Meet the Next Generation of Northern Michigan Winemakers

Northern Michigan is home to 27 Michigan wineries dotted mostly throughout Traverse City, Leelanau County and the Old Mission Peninsula. And the numbers are growing.  Now, as a new generation of Northern Michigan winemakers settles in, we check in with three to see how their ideas are likely to shape the future of wine in Northern Michigan.

Cornel Olivier2 Lads Winery

The sleek glass and steel mien of the 2 Lads Winery tasting room on Old Mission Peninsula makes a bold statement from its hilltop perch: “We’re doing things differently here.”

And while it’s true the idea of “different,” as in “smarter, better,” is expressed throughout the structure—energy-saving savvy abounds, cleaner air results from steel and glass instead of wood—the real differences that bring wine drinkers back happen first in the ground.

Like all wines in Northern Michigan, flavor and the sense of terroir begins with the sand, clay and gravel left here by glaciers that retreated 10,000 years ago. From there, the two men behind 2 Lads—Chris Baldyga, a Traverse City native, and Cornel Olivier, who moved here from South Africa on a vineyard internship—work endlessly with cover crops to further control the make up of the soil and, ultimately, the flavor of the grapes. Time-honored winter crops, like rye planted in vineyard rows during fall, provide fresh biomass come spring; spading the soil up to 18 inches deep twice a year serves up fresh nutrients and flavor components at root level.

The men have also welcomed Michigan State University to run experiments to minimize chemical and machine use in the vineyard by planting native and beneficial species, including mustard, winter oats, beans, legumes, rye, alfalfa, buckwheat and native flowers. These attract beneficial bugs that eat and destroy pests. “This has a significant impact on vine growth and on the quality of wine,” says Olivier.

If there’s a secret to be found in the 2 Lads post-harvest alchemy, it’s somewhere in “the plan,” a course for each grape variety tailored to the year’s conditions that Olivier meticulously charts out during the growing season: when the grapes arrive, everybody knows precisely how each cluster is to be treated.

“I have a vision for each wine,” Olivier says. “To achieve it, we like to be really hands on and control a lot of variables.”2 Lads grows just six varietals—chardonnay, riesling, pinot gris, pinot noir, merlot and cabernet franc—and makes just six wines, a focused approach that Baldyga and Olivier feel is central to maintaining quality.

“Our wines are very Germanic,” says Olivier. “They’re bright, high in acid, clean. Our reds are lighter in body and flavor.” They call their reds, “New World Reds,” for their balance and richness of fruit, a New World contemporary style.

The lads are also excited about their sparkling wines. They use the méthode champenoise technique of fermenting wine in the bottle, rather than in a massive steel tank. Baldyga describes a new sparkling pinot grigio as, “Fun with great citrus, bright apple and tropical tones.” They are also producing a pinot noir and chardonnay blend that is aging for several years with a possible release in 2013. This bubbly is made in the classic sparkling wine style of French Champagne.

Shawn WaltersOne World Winery Consulting

Winemaker Shawn Walters, of One World Winery Consulting, has the intensity and vision for crafting wine, and the gold medals to prove his vintner prowess. He’s been called a magician and a Michigan superstar for his winemaking, and though he’s been working vineyards for 17 years, he says he’s just getting started.

Walters spent his formative years in Traverse City and on Leelanau Peninsula, though it took a hot summer as a breakfast cook at the Riverside Inn in Leland to lead him to his calling: an offer by a restaurant coworker in 1993 to get his hands dirty in the vineyards of Leelanau Cellars in Omena.

By 2001, Walters had become winemaker and vineyard manager and was immersing himself in vineyard technique to achieve top quality grapes that intensely express varietal characteristics. Walters produced consistent, medal winning wines; and, impressively, he crafted a 2005 merlot that ranked among the 30 Best American Merlots in Wine & Spirits Magazine that year.

Meanwhile, Walters took a consulting gig to team up with retired art professor Alan Eaker to launch Eaker’s Longview Winery in Cedar. The pair hit it off over a dinner, and, in a stunning tribute to Walters’s wine insight, Longview Winery racked up more than 20 medals after one year in production. Building Longview from the ground up ignited a new passion for the creative winemaker. So when Walters received an offer to start up operations at 45 North in Lake Leelanau, he didn’t hesitate. Walters produced a line of wines on the 45th parallel that collected medals and earned fans of media andwine critics. He was deemed a magician in the process for his masterfully produced wine, perhaps most notably the pinot noir rosé.

