With more than 200 Michigan wineries -– and new ones popping up – it can be hard to decide which ones to include on a weekend or vacation itinerary. Of the dozens I’ve visited over the years in my native state, each provided a unique experience, but some really stand out in my memory for reasons beyond good, and sometimes even great, wines.
Here’s a look at five of my favorites with experience-enhancing bonus attractions, from clever themes (aviation) and unconventional tastings (opaque black wine glasses) to secret gardens, stunning views and unexpected settings – would you believe a treehouse?
Boyne Valley Vineyards – Summoned by one of her regulars, Mary Ann Lippe left her post pouring wine behind the bar at Boyne Valley Vineyards and ran upstairs to the airy Tree House deck. Looking out over the railing, she watched a fox roam through the adjoining vineyard as an eagle circled overhead.
It’s all in a day’s work at this rustic tasting room in a barn between Petoskey and Walloon Lake near the tip of Michigan’s mitten. “Wine is always better when it’s shared with friends,” says Lippe, describing the casual, relaxed vibe that permeates the three-year-old tasting room with its roll-up garage-style glass doors, expansive lawn, patio and Tree House, open year-round. “We’re not the typical ‘come and do a tasting and leave’ winery. People come here and hang out for a few hours.”
Popular with locals for its generous, 6-ounce pours, the family-run winery grows 12 acres of cold-hardy varietals, 6,800 vines, including Marquette, Petit Pearl, Frontenac Gris, La Crescent and Cayuga.
Tasting room favorites range from Estate Marquette, a dry, oaked red, to two sweet wines: SnowCat White, made from Brianna grapes with notes of honeysuckle and tropical citrus, and Foxhole Red, a blend of Marquis and Marechal Foch grapes. In-between is Boyne Valley’s fruit-forward Cayuga White, which Lippe describes as “off-dry,” crisp and lemony.
Chateau Chantal – High atop a ridge on Old Mission Peninsula, 12 miles north of Traverse City, Chateau Chantal boasts stunning views of rolling vineyards and both arms of Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay. Centerpiece of the 65-acre winery is a French-inspired bed and breakfast inn with 13 guest rooms that was voted “Best Wine Country Hotel” 2021 by USA Today readers. A complimentary bottle of wine is included with each stay.
Revealing the natural characteristics of grape varietals is a tenet of Chateau Chantal winemaking, according to Marie-Chantal Dalese, president and CEO, who is a certified sommelier and whose parents founded the winery in 1993. “Growing grapes in northern Michigan provides a lot of vintage variation from year to year: a hot summer yields more ripe and tropical characteristics, while a cooler season brings out more citrus characters,” she says. “Red wines can be challenging in some years, but, more often than not, we produce some very delicious reds with delicate finesse.”
Chateau Chantal’s top-sellers are the Late Harvest Riesling; Naughty and Nice Red and White wines; and Reserve reds such as Cabernet Franc and Trio (a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Blaufrankisch grapes), plus sparkling wines that range from dry to sweet. The Amour Sweet Rose recently won Best of Class at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition 2022.
Special events, from wine-pairing dinners and Thursday night Jazz at Sunset concerts to new “Tasting Blindly” lunches (wines are served in opaque black glasses to boost non-sight senses) contribute to Chateau Chantal’s inclusion on the Reader’s Digest 2021 list of ‘25 Best Wineries in the U.S.’
Brys Estate Vineyard & Winery – From May through the September harvest, veteran winemaker Coenraad Stassen spends three hours daily walking Brys Estate’s 47-acre vineyards, inspecting and nurturing his beloved European vinifera vines, 53,000 of them. “My focus is viticulture — vineyard management – and very little manipulation in the cellar,” says the hands-on vintner who got his start in the famed vineyards of his native South Africa. “I’ve never met a winemaker who can make good wine from bad fruit.”
In 15 years at family-run Brys Estate, which spans 155 acres on Old Mission Peninsula, Stassen has specialized in what he describes as “big structured, fruit-forward reds and clean, crisp whites,” many of them award-winners. Favorites in the winery’s elegant, Old World tasting room include the estate-grown Pinot Noir Reserve, Naked Chardonnay Reserve and Pinot Blanc Reserve. Blends, including Pinot Noir/Riesling, Cab/Merlot and Riesling/Gris, are among popular summer pours, he says, along with Sauvignon Blanc.
Brys Estate offers scenic places to drink them, from the family- and dog-friendly Lawn Bar to the Upper Deck, an elevated outdoor space with panoramic views of the vineyards and Lake Michigan’s East Grand Traverse Bay. There’s also a 12-acre Secret Garden showcasing 600 lavender plants and U-pick flowers, strawberries and herbs, plus a seasonal gift shop; a new, five-stop Wine Wagon tour and a two-bedroom guesthouse in a former barn. Created from estate-grown apples, three hard ciders – brut, rose and lavender – debuted in May.
Chateau Aeronautique – When Lorenzo Lizarralde, a commercial pilot, launched his dream winery in 2008, he made wines in his private airplane hangar in the southern Michigan airpark community where he lives. Creating French-style wines from predominantly Michigan grapes fermented with French yeasts and aged mostly in French oak barrels, he called it Chateau Aeronautique and featured a vintage yellow biplane on his labels.
Five years ago, Lizarralde moved his wine-making operation to the nearby Irish Hills, adding a second aviation-themed wine tasting room and launching Blue Skies Brewery with an outdoor biergarten and an events venue. And he recently started planting his own vineyards. But he still enjoys leading tours in his hangar and wine cellar at the original boutique tasting room on the grassy runway near Jackson.
Chateau Aeronautique produces 16 varietals and is known for “big, dry reds,” Lizarralde says, notably Aviatrix Rouge, a Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. Other top-sellers include the semi-sweet rose, Aviatrix Passion, a late harvest Vidal Blanc infused with cranberry; and Naked Chardonnay, a semi-sweet white aged in stainless steel vats (unlike the winery’s dry Sur Lie Chardonnay that’s aged in French oak barrels). Rieslings run the gamut from dry to semi-sweet and ice wine. “As a cool climate region, we are much more like France than, say, California,” he says. “Our wines are elegant, delicate and approachable.”
Dablon Vineyards & Winery – Inspired by Claude Dablon, a French Jesuit missionary who made wine from grapes he discovered while exploring Michigan and elsewhere in the 1600s, Dablon Vineyards & Winery specializes in small-batch, boutique wines made in Old World style. Visitors to the tasting room near Baroda, in southwest Michigan, sip estate wines around a cozy indoor fireplace or a flower-lined patio overlooking stone-terraced vineyards. Known for its burgundies and age-worthy Bordeaux, Dablon produces some 30 estate wines from 17 different varietals, including Malbec, Tannat, Tempranillo, Petit Verdot, Carménère and Nebbiolo — many not typically found in Michigan. Winemakers credit “hand-nurturing” the grapes and the moderating effect of nearby Lake Michigan for their distinctive wine. Dablon offers lives music most Fridays and Sunday afternoons.
Susan R. Pollack is an award-winning travel writer and photographer based in Metro Detroit.
Photo courtesy Brys Estate Vineyard & Winery.