Northern Michigan’s First Winery
Chateau Grand Traverse is as much a colorful story of our founder Ed O’Keefe Jr., as it is of the winery itself. Like many mavericks in the wine industry, it was a rather indirect route that ultimately led an Irishman from Philadelphia to northern Michigan to start a winery. An Olympic gymnast (runner-up); Army Green Beret Special Forces Paratrooper; NYC Undercover Narcotics Agent with the U.S. Treasury Department; Nursing Home Owner & Administrator – These experiences combined with an enthusiastic passion for wine and the willingness to take on a challenge led him toward starting a winery in 1974 in northern Michigan where none existed.
In the early 1970’s, most of the established Michigan wineries were located in the southwest portion of the State. These producers focused primarily upon wines made from Native Labrusca as well as French-American hybrid grapes. After considerable research, O’Keefe was fervently convinced that wines made from European varieties were the key to transforming Michigan’s reputation into a fine wine State. At the time, most industry experts deemed Michigan’s climate too cold and harsh to commercially grow and sustain these more tender varieties.
Working under the guidance of Dr. Helmut Becker from the Geisenheim Oeologogical and Viticutural school in then, West Germany industry, it was discovered that the Old Mission Peninsula near Traverse City could potentially afford the right conditions for growing European grape varieties. Key growing factors such as temperature, sunlight exposure, air and water drainage, and ample precipitation were critically important to insure wines of distinction. These conditions, combined with the moderating effects of the deep waters of Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay, would hopefully insure success. Ed purchased a tired 55-acre cherry orchard on Old Mission Peninsula to plant his first vineyard.
After significant preparation and contouring of the land, an initial 45 acres of European Vinifera varieties of grapes (Riesling, Chardonnay and Merlot) were planted. This not only marked the first commercial vineyard in northern Michigan to grow vinifera grapes, but the first winery established on Old Mission Peninsula. Within a matter of just a few years, Chateau Grand Traverse wines were winning awards and gaining notice among many wine critics and customers.
Chateau Grand Traverse presently focuses its emphasis on 12 key European Vinifera grape varietals including: Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Grüner Veltliner, Muscat Ottenel, Gamay Noir, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Cabernet Franc. With 122 acres of Estate vineyards as well as an additional 80 acres contracted with area growers, the winery’s production and distribution has grown dramatically since the early days. The winery is still family-owned and operated and continues to focus upon quality, consistency and environmental sustainability.
Today, the Northern Michigan wine industry boasts of nearly 30 commercial wineries. Almost all area producers are focused upon the European varieties and garnering awards at some of the worlds most prestigious wine competitions. What was once referred to as “O’Keefe’s folly” by many early critics is now a successful industry and a highpoint to the economy of the State of Michigan.