Feeling at home at Leelanau's Chateau Fontaine

Chateau Fontaine was our last stop on a Saturday afternoon tour of wineries on the Leelanau Peninsula.

Although the clock had edged past five, Dan Matthies waved the four of us inside the modest building situated below a ridge, where rows and rows of vines climbed like stairs to the top of the hill. He assured us there was plenty of time to sample wine and directed us to the capable hands of Stephen Nerhing, a sales associate stationed behind the bar.

Like at other wineries, we selected reds and whites, sipped, and enthusiastically nodded approval when we tasted one we really enjoyed (for me, that was the Woodland Red, a blend of cabernet, merlot and syrah), and engaged Nerhing, who besides working in the tasting room, does off-site sales and delivery, in conversation about wine and food. He persuaded us to try the Cherry Wine, made from three varieties of Michigan cherries. I am not a fan of fruit wines, but I found this one especially appealing. Later, following Nerhing’s advice, I blended a bit of the wine into the barbecue sauce I concocted for grilling. The cherry flavor complemented the ribs.

Browsing the gift shop, I bumped into Matthies again, and we struck up conversation. He and his wife, Lucie, discovered the property — a former potato farm and cow pasture — while driving around the peninsula in the 1970s. They ran a ski shop at the Sugarloaf resort at the time and moved onto growing grapes and wine making after buying the abandoned farm.

Fontaine comes from Lucie’s middle name and also pays tribute to the French immigrants who settled here in the late 1800s. Today, the property is home to 30 acres of grapes, including chardonnay, pinot gris, riesling, pinot noir and merlot. For the second year in a row, Chateau Fontaine’s Riesling won the John Rose Award, a best-in-class honor at an annual New York competition. It’s an unusual feat, one that brings recognition not only to Matthies but also to Northern Michigan wines.

As we were getting ready to leave, Matthies suggested we take a drive beyond the tasting room to the top of the hillside. We followed a winding, dirt road up and and around seemingly endless lines of plantings bursting with fruit. The reward? Standing amid 27-year-old vines of chardonnay grapes, we enjoyed a panoramic view of gently rolling hills, woods, fields and lakes. It capped a perfect day.

I’ve been to many wineries over the years — in Napa, Sonoma, New York and abroad — and enjoyed them, but we left Chateau Fontaine that evening feeling like we had been some place a little more special, like we had spent the afternoon engaged in conversation and wine at a friend’s house.

Greg Tasker
Greg Tasker is Detroit News Arts and Entertainment Editor and has been writing about travel for more than a decade. His travel stories have appeared in AAA Living, Frommer's Budget Travel, Scouting, AMC Outdoors, Vermont Life and Island Life.