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Sean O'Keefe of Mari Vineyards is showing Michigan's Riesling potential

When it comes to US wine production, California, Oregon, and New York are often the regions that first come to mind. It may be surprising to hear that Michigan is emerging as a highly-regarded producer of distinctive and outstanding wine, with a focus on Riesling. Situated on the same 45th parallel that runs through Italy's Piedmont, the Rhône Valley and Bordeaux in France, and Oregon’s Willamette Valley, is Traverse City, the heart of Michigan wine. The area's continental climate, glacial soils, and moderating effects of Lake Michigan create ideal conditions for grape growing. 

In his book "The Riesling Story, Best White Wine on Earth" Stuart Pigott sings the praises of northern Michigan Riesling and highlights the contributions of winemaker Sean O'Keefe, whose father Ed O'Keefe is credited with planting some of the region's first vines. In reference to the younger O'Keefe, Pigott writes, "I once called Sean 'the Michael Moore of Riesling' (Moore lives locally) and declared him a candidate for president of the United States of Riesling because of his commitment to the development of America's Riesling industry." After leaving the family business, Sean O'Keefe took a winemaking position at Michigan's Mari Vineyards, where he focuses on expanding production and exploring the cultivation of Italian varietals. 

Grape Collective talks to Sean O'Keefe about the history of grape growing and challenges of making wine in Michigan. 

 

Christopher Barnes: Sean, the history of Michigan grapes?

Sean O'Keefe: The history of Michigan grapes, it all started back in the early '70s. The one that can claim first is Bernie Rink at Boskydel. He had a bunch of very mysterious varieties growing behind his house. I love how his son put it. He said, "In a very perverse reversal of Field of Dreams, my father ripped up the family baseball diamond and planted a vineyard and put us to work." I always loved that.

MariMy dad was intrigued about growing grapes. He tried to buy a vineyard in the Pfalz region of Germany and that fell through. He started looking at his vacation home up here and saw all the fruit growing and, with some help of some German friends of his, Dr. Becker from Geisenheim, the wine school in the Rheingau, and some other winemaking friends, he felt that this area probably had a good chance of growing Riesling. In '74 planted, gosh, about 40, 45 acres of Riesling and a little bit of Chardonnay, where nothing had ever been done anywhere near this region.

If you think back then, in '74, the wine industry in The United States was very young. Finger Lakes, there was Konstantin Frank, and Wiemer was just thinking of getting going. Out in California most of the wineries that we know of weren't even in existence, besides the old Italian families and the ones that survived Prohibition. It was a tiny wine world.

We basically, my father, we kind of labored here in obscurity for the next 20 years. People weren't really paying attention to what northern Michigan was doing. We kept working at it, we perfected our Riesling. We started planting Gamay Noir in the late '80s, which was another grape that grew really well here. Things really started taking off in the '90s. That's when you saw the proliferation of all the other wineries that we have here on Old Mission and Leelanau Peninsulas now.

Now, coupled with the greater interest in wines that aren't the traditional Burgundy, Bordeaux, or, let's say, the Napa cult Cabs, and all that, people are really open right now so the industry's wide open. As long as we're planting the right varieties and making the styles that are true to our area and not trying to ape some other region.

What makes northern Michigan, Traverse City, a good place to grow wine, to grow grapes and make wine?

What makes this a great place to grow wine and why are we growing wine here? Probably the best way to describe it to people is I consider ourselves on the northwest frontier of the Great Lakes wine region. Typically this far inside the continent it would be impossible to grow the grapes we do. It would be too hot in the summer, too cold in the winter. It would pretty much limit us to the wild grapes that grow up on the trees and things around here.

There is a big difference, we're in the Great Lakes, we're surrounded by the largest fresh water lakes in the world. That kind of gives us somewhat of a continental climate with a maritime influence. I don't know if there's anywhere else really like this in the world. Maybe Lake Balaton in Hungary. In any case, the water around us kind of takes the edges off the climate. It prevents the winters from getting too cold, it extends the growing season, it helps us avoid frost.

MariBy growing grapes right on the edge right here, that's where you get some really interesting results. We always have really crisp and beautiful acidities. Our reds usually have a lot of aroma. Basically it's the winemaking that I've been figuring out for the last 40 years, of how to bring those things to the forefront and understand our area right here.

When I think of this area, I kind of consider ourselves, we're the first ones that get the weather that travels from west to east. The jet stream moves across Lake Michigan, it lands here in Old Mission and Leelanau Peninsula first and then travels onto Niagara Peninsula and Finger Lakes. It's funny, when we go to conferences and things, when we are on the same panels as winemakers from those regions, basically whoever goes first we just say, "Ditto," except mine's a little bit colder, mine's a little bit warmer. We grow a lot of the same varieties, Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Gamay Noir is one of our specialties. Then there's a whole new future of some of the northeastern Italian varieties and Austrian varieties that a lot of people are working with right now.

