Aurora Cellars is located outside of Lake Leelanau.

Aurora Cellars is located outside of Lake Leelanau.

Photo provided by Devon Kessler, Simpson Family Estates

Plan a relaxing trip to the Traverse Wine Coast

Metro | Published May 23, 2023

 Brys Estate Vineyard and Winery is an ideal place to enjoy a glass or flight of wine on the deck, which overlooks vineyards  and Grand Traverse Bay.

Brys Estate Vineyard and Winery is an ideal place to enjoy a glass or flight of wine on the deck, which overlooks vineyards and Grand Traverse Bay.

Photo provided by Traverse City Tourism

  One of the first wineries along the Leelanau Peninsula’s main road is Mari Vineyards.

One of the first wineries along the Leelanau Peninsula’s main road is Mari Vineyards.

Photo provided by Traverse City Tourism


By Greg Tasker

C & G will be featuring stories about Northern Michigan destinations for our readers to explore. This is the first of the EXPLORE series.

NORTHERN MICHIGAN — Golfers, sailors and outdoor enthusiasts have long flocked to the wooded hills and crystal-clear lakes around Traverse City, but in recent years, the Cherry Capital has increasingly become a hot spot for casual and even serious wine enthusiasts.

No wonder. Some 40 wineries surround this small, postcard-pretty town, which sits at the base of two peninsulas, each designated as its own distinctive grape-growing region. These wineries on the Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas are a huge part of the tourism scene in Traverse City, especially in the summer and fall.

What makes this region so special in the vast world of wine? Location. The moderating waters of Lake Michigan and Grand Traverse Bay enable winemakers here to grow familiar European grapes, including chardonnay, riesling, pinot noir, cabernet franc and others. The warm waters protect against late spring and early fall frosts.

Also worth noting is that the region lies along the 45th parallel, the same latitude as famous wine areas such as the Piedmont region of Italy and the Rhone Valley and Bordeaux in France.

Traverse City makes for an easy weekend visit from metro Detroit. To make the most of a visit to the Traverse Wine Coast, as the region has dubbed itself to the wine world, it’s best to do some planning. Hours and tasting procedures vary from winery to winery.

Designated trails on each peninsula can help navigate options. You can also hire a driver for group or personal tours, as  many of them are very familiar with the wineries, including their selection of wines, tasting procedures and more.

It used to be that you could show up at any winery unannounced and enjoy a sampling of wines. Since the pandemic, however, many wineries require reservations; it’s best to check before your visit. Many of them also offer only flights of wine or wine by the glass.

“Planning is essential for visiting the wineries because there are so many to choose from,” said Nicholas Hartmann, managing director of the Leelanau Peninsula Wine Trail, representing about 20 wineries. “Checking with a winery ahead of time can save you the disappointment of showing up to find out they’re full because reservations are required.”

Visiting wineries, he adds, is “the best way to relax and enjoy this beautiful region.”

Traverse City is an ideal staging area for a wine weekend. There are plenty of hotel options and the downtown boasts a vibrant shopping district and top-notch restaurants. The city is also home to a winery, Left Foot Charlie. The winery grows grapes on both peninsulas and offers an impressive selection, including riesling, pinot blanc and chardonnay. The winery is located in the Village at Grand Traverse Commons, a former state hospital that is now an entertainment complex with boutiques, coffee shops and restaurants. The winery’s Barrel Room provides a more intimate wine-tasting experience with charcuterie options.

Old Mission is the narrowest and busiest of the two peninsulas, largely because it’s so close to downtown Traverse City and a strip of waterfront hotels. Vineyards share the pastoral landscape with tidy apple and cherry orchards, along with unparalleled views of Grand Traverse Bay.

One of the first wineries along the peninsula’s main road is Mari Vineyards. The Italian-style tasting room and winery look like it was plucked from Tuscany and dropped on the hills of Old Mission. The Italian architecture is a clue to the wine being poured inside. Mari is known for growing Italian varietals, including teroldego, nebbiolo and refosco, not so common in these parts. Their growth is aided by the use of “hoop houses,” metal hoop structures draped in plastic. By the way, Mari is owned by the family featured in the reality series “The Curse of Oak Island,” which follows treasure hunters on the island off the shore of Nova Scotia.

Brys Estate Vineyard and Winery is an ideal place to enjoy a glass or flight of wine on the deck, which overlooks vineyards and Grand Traverse Bay. Standout wine options include pinot blanc, sauvignon blanc and cabernet franc. Not to be missed is the frosé, a frozen rosé. You can top the concoction with a small pour of your favorite wine. Stroll the secret garden to pick lavender in season and browse a selection of lavender-inspired products.

For an overnight option, consider Chateau Chantal Winery and Inn. The well-appointed rooms evoke the styles of a French chateau. Overnight guests receive a bottle of wine and complimentary wine tastings. A gourmet breakfast is served on a patio overlooking vineyards and Grand Traverse Bay.

Cap an afternoon on Old Mission with a stop at the historic Mission Point Lighthouse at the peninsula’s tip. The 1870 lighthouse is open for self-guided tours.

The much larger Leelanau Peninsula lies west of Traverse City and is home to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. The national lakeshore is a must-see and makes for an easy stopover before heading to wineries. Climb dunes or take a drive up Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive for panoramic views of Lake Michigan.

North of Sleeping Bear, on Route 22, Good Harbor Vineyards is one of the peninsula’s oldest wineries and pours favorites like riesling, chardonnay and pinot grigio. Its sister winery, Aurora Cellars, is outside Lake Leelanau. Known for its red wines (like blaufrankisch and cabernet franc), the winery includes a renovated 19th century farmhouse that is open to overnight guests.

At Shady Lane Cellars, you can sip alfresco in a tasting pavilion with a furnished patio and outdoor fireplace. Top choices here include gruner veltliner, pinot gris and Franc ‘n’ Franc, a blend of cabernet franc and blaufrankisch. Eight miles from Traverse City, this property was once a 100-acre fruit farm. Be sure to step inside the tasting room, a restored 100-year-old fieldstone chicken coop.

South of Suttons Bay, the Inn at Black Star Farms, which includes a winery, boasts upscale accommodations in a Kentucky-style estate home. The inn is set amid 160 acres and boasts 10 classically furnished guest rooms. Besides the winery, the property includes a farm-to-table bistro, an equestrian facility and hiking trails. The tasting room menu boasts an expansive selection of dry and sweet wines and spirits. Be sure to try the dry riesling, chardonnay and the dry reds.

Greg Tasker is a Traverse City-based freelance writer and works part-time at a winery on the Leelanau Peninsula, Verterra Winery. He highly recommends visiting the winery’s Leland tasting room or vineyard, The Ridge at Verterra, just south of Northport.