With the instant successes of Longview and 45 North on his résumé, Walters started his own consulting firm, One World Winery Consulting, for custom wine development for vintners in Michigan and elsewhere. Soon, Scott Harvey of Napa Valley invited Shawn to co-produce a riesling for his Jana label wines under the Leelanau Peninsula appellation.

“Michigan is an up and coming region with the ability to produce world class rieslings. Shawn Walters is emerging as the superstar of Michigan winemakers,” Harvey says.

Walters’s latest venture is creating his own label, a super-small, high-end boutique winery that makes white, blended wines and varietals. Called Twyris Winery—a namesake for his two daughters, Twyla and Iris—the winery operates from a Leelanau County farmstead that Shawn and his wife, Cece Chatfield, invested in. The first year, the family planted two acres with pinot blanc and chardonnay. Walters and Chatfield intend to self-distribute to fine-dining restaurants and upscale wine shops in the Traverse City region, New York and Chicago.

“I want to help the industry as a whole by setting the bar higher,” Walters says. And he and his family intend to do it from this farm, with its far-off view of Lake Michigan, a bevy of free-range chickens, a portly pig, russet highland cows grazing nearby and a cattle dog named Arlo.

Sam SimpsonGood Harbor Vineyards

Three generations of farmers have left their mark on Good Harbor Vineyards, a 300-acre family fruit farm on Leelanau Peninsula, but the current generation took over much sooner than planned. Sam Simpson and his sister, Taylor Simpson, returned to Northern Michigan in 2009 after the unexpected death of their father, Bruce Simpson, a well-respected winemaker here.

Though young, Sam and Taylor arrived home with remarkable experience. Sam graduated from Michigan State University in 2009 with a degree in finance and an emphasis in viticulture and enology. While studying international economics in South Africa, he explored the wineries of Stellenbosch and other renowned regions. His plan to travel and experience life beyond the peninsula for several years before returning to assume duties as a fourth-generation farmer were redirected upon his father’s passing.

He left behind a job as a financial analyst for General Mills in Minnesota and assumed the position of winemaker, the role his dad thrived in for 28 years after launching Good Harbor Vineyards, one of the peninsula’s earliest wineries, in 1980. Like his father, Sam is a farmer first, crafting wine from the vineyard, though he credits his smooth transition to longtime employees and to the marketing skills of his sister.

Taylor left a successful career in Chicago as a manager for one of the country’s largest wine distributors, where she honed a knowledge of wine and the wine business while traveling to renowned wine regions of the world. Under her watch, the winery is seeing growing demand, a growth curve that pushed Sam to boost vineyard acreage by 30 percent, to 87 acres, last year.

Together, the brother-sister team is driven to carry on their father’s legacy of producing quality wines that remain affordable. “We produce high quality table wine to enjoy with every meal,” Sam says. “We don’t manipulate our wines. We let the land be expressed in the wines and keep prices reasonable.”

Sam produces wines using the same style and approach his father succeeded with for three decades, but he’s also unveiled a few new products. Sleeping Bare is a blanc de blanc sparkling wine crafted from chardonnay. Collaboration, as the name implies, blends several red grape varietals. Sam has a balaton cherry liquor in the brainstorm stage.

Sam’s most noteworthy new wine is Tribute, in honor of Bruce. The white wine is crafted from the last batch of oaked chardonnay made by Sam’s father. The label displays Good Harbor Bay, North and South Manitou Islands and Pyramid Point, all visible from the family porch.

Vintners Recommendations:

• 2 Lads Winery Pinot Grigio • Longview Winery Dry Riesling • 2 Lads Winery Riesling • Good Harbor Vineyards Manitou • Longview Winery Pinot Gris • Good Harbor Vineyards Fishtown White

Sharon Kegerreis and Lorri Hathaway are writers and photographers specializing in Michigan wine travel. They co-authored From the Vine: Exploring Michigan Wineries, and recently published The History of Michigan Wines. Read their blog at