Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula and Big Little Vineyard

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By Nancy Smorch

“Big white wines. Little Leelanau Peninsula. Big brother. Little brother. Big passion. Little ego. Our goal is to make full-bodied, hand crafted wines that are expressions of both ourselves and our parents’ ten-acre vineyard in Lake Leelanau, Michigan.”

                                              -Big Little Wines, Leelanau, Michigan

Mike and I recently traveled to the Leelanau Peninsula to experience this vineyard firsthand, and along the way drank in the beauty of Northern Michigan's West Coast.

For those of you not familiar with Northern Michigan - it is an amazingly gorgeous place.  If you are looking at a map of Michigan, the Leelanau Peninsula is the little area often referred to as the “pinky” (upper western portion).

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What I love about it is that for the most part, the land and air were never tarnished by manufacturing.  And, although there are a lot of farms, they are mostly fruit farms.  Unlike in the lower portions of Michigan where you see a ton of corn, soy, and wheat fields, driving along the back roads in Leelanau County, you see a number of fruit orchards, vineyards, and other small farms.

You typically won’t drive for too long without coming across a roadside fruit and vegetable stand, so during the warmer months, there’s always fresh food to snack on close by.

And, of course, there’s the famous Sleeping Bear Dunes, which I had to stop and visit, having never been there.  It was a hot and sticky day, so we opted out of climbing the huge dune, but we did take a drive through the park and stopped at a few of the lookout points.  Although I didn’t get a great picture of the dunes themselves, this view nearby was quite breathtaking, and definitely picture-worthy!

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But the highlight of our trip was the wine tasting at Big Little Vineyard, by the owners themselves, Peter and Michael Laing.  They graciously opened up their tasting room to Mike and me on, what had to be, the stormiest day of the summer.  The rain drenched us as we sprinted the short distance from our car to the tasting room.  Once inside, Peter and Michael shared a bit about their journey and their plans for the future as we enjoyed a taste of their wines, in between bangs of thunder and bolts of lightening that travelled closer and closer to their tasting room (I have to admit I was getting a little nervous!).

Peter and Michael left other careers to settle in the Leelanau Peninsula where there parents had two acres of Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir vines.  Peter and Michael have expanded the vineyard and have worked closely with well-known and respected winemakers in the area to craft some amazing wines.

I had first tried their wine while at Salt of the Earth in Fennville, Michigan.  I saw their wine on the menu and I hadn’t heard of it before, so I asked a little about it and decided to give it a try.  It was their Crayfish Pino Gris.  I absolutely loved it! It may have gone down a little too easily!  I ended up calling Big Little Vineyard that next day and ordered a whole case of it!

Michigan is becoming very well known for their wines, with close to 100 vineyards - a majority of which are on the west coast of Michigan.  In fact, an interesting tidbit: Michigan ranks 4th in the U.S. in total grape production (behind California, Washington, and New York), and 5th in terms of wine grape production.

What makes this region so great for growing grapes?  There’s a unique microclimate created on the west coast of Michigan from the westerly winds coming off of Lake Michigan.  Lake Michigan cools the air in the summer and warms the air in the winter, creating this microclimate (this area is often referred to as the fruit belt).

Also, this region is near the 45th parallel which is a prime latitude for growing grapes for wine.  It’s the same latitude that the French Bordeaux and Cotes du Rhone regions are on as well as Italy’s Piedmont region.

Peter and Michael of Big Little Vineyard have so wonderfully harnessed the terroir of this beautiful region of the country and have done an outstanding job of creating wine that not only brings pride to the Michigan wine industry, but in my opinion, rivals some of the best in the world!

Thank you both for riding the storm out with us that crazy Tuesday afternoon in late August.

Cheers!

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