You grew up in a winemaking family and a family that was pioneers in the region that you grow your grapes. How was that? How was being part of the vineyard in the early days and seeing the region kind of grow up?

I grew up, I'm four years older than the wine region here. I was born in '70 and my father planted the first vineyards in '74. What was it like growing up in the wine region here? For the most part it was glorified farming. It was a place to get a cheap job and work in the vineyards when I was growing up. I didn't really have too much of an interest in it but I was always around it. The same thing with my brother. My sisters wised up early and went to other parts of the country and my brother and I stayed back at the farm.

As time went on, it's farming but you're in a very unique community of people. We can travel. My family has very strong ties to Germany and since then we've made really strong ties with winemakers in New Zealand and Austria and, lately, Australia. For me, I studied German literature in school. I was going to keep going through the university. I decided to go over to Germany after my undergrad at UFM and went to work in the vineyards over there. Just kind of to perfect my German and get a feel for it. I went to our first winemaker, Roland Pfleger, who is with Weingut Jakob Pfleger in Herxheim am Berg. It's a little town in the Pfalz region of Germany that my family has strong connections with. One of the first people to work with us was Baron Philippe from Koehler Ruprecht, that some people may know of.

In any case, I fell in love with it over there and all of a sudden I realized we had something very unique that my father started right here and that my family was doing. At that point I decided to go to the wine school. It ended up being a very interesting experience, going to wine school in Germany where I'm 25 coming from Ann Arbor, Michigan, pretty liberal town, living in Musbach, the Pfalz, going to school with 16-year-olds and talking about tractors all day. Man, those guys knew way more than I did but I did my best catch-up.

After that I did an apprenticeship there and I went up to Geisenheim in the Rheingau. That's where it really took off because that's one of the main oenology schools. Great professors but even more importantly are the people that you're in the class with. I made friends with Christian Witte, the director of Schloss Johannisberg, Nik Weis from St. Urbans-Hof. These are all really cool names. These people, their families go back generations, often, in these wineries. To be immersed in that, it was kind of like the Hogwarts of Riesling, in a way.

I was hooked at that point. When I came back here it was a challenge because no one really knew who we were outside of our narrow area here in Michigan. That's been kind of my life challenge, working in my father, and when my brother had done it, my family's winery, Chateau Grand Traverse, is to build that recognition and be at those restaurants in Chicago and New York and Miami and San Francisco. Let alone London. Or we sold Riesling to Germany, of all places. That's kind of where we're at in the stage of things right now.

Mari

Mari Vineyards in Traverse City, Michigan

In a family business there are always challenges as one generation moves into the other. You're no longer with the family winery, you're here at Mari. What happened, what was the dynamic that brought you over here?

Every winery has a combination of personalities. We had my father, who is the person that had the cajones, or the chutzpah, or however you want to call it, the will, to move the whole family up here and plant grapes where there never were before. My brother's task, he's about eight years older than I am, was to actually take this and make it so it's viable. All those things that aren't quite as romantic but how to get good distribution and how to establish yourself within the state here.

I'm a little bit younger and I grew up with the more multi-generational idea of wineries. The idea that this is going to be here for quite a long time. My goal has been really to establish things outside the state of Michigan and really push the boundaries of what we can do here. Having said all that, sometimes all these three goals work in different directions. My father is always building new companies and looking for the new thing. My brother is really good at trying to perfect what he's already started. I'm trying to start a whole new thing and sometimes these things don't always fit under one roof.

Probably one of the oldest stories told in the wine business. I remember after I made the decision to move on to a friend's winery to become winemaker there, at Mari Vineyards here, I was at a wine conference in Melbourne, Australia. All of a sudden I got a bear hug from the back and it was Ernie Loosen, like, "I heard what happened." I just kind of laughed because it made little ripples across the world. I've heard family businesses are inherently like this and I accept it for what it is. I like the challenge of trying to really build this to the next level. I'm actually working with my father's friend, Marty Lagina, on this project right now.

It is something that you see frequently in wine families. The famous one is obviously the Mondavis.

Yes.

If you have children and you have your own winery, are there things that you would do, in terms of allowing for succession to work in a more smooth and coherent fashion?

