Oct 15, 2020
Northern Michigan winemakers excited about 2020 harvest

For more than a decade, Laurentide Winery’s team has been tending its vineyards high on the rocky slopes of French Road, their rows of varietal grapes tucked neatly between the long ribbon of Lake Leelanau and the expanse of nearby Lake Michigan. And while other growing seasons have stirred excitement as harvest time approaches, this year just feels like something special.

“There are a lot of factors that determine whether or not a harvest is high-volume and high-quality. All those factors seem to have been fairly aligned this year,” said Bill Braymer, who with his wife, Susan, owns the 50-acre farm that sits atop the Leelanau Peninsula. Laurentide’s Pinot Gris and Chardonnay grapes have been taken off the vines in the last few days, and Braymer says both the sugar content and total acidity numbers are spot-on.

According to a story by Mlive.com, talk of a really strong harvest this year is being murmured up and down the Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas, where many of Northern Michigan’s vineyards call home. Winemakers talk about it in almost hushed tones, saying they don’t want to jinx anything with weeks of work left to go, but excitement is building about the kinds of wines they will be able to create this year.

“Growers – and winemakers – are super excited for this vintage,” said Nikki Rothwell, a Michigan State Univesity Extension specialist and coordinator of the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Center. She also owns Tandem Ciders in Suttons Bay with her husband, Dan Young. “We had good weather for growing fruit in general. We have had quite a hot summer, which has been great for wine grapes. We had good sunny and warm days with rain events that came at good times throughout the growing season.”

The Mlive story also reported:

“We will have really nice full-bodied wines to look forward to this fall.”

Braymer of Laurentide said grapes on their property’s 15 acres of vines got off to a bit of a slow start this spring, but the summer days quickly heated up – and stayed steady. The recent warm spate of fall days kicked off the harvest for their vineyard and many others, thrusting them into the busiest season of the year for wine grape growers. “One more week of 70-degree weather and I think it will push at least our vines into the very good zone, if not at least excellent,” he said last week. “Everything is knock-on-wood for the next 10 days.”

Bryan Ulbrich, winemaker and founder of Left Foot Charley in Traverse City, compares the anticipation of a good harvest year to the excitement that swirls around the lead-up to Christmas for kids. “It’s nothing but optimistic right now about how cool things can be,” said Ulbrich, whose winery partners with nearly 20 different growers across the region. They grow the wine grapes on mostly small plots, and exclusively for LFC.

“All the work that goes into the vineyards starting in March, this is where the real payoff period is. All that care and consistency in the vineyards over the years, this is where it shows.”

The grapes for LFC’s sparkling wines are harvested first, followed by the Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, then the Riesling and the reds, saving the Gewürztraminer for last. The harvest period can stretch into November for some vineyards. If they get wet days, they have to wait for the vineyards to dry out. “It’s in the weather’s hands,” Ulbrich said.

Kasey Wierzba, head winemaker at Shady Lane Cellars in Suttons Bay, said the winery’s team has already harvested two varieties as of late last week. She’s excited by what she’s seeing in the vineyards.

“I think it was a really good summer for Rieslings,” she said. And a taste-test of some Pinot Noir grapes recently had her feeling confident on what Shady Lane will be harvesting from its 63 acres this season. “I think we are going to have really good flavors this year.”

Northern Michigan has a shorter harvest season than other wine regions like the West Coast. It’s always a bit of a forecast game – vineyard managers want to leave the grapes growing as long as possible, making sure they mature and develop their peak flavors by capturing that last bit of warm fall sunshine. Then they have to get them picked quickly before the weather takes an unpleasant turn. “Our harvest is definitely more intensive than out West,” Wierzba said. “We have such a short window of time to get everything done. At this point, it’s just a matter of harvesting every nice day until it’s all picked. It’s fast and furious harvesting, then letting things dry out in between rains.”

Shady Lane Cellars

Harvest time at Shady Lane Cellars of Suttons Bay.

To view the entire Mlive story, visit here.

Photo at top: Pinot Noir grapes growing at Laurentide Winery’s vineyards near Lake Leelanau. Photos: Mlive

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