By: MIKE NORTON
As winter snows cover the rolling hills of Northern Michigan’s wine country, several wineries on the scenic Leelanau Peninsula near Traverse City have responded with a new approach to touring and tasting: a vineyard-to-vineyard ski and snowshoe trail.
The 7.5-mile groomed trail connects three wineries in the center of the peninsula: Blustone Vineyards and Forty-Five North Vineyard & Winery near the village of Lake Leelanau and Tandem Ciders north of Suttons Bay, winding through a landscape of snow-blanketed vineyards and orchards about 15 miles from Traverse City.
“It’s a really cool idea,” says Nick Wierzba of Suttons Bay Bikes, who rents skis and snowshoes to users of the new trail. “You can get out and explore the vineyards, then go inside to warm up by the fire and taste some wine, and move on to the next place. We’re getting a lot of calls from people and groups who want to find out about it.”
Wine touring is an increasingly popular activity in the Traverse City region, allowing visitors to sample the area’s award-winning Chardonnays, Rieslings and Cabernet Francs while enjoying the charming landscape that nurtures them.
According to vintners like Mark Johnson of Chateau Chantal, the long deep lakes and roller-coaster hills that make Traverse City such a splendid setting for growing grapes are also the reason why this is one of the most popular year-round vacation destinations in the Great Lakes region.
“Grapes love beautiful places,” he says.
Thanks to the cool blue depths of nearby Grand Traverse Bay (and a mile-high glacier that plowed through the area 100,000 years ago) the area’s unique combination of climate, topography and soils produce grapes that are sweeter and more flavorful than those grown farther south. But it’s also a stunningly beautiful place for touring.
Traverse City’s prime wine country is spread along the steep slopes of two peninsulas, each a distinct wine appellation area. The Leelanau Peninsula is a roughly triangular land mass along the Lake Michigan shore, while the narrower Old Mission Peninsula extends 20 miles into the center of Grand Traverse Bay. Renowned for their natural beauty, they’re able to take full advantage of Lake Michigan’s moderating influence on the climate.
There’s no way to visit all of the nearly 40 wineries and tasting rooms in Traverse City’s wine country in a single trip. The much more enjoyable approach is to take one of the smaller “wine trails” that highlight the landscapes and wines of particular areas, getting to know each place on its own terms.
The Leelanau Peninsula alone is home to more than 25 wineries – so many, in fact, that the local vintners’ association decided last year to divide their wine trail into three separate “loops” to make it easier for visitors to plan their trips and to encourage them to try some of what grower Matt Gregory calls the “hidden treasures of Michigan’s Wine Coast.”
The Grand Traverse Bay Loop (probably the most accessible to travelers staying in Traverse City) includes nine wineries along the east shore of the peninsula from Traverse City to Suttons Bay. It’s a lovely area encompassing a long stretch of beautiful shoreline, some marvelous hilltop views and a broad interior valley filled with orchards, vineyards. Cyclists can even tour some of these wineries on the nearby Leelanau Trail.
The Sleeping Bear Loop takes visitors to six wineries on the peninsula’s western shore. It contains some of the most beautiful countryside in Leelanau County, including the magnificent Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, as well as the charming resort community of Glen Arbor and the vibrant inland villages of Cedar and Lake Leelanau.
The Northern Loop covers 10 wineries in the less congested northern half of the peninsula — a place of great variety that includes quaint lakeport villages like Leland, Northport and Omena, remote beaches, rugged valleys and attractions like the century-old Grand Traverse Lighthouse.
The most easily defined trail in the region is on the Old Mission Peninsula. It’s just north of the Traverse City limits, and its eight wineries are surrounded by some of the region’s most beautiful scenery. It, too, has attractions of a non-culinary sort, including the historic village of Old Mission and the Mission Point Lighthouse.
For those who don’t have time to take a wine trail tour into the countryside, Traverse City also has one “urban winery” – it’s Left Foot Charley, in the Village at Grand Traverse Commons. Although winemaker Bryan Ulbrich grows his grapes outside the city, the wines are all made on site in what was once the laundry building of Traverse City’s former mental asylum. And with its castle-like spires, golden brick buildings and forested campus, the Commons is quite scenic in its own right.
To learn more about other winter attractions and events in the Traverse City area – and for a complete listing of lodging and dining options – contact Traverse City Tourism at 1-800-TRAVERSE or on line at www.TraverseCity.com