the point.
Lissa Edwards is managing editor of Traverse. firstname.lastname@example.org. // Beth Price shoots active lifestyle, weddings and commercial photography from Traverse City. bethpricephotography.com.
More Winter Wine Trails & Events
Across the ridge from 45 North, Blustone Vineyards offers a groomed (when possible) mile-plus looped trail. Down the road from 45 North you are welcome to bring your snowshoes and explore the 50-acre vineyard Aurora Cellars. Casual snowshoeing is also welcomed at Shady Lane Cellars, in nearby Suttons Bay. On M72 just west of Traverse City, Rove Estate has new ski and snowshoe trails, including the Rove Point Trail, which leads to the highest point on the Leelanau Peninsula.
For a more organized event, try the Snowshoe Vines & Wines at Black Star Farms in Suttons Bay, Saturday and Sunday between noon and 4 p.m., beginning Christmas week and continuing through the winter. Rent snowshoes for $15 per pair (must be returned by 5 p.m.), and enjoy wine (mulled and otherwise), chili and hot chocolate on the heated terrace.
Feel free to bring your snowshoes or skis to Chateau Chantal and head out onto their new trails. The ungroomed trails aren’t long, but the views and hills are well worth your time. chateauchantal.com. A number of the other nine Old Mission wineries open their vineyards to snowshoeing and skiing as well; best to call ahead.
For a more organized event try the Old Mission Snowshoe Wine & Brew. Sundays between January 7 and March 4, leave your car at Jolly Pumpkin and hitch a ride on the TC Brew Bus so you can hike, ski and snowshoe your way back on a groomed snowshoe trail that stretches about 1.5 miles connecting Jolly Pumpkin Restaurant and Brewery, Bowers Harbor Vineyards and Brys Estate Winery. $20. Wine tastes are included in the price.
Most of the nine wineries on this Petoskey-area wine trail offer free snowshoeing through their vineyards. It’s casual, so you might call ahead. Also, check their Facebook pages for special winter events.