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Michigan's Own Napa Valley

Strange new planting grows into agricultural mainstay

January 30, 2003 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Brian Confer
  Mawby Vineyards

Larry Mawby used to be a big farmer. Now he’s a happy man. “All I did was drive around and tell people what to do. That didn’t interest me.”

What did excite him was wine — and time enough to taste life while tending vineyards and watching people come back for more of his intoxicating creations.

“I wanted to try to grow grapes and make wine and do it on a small enough scale that I could bootstrap finance it.”

That was nearly 30 years ago when Mawby Vineyards was the second, after the Boskydel Vineyard, to plant wine grapes on the Leelanau Peninsula west of Traverse City. Now with 30 vineyards and 16 different wineries, Leelanau County is Michigan’s own little Napa Valley. Northwest Michigan’s growing wine industry also has helped put the state on the national map as the fourth largest grape growing state and 13th largest in wine production.

Vineyards were new and strange at first on the peninsula, primarily a cherry and apple growing area, Larry says. But now the wineries and vineyards — started by a few farmers trying something different — are vital parts of the local agricultural and tourism industries. Visitors now combine wine tasting tours with traditional Lake Michigan sunsets when they come Up North.

The draw of the landscape also works well for the wineries, Larry says. “We’re a tourist area. Our customers come to us; we don’t have to go to them.”

The new local industry is helping to save farmland in the area, as well, by creating demand for a variety of fruit. The Black Star Farms winery near Suttons Bay, for example, makes pear wines and brandies in addition to cabernets and chardonnays. The winery now buys pears from two different Leelanau County farmers who had had trouble selling the fruit before the new buyer appeared.

“It’s definitely made a difference,” says Mike Mikowski, who uses the new income from his pear orchard to keep cash flowing even when markets for his cherries go bad.

“I can rely on this to help balance out the books.”

Contacts: Mawby Vineyards, 231-271-3522; Winery at Black Star Farms, 231-271-4882; Michigan Grape Industry Council, www.michiganwines.com

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