Probably the simple answer is have kids earlier so that they're actually working there. Both my brother and I, typical Irish, started late in life so by the time our kids are ready for it, if they should choose to go into the wine business, we're going to be geezers. Really, it's really letting people find their own area in the wine business and then truly give them the reins to do it and not try to micromanage. At some point people learn the skill sets and they should be able to do what they have to do and grow the business. As long as there's good parameters to measure success by. That's really it.

There's a lot of egos wrapped up in this business and sometimes you have to learn how to check those and just do what you do well and try to, hopefully, have a good family dynamic that allows that.

MariTalk about Mari. How did Mari get started and what's the philosophy behind Mari?

Mari Vineyards is the winery of the Lagina family, Marty, Olivia, and Alex Lagina. They're old friends of my family, particularly my dad. I've been making wine for them at Chateaux Grand Traverse since about 2009, kind of a custom crush deal. Marty has about over 60 acres planted across the peninsula here and my family has been buying the grapes for the last 10 years to 12 years, or so. He's always very interested in growing reds, particularly Italian reds, which wasn't really what our winery, Chateaux Grand Traverse, was shooting for.

I beat about anywhere from 500 to 1,500 cases a year for him, kind of as a very ... almost on a hobby level. We always knew he was going to start a winery and about 2 1/2 years ago he started building the facility that we're standing near right now. Marty doesn't really ... how to put it ... he didn't start small. Just like my dad, he went full, full in. He's got basically a winery that would not look out of place in Napa Valley right here in Old Mission Peninsula. When I was looking to see what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it, our vision for the kind of wines he wanted to make aligned a lot more. Where I went from consulting, I became the full-time winemaker here.

I'm very proud of my efforts right here but it's quite a daunting task because we're going from about 900 cases a year to about 9,000. That's going to be an interesting quantum jump for me. It's not only that, I would think at this point in my career, I'm 45 years old, at this point I would normally specialize in some of the things I thought I do best, Riesling, I think Gamay Noir, that my father was the first to plant up here in the late '80s grows very well. Maybe tinker around with Pinot Blanc or Grüner Veltliner, that has a lot of promise.

Life, sometimes, throws another thing at you so now I'll be harvesting Malvasia Bianca, Sauvignon Blanc, Refosco, Schioppettino, Nebbiolo, and probably about 15 other varieties on top of Riesling, Gamay, and Grüner Veltliner and Pinot Blanc. It's going to be very interesting to try to give all these wines their fair time and try to craft them in a way that they really show themselves, as opposed to just having my winemaker style be the one thing. We'll see. I've done well so far but, really, I'd like to revisit this in 10 years and see how well I've done.

The Italian varietals, they're not something that would naturally grow in this climate so you've had to do different things with the agriculture. What is that and how is that working?

First of all, if you noticed, the owner's last name is Lagina. His ancestors came from northeast Italy, actually Croatia now, in Istria. His family grew up making wine up in the upper peninsula. Usually his grapes came in from Napa Valley on a train. In our case it was grapes from Cesare Mondavi. Marty's grandfather came from the same town as Cesare Mondavi, knew him, and all the Italians brought grapes in from Robert's father.

In any case, that piqued his interest and when I came onboard I'm very grateful that his ancestors came from northeast Italy, at least part of them, because we can grow some of those varieties. Refosco, Teroldego, Schioppettino, these are things that can handle our winters. We've already been through some brutal ones and they've done well. We'll see at what level we can craft them.

When we start getting into varieties like Nebbiolo or Sangiovese, that requires some tricks because those are some of the latest ripening grapes in the world and as you look around us, it looks really pretty but this is not Mediterranean climate. We have a few tricks that might make some eyes roll but I think it's kind of cool. We have these what they call high tunnels which are basically kind of open greenhouses. You can fit three vineyard rows underneath and drive a tractor, and the whole bit. We put those up in the fall. They're up all year but we put the sides down in the fall and it kind of raises the temperature by about 10 to 15 degrees Fahrenheit through night and day and allows it to ripen all the way into November.

We use these to kind of augment some of our reds. It's kind of our trick, just like the Italians of the lake district in northeast Italy with dry grapes, we use our tunnels. It's something we're trying to perfect. It's not for the faint-hearted ... it's a tricky thing to do but something that we're working to perfect.

You had some of the wines come out already. What have you seen so far in terms of results?

You would think on Riesling and things like that I have a pretty good handle on them and a good reputation. I just returned from the Riesling Rendezvous in Seattle and this is one of the most intimidating tastings you can go to as a Riesling maker because it's all your peers. Not the winery owners or the reps, it's the winemakers from Italy and Austria and Australia and New Zealand, everywhere. You're trying your wines blind. Our dry Riesling, which I had only bottled about two weeks previous to this tasting, had a standing ovation and people were really saying positive things so I was relieved.

