The wine industry on Michigan’s northwest coast is relatively new – its first vinifera grapes were only planted in 1974 — but it has already passed one major milestone: the passing of the torch from generation to generation.
The founders of many local wineries have been training their sons and daughters to step into leadership roles, and that process is now well underway. Here are a few profiles of the Next Generation of Traverse City area vintners:
Chateau Chantal Winery: Marie-Chantal Dalese
Not too many people were surprised when Marie-Chantal Dalese was named President and CEO at the Chateau Chantal Winery Bed & Breakfast in 2015. After all, the business was named after her, and she’s spent much of her life preparing to take it over.
Marie-Chantal is one of several second-generation vintners who are stepping into management positions in the family vineyards of the Old Mission and Leelanau Peninsulas. Her parents, Robert and Nadine, founded the winery in 1991 and named it in honor of their daughter.
She grew up on the Old Mission Peninsula, took her undergraduate degree in Marketing and Management at DePaul University, obtained a graduate diploma in Wine Business from the University of Adelaide, Australia, and spent five years in the Chicago wine trade before signing on as marketing director at Chateau Chantal in 2009.
“I’m very glad to have made this decision,” she says. “I get to see my parents every day and work with a team that is more family than co-workers. There are constant challenges that keep you on your toes, but also great rewards.”
Good Harbor Vineyards: Sam and Taylor Simpson
Bruce Simpson grew up on his family’s cherry farm south of Leland, but went off to study viticulture and oenology at the University of California-Davis and returned home to plant a vineyard. In 1980 he and his wife Debbie opened Good Harbor Vineyards, the fourth winery on the Leelanau Peninsula.
The Simpsons’ two children, meanwhile had grown up and launched careers of their own. Sam graduated from Michigan State University with a degree in finance and an emphasis in viticulture and oenology, moved to South Africa, and was offered a job as a financial analyst for General Mills. Taylor graduated from the University of Michigan in 2003 and took a job in Chicago as manager of one of the country’s largest wine distributors. Both planned to eventually return to Good Harbor, but everything suddenly speeded up in 2009 with their father’s sudden and untimely death. They returned immediately to help their mother run the business.
“We left our jobs and jumped in head first,” remembers Taylor. Now, after seven years, brother and sister have made great strides in growing the business — and have started other businesses along the way. Today, Sam is the winery’s general manager and Taylor is director of sales, marketing and distribution.
“I would say that at this point we now both enjoy what we are doing and look forward to continued growth for our businesses and the Michigan Wine Industry in general,” says Taylor..
Boskydel Vineyard: Jim and Andy Rink
Jim and Andy Rink were present at the creation of the northern Michigan wine industry. They lost their baseball diamond to it, in fact.
Their dad, Bernie, was the librarian at Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City when he looked out over the family’s Lake Leelanau field one day in 1971, thought the landscape looked a lot like the Rhine Valley in Germany, and decided to plant some grapevines. His five sons, who had been using the field as a ballpark, found themselves drafted as laborers in what would become the region’s first real winery: Boskydel Vineyard
One by one, the boys grew up and moved away, but two of them – Jim (the oldest) and Andrew (the youngest) — came back to help run the place about five years ago. They still have outside jobs: Jim, a former public relations consultant for AAA Michigan, edits the American Wine Society Journal and Andy is an architect in Traverse City.
“Bernie is 89 now and really is only in the tasting room on Sunday if he feels up to it,” says Jim. “It’s a true small business in every respect. We both grew up with the vineyard, and I guess you could say it’s in our blood. And I never get tired of that view out of the winery window.”
Brys Estate Vineyard: Patrick Brys
Walt and Eileen Brys spent two years searching for the perfect spot to build their winery before settling on a century-old fruit farm on Blue Water Road, halfway up the Old Mission Peninsula, in 1999. Brys Estate produced its first wine in 2005, and quickly became known for its innovative vintages.
But the winery was almost too much of a success for Walt and Eileen, who had been looking for a nice way to spend their retirement. They turned for help to their son Patrick, who was working in the Houston real estate market; he arrived in 2009, with the idea of giving it a “trial run” for the summer. Seven years later, he’s still there. “It just felt right,” he says.
Although his parents are still very active in the strategic end of the business decisions, Patrick now has responsibility for day-to-day management, and will gradually assume more as Walt and Eileen slowly phase out their involvement.
“It is a beautiful place to live and work, and I love the constant challenge of the job,” he says. “The business is always evolving, so it never gets stale. I get to explore some of my personal hobbies as part of my work (cooking!), and at the end of the day I get to watch the sunset over Lake Michigan! It’s a pretty good gig.”
Chateau Grand Traverse: Eddie O’Keefe
Chateau Grand Traverse has been a family business from the beginning – which was 1974. That’s when Ed O’Keefe Sr. picked out a 55-acre site on the Old Mission Peninsula, reshaped it and planted it with vines – and his children worked right alongside him.
By 1985, the business had grown so large that oldest son Edward III (known as Eddie) was brought on board as company president. Today, he presides over an operation that produces more than 100,000 cases of wine a year. And although his father still enjoys being part of the operation, he long ago delegated most of the decision making to his son, whose approach to the wine business is distinctly hard-nosed.
“A lot of people think it would be wonderful to start a winery, but it takes a lot of slow, steady growth to make this work,” he says. “What we do is very simple: we grow grapes, we make wine and we sell wine. We’re not an entertainment facility, we’re a production winery.”