Pioneers of the Old Mission Peninsula
Take a leisurely drive on a warm summer day on Old Mission Peninsula and you can’t help but marvel at the beauty around you: Rolling hills, orchards and magnificent views of Grand Traverse Bay on either side. A little over 40 years ago, Edward O’Keefe, Jr. saw beyond these scenic views and envisioned acres of vineyards and a winery that would craft world-class wines on par with Europe’s finest. His vision eventually transformed Old Mission Peninsula into the winemaking mecca that it is today.
Although it is no secret that Chateau Grand Traverse paved the way for Old Mission Peninsula winemakers, the story behind its rise is as much about the tenacity of one man’s American Dream as it is about winemaking. O’Keefe had long held an affinity for fine wine, but his life took many interesting turns before he embarked on his venture as a wine farmer on Old Mission Peninsula. From nearly being an Olympic competitor to prosecuting criminals as an investigator for the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, O’Keefe embodied the quintessential American pioneer spirit: strong work ethic, determination and common sense. These values, along with a touch of the “luck o’ the Irish” are likely what propelled Chateau Grand Traverse to become a leader in the regional winemaking industry.
When O’Keefe founded Chateau Grand Traverse in 1974, his main aspiration was to make world-class Riesling wines right here in northern Michigan, a feat that had never been done. After studying decades of weather data, he felt that Old Mission Peninsula provided an ideal location for his quest. Despite many nay-sayers who predicted imminent failure, O’Keefe was certain that he could make it happen. Although he was not an experienced winemaker, he consulted with renowned experts from Germany, the region where Rieslings were first crafted. He enlisted the help of Dr. Helmut Becker, one of the world’s top authorities on wine vineyards, to evaluate potential sites in the area. Becker concluded that the peninsula had the right elements to create a thriving vineyard and made several recommendations for re-shaping the land to optimize growing conditions.
O’Keefe selected a 55 acre parcel on Old Mission Peninsula to put his plan into action. After a year of preparation that included moving one million cubic yards of subsoil to a southwestern slope, along with visits to wineries in Switzerland, Italy, France and Germany, he began by test-planting several grape varieties. Eventually, he developed a hardy Riesling clone capable of flourishing in our cold northern Michigan climate. Planting of the vineyard and construction of a winery building began in 1975. In 1976, Chateau Grand Traverse became northern Michigan’s first bonded winery, and the first commercial winery to produce wines from vinifera grapes in the region, as well. The first commercial grapes were harvested in 1978 and within a few years, we won our first of many awards: “Sweet Sharon,” a 1978 Chardonnay, was selected as Best of Show Wine at the Michigan State Fair.
In addition to earning many awards over the years, Chateau Grand Traverse has taken an active role in promoting the interests of wineries across the region. In 1987, O’Keefe worked to establish Old Mission Peninsula asan official American Viticultural Appellation and successfully advocated to get vineyards included in the federal government’s Crop Disaster Program. Under the leadership of O’Keefe’s eldest son, Eddie O’Keefe, Chateau Grand Traverse continues to be active in the industry. In 2007, we became a founding member of the International Riesling Foundation. Today, Eddie O’Keefe serves on the board of WineAmerica, a national organization that promotes the growth and development of wineries across the nation.
Over the span of a few decades, Chateau Grand Traverse has grown from producing 5,000 cases in 1980 to over 110,000 cases in 2016. We continue to be recognized as a premier winemaker, not only in this region, but around the world. We are listed in Sotheby’s Encyclopedia of Wine as a world-class producer of Riesling, and we were named one of the 101 Best Wineries in America by The Daily Meal. In 1988, we achieved national honor when our 1987 Riesling Ice Wine was served at the Inauguration of President George H.W. Bush.
Yet, in spite of our tremendous growth over the years, Chateau Grand Traverse is still, at heart, a local, family-operated winery that is strongly rooted in the community. We care deeply about this region, both the land and its people, which is why we have been recognized for incorporating environmentally sound vineyard practices. And, since the beginning, we have worked to promote Old Mission Peninsula as a premier destination for wine-lovers and novices alike. We have partnered with other local winemakers – or wine “farmers” – in forming the Wineries of Old Mission Peninsula, a friendly, informal group that promotes peninsula wine tours and hosts various wine events throughout the year.
Chateau Grand Traverse invites you to explore all that we have to offer – wine tasting, tours and stunning vistas from one of the most picturesque spots in all of Michigan. Spend a few hours or spend the night at our charming inn, but be sure to spend some time here. It’s an experience you don’t want to miss!