I wasn't too worried about that, we've got that pretty much dialed in. The reds have done really well but they're very young varieties at this point. Most of the grapes, for the Italian varieties, are under 10 years. We've gotten some very positive reviews from the wine magazines and critics but, as a winemaker, I'd rather wait until the vines are older and I can really show what I really can do. So far, so good. I think we've picked the right varieties. Maybe Sangiovese's a stretch but we already have it planted and I'll deal with it.

Refosco and Teroldego and Schioppettino have a real good future here and I think they really like our soil. They like our angle of sunlight, we're on the same parallel as where a lot of them grow. If our winters are just a little less severe I think we'll be in a good spot.

Talk about your philosophy of viticulture and your philosophy of winemaking.

What informs my choices in the vineyard and the winery? I'm a believer in terroir but terroir is a term that can mean a lot of different things for different people. For me, it's those climatic factors, maybe a few other things that are things that you can't change. That usually means the soil you're on, the angle of your slope, your proximity to bodies of water, or your location in the middle of the continent and the weather patterns that go through.

Instead of really trying to manipulate those too much I try to understand them very well and work with them very well. In that case we pick varieties that have grown successfully in other areas that I consider the frontier regions, like in Friuli or in Austria or in Germany. First of all the right grape selection. In the winery, minimal fertilizers and herbicides and other things. I've been working hard to eliminate herbicides but it's a very difficult thing to do. We've shifted over to compost for most of our fertilization and we don't do any late season sprays so I can keep, for example, Riesling very long on the leaves without worrying about any reduction and other factors that can happen from, I think, come from agricultural sprays.

I call myself biopragmatic. I make up my own mind about what I think is the best for here in the future. There are many examples of systems that are almost etched in stone. Biodynamics is a very interesting thing you can pull elements of but I don't buy the whole thing hook, line, and sinker. There's even the organic protocols. They don't allow you to spray things, for example, such as phosphoric acid, which is pretty low on the chain of being of things that will affect your health or the vine or the soil. The vines thrive with it and it helps keep downy mildew down. I would like to use that. It think it's safe and I think it's something that's good for the future so I make my own mind up about that. I call it biopragmatic because if people ask me an answer of what we do in the vineyard I'll have to give them, usually, a 30-minute answer. There's no shorter way of doing that.

In the winery I tend to be intuitive. I do have a lab where I basically back up some of my decisions by checking titratable acidity and sugar, the usual things. For the most part it's by taste and by just kind of through the blends and topping and other things where some of the interesting things happen. I try to do as much by hand but as we grow from 900 to 9,000 cases I'm probably going to be moving more to some pump-overs for some reds and other things. I try to do it where I understand it and try to minimize the amount that the machines play a role in the flavor of the wine.

As for yeast and all the trendy things right now, I like really slow fermentation so I'm naturally drifting into the point of using more ambient fermentations. I have a facility up the hill now that I can do that more safely, where I can isolate whites and reds and let those ferments go as they will. I will use lab yeast on other things if I feel it's important for the vintage and all that but I try to make my own mind up on what is important.

Right now, if I was following trends, I'd be doing everything in cement eggs with ambient fermentations with some carbonic maceration and I'd be making it from some variety you've never heard of. I think there's really cool things in all the winemakers that are pursuing those avenues but there are certain things you've got to make up your own mind. When my father planted a Gamay Noir back in the late '80s, let alone Riesling in the early '70s, those were bad business decisions. No one was buying those things.

You stick to something, develop a style, do it well, people will figure it out. To me it's better to stay consistent and perfect something that's been thought out well as opposed to chasing the latest wisp of whatever the style is right now. Having said that though, every time I make jokes about Petillant Naturels and other things, guess what I'm making next spring, I'm making a Pet-Nat. I do pay attention to what everybody else is doing but, for the most part, it's been figured out at this point.

MariIn terms of the winters here, the winters are pretty brutal. How do you deal with those winters, in terms of the grape growing?

The biggest question about growing grapes in northern Michigan is how do we deal with the brutal winters that we get here. We're going to get at least one very, very brutal winter, meaning below zero degrees Fahrenheit, often 10 or 20 below, at least once every 10 years. There's no getting around that. The whole Great Lakes region, we are still stuck in the middle of the continent so it's not just us, it's Niagara and the Finger Lakes, but we tend to be on a little bit of an extreme right here.

