A Growing Attraction
Traverse City offers wine, beer, cherries and summer fun
By Terry Troy
When ex-FBI agent Ed O’Keefe had the idea of planting Riesling grapes in the Traverse City, Michigan area back in 1974, people thought he was crazy. After all, it was already the Cherry Capital of the World, recognized internationally even then for its agritourism.
What O’Keefe’s naysayers didn’t realize was that the Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas in northwest Michigan are on the 45th Parallel, a shared latitude with Italy’s Piedmont and the Bordeaux region in France—two of the world’s greatest wine growing regions.
The extended summer daylight from that northern latitude meant more time for slow luscious ripening. The area also benefitted from glaciers, which cut out two peninsulas, creating a micro-environment between the Grand Traverse Bay and Lake Michigan that warmed the immediate surrounding area and protected and insulated grapes in winter. Twenty miles away, that doesn’t happen.
Today, the area is home to more than 40 different wineries, most offering spectacular shore-lined views of either Lake Michigan or the two arms of the Grand Traverse Bay. And those wineries garner more than their fair share of international awards and recognition every year.
With bottling started earlier this spring, the vintage is expected to be among the best in the region’s history.
“We’re feeling optimistic about the wines in general, both for whites and reds,” says Lee Lutes, Black Star Farms winemaker. Lutes will admit he’s never comfortable forecasting wine quality before they make it to the bottles. But he offers some caution looking at last year’s vintage. “We’re seeing wine quality that could be on par or better than the wines we’ve made over the past five years.”
Winemakers credit last year’s weather for their optimism. The wine grape growing season started a little slow with a cool spring, but much of the summer was warm and dry, with rain at the right times. The quantity of the wine may be down, but they expect the quality will be up.
“It may be too early to tell,” says Shady Lane General Manager Rick DeBlasio. “It was a promising year, and we expect good things.”
Today, the Traverse Wine Coast is a collaboration of some 40 wineries from the Leelanau and Old Mission Peninsulas in northwest Michigan. They represent the largest collection of winemakers in the Midwest.
But the wineries are just one of the reasons to visit this area. If you’re not a wine fan, there are more than 20 different microbreweries in the area. Indeed, Traverse City was selected as one of the 10 best locations for a “Small Town Beer Scene” by USA Today. Traverse City recently placed seventh in the country after a four-week online vote by the publication.
Area brewers enjoyed the recognition.
“That’s exciting that we’re a top 10 city,” says Russell Springsteen from Right Brain Brewery. “We deserve it. We have several breweries that are making great beer.”
At the same time Springsteen says he views the voting as a challenge and if there is a follow up to the contest, he wants to land in the No. 1 slot.
“We have the breweries to do this,” he adds.
Previously, Traverse City was also selected by CNN Money as among our nation’s “Best Beer Towns.”
“The brewers in the region are highly regarded,” says Trevor Tkach, president of Traverse City Tourism. “The craft beer scene is one of many draws to the region. We hear countless times from our visitors that after enjoying all that northern Michigan has to offer, a perfect cap to the day is enjoying a local brew with friends.”
“Now we’re also seeing a lot of distilleries that are starting to pop up,” adds Michael Kent, public relations manager for Traverse City Tourism. “They might be in their infancy, but they are already gaining a lot of respect.”
While there’s no better way to end the day than with a glass of wine or a crisp cold brew or drink with friends, the Traverse City area offers plenty to do for the whole family. And in mid-summer, when most of the nation is suffering under stifling heat, Traverse City and the surrounding area remains comfortable and refreshing.
“The area has beautiful rolling hills and a spectacular climate for a number of things,” says Kent. “Our weather in summer is generally in the 70s and 80s. We occasionally will climb into the 90s, but it is rare.”
Which makes the area perfect for recreation, for the more sedentary or most rigorous adventurer. Try hiking the dunes at the nearby Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Its breathtaking vistas of water, sky, water and sand dunes were once voted the “Most Beautiful Place in America” by viewers of ABC’s Good Morning America. And it has not lost any of its charm and enchanting beauty.
You can use the area’s extra summer daylight to hike, bike, fish, golf or swim well into the evening.
“You’ll find golf courses here that were designed by the titans of the game,” says Kent, “like Arnold Palmer or Jack Nicklas.”
Or spend the afternoon shopping among the many small boutiques and art galleries throughout the region. If you like to sail, the Grand Traverse Bay has the almost perfect environment. When wind is out of the northwest, which is common, you can close reach out into the bay and come back to Traverse City on a broad reach. Or, if you prefer to relax and let others do the work, take a sunset cruise on a tall ship schooner.
After you’ve worked up an appetite during the day, relax and dine at one of the area’s many award-winning restaurants. With its local agriculture, northwest Michigan and the Traverse City area is committed to the whole farm-to-table fresh food experience. Indeed, Bon Appetit once named Traverse City one of the top foodie towns in America.
“And if you want to get away from Traverse City for the day, there are all kinds of quaint villages around the area,” says Kent.
Each with its own unique charm, boutiques or attractions.
“You can go out for an afternoon adventure or stay in and relax at a spa. It sounds cliché, but this area literally has something for everybody,” adds Kent. “Traverse City regularly makes the top 10 lists for tourism activities or as a tourist destination in national publications every year.”
There is one caveat, and it is a big one. Like other tourist areas, there is bound to be a lot of pent-up demand for tourism in the area this year. So plan your stay early and make reservations. But if you are planning a vacation this summer, Traverse City is one destination that should be on your wish list.