As the number of Michigan wineries climbs toward the century mark, the generation of vintners that built the earliest ones is facing another key issue: Succession. Who is going to run the business when they retire? Who will keep the momentum going as Michigan wines find greater acclaim across the U.S.? Who will keep testing the market with new varietals, new blends, new labels?
For many wineries, it makes sense to keep things all in the family.
At Chateau Grand Traverse, sons Eddie and Sean O’Keefe took prominent roles for founder Edward O’Keefe Jr. more than a decade ago and raised the bar for Rieslings and other Alsace-style wines. Larry Mawby sold half interest in his Leelanau vineyard and winery to Stuart L. Laing of Suttons Bay in 2009, and today is teaching Laing’s sons Mike and Pete the business.
And at St. Julian in Paw Paw, President David Braganini is grooming daughter Angela Braganini, 28, and nephew Dario Braganini, 24, to learn the whole business, from working harvest to running tasting rooms at one of the state’s largest wine operations. “I am sending them to Italy next week to watch the harvest,” Braganini said.
But what happens when a winery owner dies young? For one important Leelanau winery, succession happened in a matter of days.
The passing of Bruce Simpson, founder of Good Harbor Vineyards, at age 56 in 2009, rocked the family, but today the fourth winery in Leelanau County, founded in 1980 and best known for its Trillium and Fishtown White wines, is back on track.
Debbie Simpson and kids Taylor and Sam have picked up where Bruce left off, with one goal in mind: to preserve and grow his legacy.
“I was lucky,” Debbie said recently. “My kids came home and jumped right in. I was in no shape to do it.”
Sam Simpson, now 26, has a finance degree from Michigan State and gave up a new job crunching numbers for General Mills in Minneapolis. Today, he lives next door to the winery, keeps the books, manages the vineyards and makes the wine.
It was a life-changing move for Sam, who calls his entry into the family business more of a “forced stumble” than an easy glide. It helped that he had grown up in the cellar and vineyards, worked by his dad’s side and took viticulture courses at Michigan State.
“Three years ago, we produced 8,500 cases of wine; now we expect to make 18,500 cases — in the same cellar space,” Sam said. “I don’t sleep a lot.”
Sister Taylor Simpson, 31, left a sales post at Southern Wine & Spirits in Chicago to market the family wines — a role her dad had no time to master. She dramatically increased sales to restaurants and expanded business to Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. She also helped develop Good Harbor’s new artisan Small Batch Series for sales in restaurants and the tasting room.
Linda Jones, executive director of the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council, says this generational succession pattern is one reason the state’s wine industry, which pours more than $300 million each year into Michigan’s economy, continues to thrive.
“There is a longtime legacy of Michigan wineries being family-run businesses dating to St. Julian founder Mariano Meconi and running through the O’Keefes at Chateau Grand Traverse,” she said. “And we are seeing continuing examples of long-term family involvement in an industry that takes generations to mature.”
In southwest Michigan, Joe and Sue Herman’s son Keith, 28, is now making the wines at their Karma Vista Vineyards.
“It takes a load off of me,” Joe Herman, 57, said. “We are a fulltime farm and fulltime winery.”
Keith Herman is the seventh generation at the farm. He graduated from Western Michigan with a double major in finance and economics, worked at Whirlpool for a year and a half and, according to his father, decided that farming would be another way to go.
“He’s done great things already to improve the wines,” Herman said.
Bernie Rink, 85, owner of Boskydel Vineyard, Leelanau County’s first bonded winery in 1976, still works every day, but is preparing for the time when the business will be the responsibility of his five sons.
Two of his sons are hands-on at the winery now: Jim Rink, 54, who is editor of the American Wine Society Journal, and Andy Rink, 40, an architect in Traverse City.
Rink likes to tell people he planted a vineyard to keep his boys out of trouble and teach them values.
“Their taking over for me is a natural consequence of the values they learned when they were young — they are grown men now; they learned a lot. The winery was successful in training the boys.
“It taught the boys hard work, how to leave the world a better place than they found it. Pulling weeds in the vineyard is not what kids like to do.”
Good Harbor’s Sam Simpson and sister Taylor have reenergized the family winery — changing everything from labels, to trellising, to contracting to buy more grapes, to making eight new wines. They leased out their dad’s cherry acreage to free up time and resources, and over the next three years, plan to add 20 acres to the family vineyard.
“The first year we moved back was chaotic,” Taylor said. “It was not a learning curve; it was a vertical line.”
Adds Sam: “We always knew our dad was a hard worker, but this makes you realize how hard.
“We came back home and the winery was established, but he (was the one who) had to build it.”
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More Michigan wineries are keeping their businesses all in the family.
>> Chateau Chantal, Old Mission Peninsula/Traverse City: Owners Bob and Nadine Begin brought on board daughter Marie-Chantal Dalese in 2009 as marketing director and husband Paul Dalese as vineyard manager.
>> Round Barn, Baroda: Rick and Sherrie Moersch have turned day-to-day operations over to sons Matt and Chris, and Chris’s wife Nicole.
>> Chateau Fontaine, Lake Leelanau: Owners Dan and Lucie Matthies have son Doug Matthies managing the vineyards, and his partner at French Road Cellars, Shawn Walters, making the wine.
>> Brys Estate, Old Mission Peninsula/Traverse City: Walter and Eileen Brys have delegated operations and marketing to son Patrick, 35.
>> Forty-Five North, Lake Leelanau: Owner Steven Grossnickle, an Indiana ophthalmologist, turned winery operations over to daughter-in-law Alanna Grossnickle, 30.
It seems fitting for my last Thursday wine column in the printed newspaper to touch on some of the early Michigan wineries I started writing about in the 1980s — Good Harbor, L. Mawby, Boskydel, St. Julian, Chateau Grand Traverse, Round Barn, to name a few. After 41 years at The Detroit News as copy editor, food writer, restaurant critic and wine columnist, I can say I had a ringside seat to report on the state’s incredibly dedicated chefs, restaurateurs, sommeliers, wine retailers and distributors, and winemakers.
I am humbled by the great mentors I have had at this newspaper and the opportunity to hopefully make your reading experience more enjoyable. And now I am finally going to have time to curl up on the sofa with my old Wine Spectators, and a pile of wine books, and keep up some wine chatter right here at www.detroitnews.com/wine. I am retiring Friday. See you in the blogosphere. – Sandra Silfven