The prevailing winds in wintertime come from west blowing east and they flow across the United States, Canadian border and then they dip down into Michigan. Depending on how that jet stream goes, sometimes all the arctic can funnel out. Guess where it hits first, here. One thing you can tell a difference though is when you look at the weather reports in the wintertime you see Minneapolis or Duluth at minus 30 or minus 40. That's before the winds and the prevailing winds have traveled across Lake Superior and Michigan. By the time they get over here it's about 10 to 15 degrees Fahrenheit in most cases. By the time it gets to Niagara and the Finger Lakes it's warmed up another 10 or 15 degrees.

We're right on the edge where we normally won't get frosted out but we're right on the edge. If something really does happen, like the winters of 2013 and '14, when who knows what, if it's a shift in the melting polar caps or other things, but we got two brutal winters in a row. I'm hoping that that's the last time that happens in a long time. Even then we get a huge amount of snowfall by being on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. When those cold winds come across the lake they scoop up a lot of moisture and they hit the land and it all dumps within 10 to 20 miles of the lake.

 

Even when we get those really cold temperatures our vines are often buried almost halfway up, or sometimes completely, in snow. That acts as an insulative barrier so that's also what makes us unique here. Those conditions don't exist 50 miles inland from here. The combination of the Great Lakes that keep the temperatures above killing temperatures and the lake effect snow which protects them in most years, we're in pretty good shape.

On top of that we have very sandy soils right here from the glaciers. They work to keep our roots from freezing. We've been around for over 40, 44 years now of growing vinifera up here so I think we can handle it. We do have to count on at least once every 10 years it's going to be pretty bad. It's just part of the terroir here.

 

Michigan Vineyards 360-Degree Video is a combination of video sequences from six wineries in the Traverse City, Michigan area with narration by Dan Matthies of Chateau Fontaine. We also interviewed Eddie O'Keefe of Chateau Grand Traverse, his brother, Sean O'Keefe of Mari, Kasey Wierzba of Shady Lane, Cornel Oliver of 2 Lads Winery and visited Black Star Farms.

You have a new winery, which is sustainably built.

The winery I'm at, Mari Vineyards, is a unique construction, it's built with sustainability in mind. Most of the winery is underground. We built tunnels that are 35 feet underground where we store all our barrels. We have a whole winery level which is also underground. All the material and other things were sourced as much locally as possible, the wood, the stone, the labor. It's not just raw materials, it's the expertise of the locals that live here. We try to take everything we've learned over the last generation of wine making and take it to the next level with the wine that we're doing now.

Some things we're doing a little bit differently than most is, just as we are taking growing techniques and some of the varieties from northeast Italy, I'm changing my focus from Germany to seeing what they're doing up in Friuli and Slovenia and Trentino, and all that. One thing that's always intrigued me is larger casks, the thicker walled, larger wood casks. One of the things that's always bothered me is the amount of barriques that every winery goes through. Some might keep them for six or eight years, some might keep them only for two.

That's too short of a period for these barrels that are from 150 and 220 year old oak. I don't think it's sustainable in the long run. What I'm trying to do is go for the larger, thicker walled barrels, 600 liter and then the larger 2,500 liter from Germany that, if I take good care of them, they will outlast me. I think that's the direction a lot of wineries need to go to. What I like about them is you will not get as much of an overt oak influence on the wine.

That always, in my opinion, has been a crutch in this region where we can kind of gloss over some of the inconsistencies in the wine by having a lot of toasty oak in it. If I remove some of that it's going to force me to become a better winemaker. I think it will make a style that people will appreciate because I think our region is a really cool region and we should play up some of the things. Our red's are going to have a little bit of acid but it's a good acid, a ripe acid. Let's play that up and not try to mask it with oak.

Those are the kind of things we're deciding. Let's buy barrels once and not multiple times. Let's use the local ingredients. Let's build with stone and the local labor and put money back in this economy here. When there's things that we can't make locally, then try regionally. All our wine tanks come from upstate New York. We try to put back as much as we take out of here, if not more.

Another thing, in addition, our winery is powered by wind energy. There's a wind turbine that the city of Traverse City built over 25 years ago that they were going to take down because they didn't know how to repair. The owner of this winery bought it, fixed it in a couple days, and now it's offsetting our electricity as well. From any angle we're doing our best to do all the current technology to lower our footprint as much as possible. We can't get away from making carbon dioxide during fermentation, which no wine maker ever seems to talk about. With the amount of the things that we're growing and the amount of land that we're keeping under agriculture, I think that more than offsets anything that comes from the fermentation.

Read Stuart Pigott's The Best White Wine on Earth: The Riesling Story

 The interview is based on a sit down with Sean O'Keefe in 2017.

Banner art by Piers Parlett



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