Romancing the Riesling
The grape of the 45th parallel has catapulted Northern Michigan winemakers onto the international stage.
By Patty LaNoue Stearns
Standing on the highest point of Old mission Peninsula, an undulating vision lies before you — a landscape of aqua, ochre, chocolate, windswept gray and shades of red, orange and green. Be it known that this dramatic place is where Northern Michigan’s Riesling began. The place where everyone said it couldn’t happen, and Ed O’ Keefe proved everybody wrong.
It is here, midway up the peninsula along the fabled 45th parallel, that O’Keefe planted his first European vines, among them Riesling — often called “the noblest grape” and certainly the champion grape of Northern Michigan. He brought his purebred stock back from Germany in 1974, when naysayers said hybrids were the only type of grapes that could survive Michigan’s harsh winters.
But the 74-year-old O’Keefe is proud to be known as a lifelong maverick, the “Ayatollah of Riesling,” he jokes. He pushed ahead, eventually planting 55 acres above this striking panorama — Lake Michigan lapping at both sides of the Peninsula and Power Island rising to the west. And those acres have borne fruit for his winery, Chateau Grand Traverse, for more than three decades.
It was a long struggle — the risky finances, the tumultuous weather, the public doubts. O’Keefe’s true vindication is in the taste of the wine, but production numbers provide testament, too: The winery has gone from producing 7,000 cases in 1985 to 50,000 cases this year.