A Leelanau gem: Brengman Brothers Winery romances the vines

Retired Detroit restaurant owner Al Brengman, center, with sons Ed, left, Gerald and Robert. Al Brengman ran the Captain's restaurants in Detroit and St. Clair County. (Photos by Sandra Silfven)

Retired Detroit restaurant owner Al Brengman, center, with sons Ed, left, Gerald and Robert. Al Brengman owned the Captain’s restaurants in Detroit and St. Clair County. (Photos by Sandra Silfven)

Visiting Leelanau’s new Brengman Brothers Winery at Crain Hill Vineyards is not just a trip to another tasting room, it’s an experience.

Discover wines that seduce the palate with their crisp, clean flavors; a winemaker who wears wacky hats and just plain loves fermenting grapes; and owners that learned the food and wine business the hard way — running restaurants in Detroit and other parts of southeast Michigan.

And then there’s the location — an incredible east-facing hillside on the southeast side of the Leelanau Peninsula that’s pure Michigan.

“We have every slope you can imagine,” Robert Brengman said. And soils too — in clearing the spot for the Gewurztraminer, he said a cross-section of the earth showed loam, gravel, sand and red iron.

The rolling lane up the hill to the tall post-and-beam winery cuts through a patchwork quilt of vineyards planted to Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

The narrow road passes by a guinea hen house that harbors the noisy fowl that eat the bugs and scare away the critters. A sign of respect for the land.

The open, airy winery is designed in the style of a warm Leelanau farmhouse with Douglas fir beams and a soaring fieldstone fireplace trimmed in Pewabic tile.

Minerally, floral, lichee-nut Gewurztraminers, dry and semi-dry Rieslings, a Rose of Pinot Noir and more treats to imbibe await visitors. For designated drivers, there is fresh gourmet coffee.

The Brengman brothers — Robert, Gerald and Ed — know something about the hospitality business. Their dad is Al Brengman, who ran the Captain’s restaurants that dotted the east side of Detroit and St. Clair County 25 years ago. Most of Al’s kids — there were 13 of them — worked in those restaurants.

Robert Brengman says: “We grew up learning a work ethic, how to be innovators with an unstoppable drive. We learned it’s not enough to put in eight hours and say ‘I’m done.” Robert worked his way through the College for Creative Studies as a short-order cook at the Captain’s on Mack at Neff.

And the winemaker with the hat collection? That’s Nathaniel Rose, a local lad who creates Brengman’s Artisan Series label and specialty wines, and won the hearts of the Brengmans when he saved a batch of peaches by turning them into a peach mead  in Robert’s prize concrete tank from California.

GROWING A WINERY

Robert got hooked on the idea of starting a winery when he helped his retired uncle plant a vineyard on Old Mission Peninsula.

“He taught me this area is a great place to grow world-class fruit,” Robert said.

Robert and Ed started searching for property in 2002 near Suttons Bay. They made offers that fell through on several pieces of land before they found the parcel on Center Highway at Crain Hill Road with a For Sale sign peeping out of the snow. Once owned by a fruit grower, it had been saved from being divided into lots for houses by the Leelanau Conservancy, which had bought it.

The Brengmans made an offer on the 45 acres, and it was accepted by the Conservancy with the caveat they keep the land in farming and limit their buildings.

Vineyards were planted from 2004 to 2006 — all on hilly land difficult to tend except by hand.

The family started selling Gewurztraminer and Riesling to acclaimed winemaker Bryan Ulbrich at Left Foot Charley in Traverse City.

“Our model was that we had to see if our grapes would be good enough for wine,” Robert said. And when that was assured, and the local township agreed, construction of the tasting room and cellar began in earnest for a fall opening in 2011.

MAKING WINE

Robert’s French palate pretty much determined the direction of the wines — dry, crisp, clean styles. Chardonnays, Gewurztraminers, Pinot Noirs and Rieslings — dry and medium sweet.

To add to the winery inventory while vineyards are still being planted — it takes three to four years for vines to produce enough grapes to make wine — they partnered with Giovanni Dal Vecchio of Friuli’s Valpanera winery to supply their Michigan tasting room with Italian reds, and in exchange, Brengman would ship whites for Valpanera to sell in Italy. The hearty, robust, well-sculpted Valpanera reds use the Refosco grape, an old Italian variety that grows in the cool Friuli region.

Brengman also sells the earthy, dry reds made by Nathaniel Rose under his own label, which feature Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and other varietals from southwest Michigan.

A second Brengman line, called Runaway Hen with the vineyard’s Guinea fowl on the label, features blends of estate wines and wines made elsewhere.

Coming out this summer will be the first of Brengman’s estate-grown Artist Series, a Chardonnay without oak made in Robert’s expensive, egg-shaped cement tank. A remarkable Pinot Noir still in barrel will be bottled in 2014, and an oak-aged “Artisan” Chardonnay will be released next year. They are all made by Nathaniel Rose.

Ulbrich still makes the white wines with the regular Brengman Brothers label.

And what about that cement tank? Concrete fermenters are not unusual in Europe and at elite American wineries. Robert’s fermenter is the cream of the crop — made by Sonoma Cast Stone. The advantage to concrete tanks to make unoaked wines, according to Sonoma Cast Stone, is that it breathes like oak and is “semi-permeable, which concentrates the wine, while diffusing oxygen without adding oak character.”

I tasted Brengman’s 2012 unoaked Chardonnay made in concrete and it’s amazing with its stoney, minerally character and crisp citrus, tropical fruit and tart apple tones.

The concrete fermenter is small and designed to please the eye, and obviously makes great wine. This is a pure Robert touch with his industrial design background and love of French wines.

Robert said that being part of a large family helped him give shape to the large undertaking of starting a winery.

“We became very independent as kids. We figured out early on it helped to set dreams and go after them.

“What we are doing here is the dream of a lot of people who may not be ready for all the work. For me it is therapy.”

IF YOU GO

Brengman Brothers Winery

For more images and information, go to http://brengmanbrothers.com/

(231) 946-2764

9720 S. Center Highway

Traverse City 49684

Directions: Take M-22 north from Traverse City about four miles, turn left on Crain Hill Road and cross Center Highway to enter the winery.

Contact Sandra Silfven ssilfven@hotmail.com.

The new Brengman Brothers Winery is at the junction of Crain Hill Road (off M-22) and Center Highway on the Leelanau Peninsula. (Photo by Sandra Silfven)

The new Brengman Brothers Winery is at the junction of Crain Hill Road (off M-22) and Center Highway on the Leelanau Peninsula. (Photo by Sandra Silfven)