Like several others on the Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas in northern Michigan, Dave and Joan Kroupa (crow-pa) decided to diversify. As fruit farmers with more than a century of service in the area, they watched helplessly as cherry prices literally hit the pits. In 1995, demand for Michigan tart cherries was so low that many growers were shaking them on the ground. Cherry farms were slowly being supplanted by housing developments...in keen competition for another kind of fruit that was gaining in popularity. Over the past 20 years, the area's burgeoning wine industry created an ongoing need for high-quality vinifera and French hybrid grapes.
Ergo, in 1994, Old Mission Peninsula Cellars was born.
They may not be the first (there are four wineries with the Leelanau Peninsula appellation and four with the Old Mission Peninsula appellation), but they are most certainly on a mission.
"We are an agriculturally backed winery operation," explains Lee Lutes, winemaker and general manager. "We did not have the means, nor did we care to put together a 'showroom winery.' This is a low-overhead production facility."
The "low-overhead production facility" to which Lutes refers is essentially a tin and cement outbuilding on a former cherry farm. No need for apology though; local pioneer Bernie Rink began his operation in the basement of his home back in 1965.
"We did not want to be forced by the bank, or other lending institutions, to sell wine to cover outstanding debt," says Lutes. "Our current situation allows us to focus on wine-making rather than bill-paying."
Old Mission Peninsula Cellars stands in stark contrast to the multi-million dollar facilities of Ed O'Keefe (Chateau Grand Traverse) and Bob Begin (Chateau Chantal), where the local and recently landed gentry come to get married and "be seen."
Old Mission Peninsula Cellars also differs from its fellow wine producers in the sense that it is willing to use grapes from both Old Mission and Leelanau counties, without importing grapes from other appellations. This is a first for the Old Mission Peninsula, and has brought to light some interesting comparisons between the two wine-growing regions.
"We are making wines like Boskydel and L. Mawby," adds Lutes. "One hundred percent fruit from this area. I want to be able to say truthfully that what we're working with is representative of the area. Of course, we're going to have to take the good years with the bad."
Everything is estate-bottled; with five acres of Chardonnay and Riesling planted near the winery, with plans for three to three-and-a-half acres of Cabernet Franc and an undetermined red--maybe Gewurtztraminer. Kroupa currently works with three winegrowers on Old Mission Peninsula and two on Leelanau. The existing vineyard is six years old and Lutes is a stickler for quality, making sure that the vines are fruit-thinned and slightly defoliated for a more concentrated wine. Last harvest, half of his Chardonnay crop was intentionally sacrificed--reduced from six tons per acre to 2.5.
The wines of Old Mission Peninsula Cellars are crisp, clean and clear. They have already earned a gold medal at the Michigan State Fair; for a '94 Chardonnay. In 1995, the weather was so good that the grapes were coming in from the field at 22 and 23 brix.Currently, Lutes has nine wines in his stable--the dry wines: The semi-sweet to sweet wines:
Stand-outs among this bunch include the '94 Riesling, which is delightfully fruity and the '94 Raftshol Red, named for Leelanau Peninsula grower Warren Raftshol, who has 12 acres of vinifera just north of Suttons Bay. This proprietary blend combines Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir.
Another stand-out is Lutes' White Cherry Wine, a unique blend of Emperor Francis and Gold cherries. When comparing the '95 Leelanau and Old Mission Chardonnays, one begins to distinguish the regional differences. Old Mission fruit, says Lutes, usually has more "mineral component."
"My general winemaking attitude is that I don't like a lot of oak or wood," says Lutes. "I try to make wines that are naturally expressive or 'regionally' expressive."
To enhance the natural fruitiness of the wines, Lutes uses two types of yeast--Steinberg (a Riesling yeast variety from Geisenheim) and Fermiblanc Aromatic. Old Mission Peninsula Cellars currently stores 7,500 gallons in food-grade plastic and 750 gallons in oak. There are several 15-gallon Italian carboys for leftovers.
The carboys are a throwback to Lutes' days at a small winery in northern Italy--Dolcetta di Ovada (literally Dolcetta--a light Beaujolais style grape--from Ovada, the town). From 1991-92, Lutes and partner Terri Christie lived in Italy, extracting as much knowledge about winemaking as they could from the locals. Christie is an artist who designed Old Mission's wine label, as well as its attractive T-shirt.
"Like most of Europe, the Italians are much more involved (in wine) on a day-to-day basis," says Lutes. "In fact, in Ovada, they ring a bell once a week--that's the signal to begin dusting with copper sulfate. In Italy, they have wine on the table for lunch and dinner and drink exclusively local wine."
Lutes is well-heeled in the wine regions of the world, having spent a great deal of his childhood in Australia, coming back to Michigan to earn a degree in business finance from Michigan State University. He worked for E.F. Hutton long enough to know that this was "not for me" and went back down under to work at restaurants and study wineries and grape growing techniques. He's also worked as a sommelier at a rockresort at St. Croix, Virgin Islands. While at St. Croix, Lutes met an importer from New York City, who offered him a job.
"I sold wine on the streets for a short time," he says. "Worked in a restaurant with a great wine and food program. Got into management there and studied with a group of people who were candidates for a master sommelier degree. I learned good palate development, focusing on aromas, bouquets, looking for regional expression. I was in New York for three years."
The Michigan connection came into play earlier. Lutes was born in Kalamazoo and lived in the Traverse City area from 1975-82. More recently (1988 to present), he has served as cellarmaster at Leelanau Wine Cellars, and now as winemaker/ general manager at Old Mission, drawing from his experiences in Italy, Australia and New York.
For the time being, Lutes plans to stay small, bottling 2,500 to 3,000 cases per year, continuing the focus on 100 percent locally grown wines which are true to their varietal taste and regional heritage. That's his mission on Old Mission; and, judging from the way they do things in Italy, it's not a bad one at that. He may, or may not, ring a bell at dusting time. That depends on how many cherry farms are bought out by developers. Local homeowners might appreciate the warning.
18250 Mission Road | Old Mission, Michigan | (616) 223-4310Hoxie's Orchard Hill Farms
Open May-November, seven days noon to 6
65787 M-72 East | Williamsburg, Michigan | (616) 267-5376
Open June-September, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily