On a sunny fall day in 1975, Walt and Eileen Brys toured a winery in Napa Valley. Some number of tastings in, a dream started to form in their imagination. The Brys wanted to create their own winery.
The two returned home. Back to reality. Walt went to his job, Eileen stayed at home raising their three kids. The years went by, the kids moved out, and the two retired down to sunny Florida. After a few years, they referred to their retirement life as feeling a little too “retiring.” That pesky winemaking dream from all those years ago kept coming back to the surface.
Walt and Eileen spent two years researching, figuring out where to plant their dream. They set their sights north to the 45th parallel – a famous latitude line running halfway between the Equator and the North Pole. The 45th parallel links the great winemaking regions of Bordeaux, France, Piedmont, Italy, and the Willamette Valley in Oregon together.
Also on the 45th parallel: Old Mission Peninsula, part of Traverse City, Michigan.
Old Mission Peninsula doesn’t really feel like you’re in Michigan. It feels a little bit like Italy. But feels more like you’ve entered into paradise.
Brys Estate’s Hospitality Manager, Taylor Lopiccolo, describes how Old Mission Peninsula – recognized as an American Viticultural Area – creates the perfect climate for a vineyard.
“The climate of the peninsula is moderated by the surrounding deep waters of the Grand Traverse Bay, with the West Bay reaching depths of over 400 feet and the East Bay reaching depths of over 600 feet,” Lopiccolo said. “This deepwater helps to prevent frost during the growing season and keeps the air temperatures milder during the winter months. The tip of the Old Mission Peninsula is also located on the 45th parallel.”
The Bryses settled on an 1890s homestead on “The Peninsula” as the locals call it. The site included 80 acres of old cherry orchard, four barns, and migrant quarters – all of which needed a great deal of renovation.
The two went to work and by 2004, they’d made all the updates without losing the character and charm of the original buildings.
Also in 2004, about 30 years after their dream began, Brys Estate’s initial 10,000 vines yielded its first harvest. In 2005, they opened their tasting room, the fifth one on the Peninsula. In their vineyards, they grow Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Pinot Noir and of their 111 contiguous acres, 40 are devoted to the vineyard.
“Since that day in 2005, Brys Estate has continued to be a family-run business that focuses on creating high-quality wines and experiences for guests,” Lopiccolo said. “Our old-world style brick and mahogany tasting room with a contemporary twist was included in a list of the Top 20 Most Admired Wine Tasting Rooms in Vineyard & Winery Management Magazine in 2016, and more recently, was voted the Favorite Winery in Traverse City by readers of Traverse Magazine. We also continue to be listed as the #1 Winery in Traverse City on Yelp.com!”
Over the past few years, wine tourism in the region has increased in popularity and each year Brys sees more visitors than the year before. I’m torn because, on one side, I’m glad more people are experiencing this incredible place. On the other side, I don’t want it to become everyone’s favorite best kept secret. This increase in visitors led Brys to double the size of their expansive, elevated outdoor patio overlooking the vineyard and East Bay.
The best part of Brys is hidden away from the tasting room and the patio. I can’t be 100% certain, but I think it might be the actual Garden of Eden.
“Below the rolling hills, hidden by tree lines, a low-lying, 12-acre parcel of the Estate was deemed too cold to grow grapes and sat unused,” Lopiccolo said. “A visit to France was all the inspiration Walt and Eileen needed. In French wine country, they saw great fields of lavender growing alongside the vineyards. The beauty and peacefulness of it all quickly convinced them to do the same on their own property. After careful research, they experimented with a test crop in 2013. The results were promising, and the Secret Garden garden-inspired gift shop opened in the summer of 2016. Today the garden is in full bloom and is managed by Walt and Eileen, and their daughter Katie.”
Have you ever been around someone who loved a thing so much you couldn’t help but start loving it too? For example, when Ashley went to her first game in Allen Fieldhouse, known as the cathedral of college basketball, and she saw how much my family loves Jayhawks basketball, she couldn’t help but buy a Kansas shirt, join the team. Now she watches late-game free throws with the same level of stress I do.
Similarly, when I saw Ashley walking through the rows of lavender in the Secret Garden and saw her at complete and total peace, it became one of my favorite places simply because it was one of her favorite places.
Early days of COVID, that scene was one thing I kept dreaming about. A little over-optimistic, sure, but I kept thinking that by summer we’d return to Brys Estate. Ashley’d be walking through the garden with the same feeling of rest. As bad as the nightmare continued to be of COVID cases and deaths and lockdowns, I could always go to that dream and disappear for a second.
Making the Wine
So what does the actual winemaking process look like? How do they go from vines to wine? At Brys, their Vinter, Coenraad Stassen, and Assistant Winemaker, Jordan Hooker, compose their small winemaking team – but together they work with a local vineyard management team throughout the season to grow a healthy grape harvest.
“Once the grapes are deemed ready by our vintner the grapes are hand-harvested and brought to the facility for destemming, pressing, and to begin fermentation,” Lopiccolo said. “Throughout the winter they monitor the wine’s progress and begin storing in French oak barrels or preparing for bottling. Once the previous vintage of a certain wine style sells out in the tasting room, we release the next vintage in the lineup and guests can begin enjoying it.”
If you’ve been to Northern Michigan, you know that it’s not exactly tropical. And I know it’s on the same 45th parallel, but I don’t think of Italy ever getting 15 inches of fresh snow. So I wondered, how do you make wine alongside six or seven month winters?
“A heavy winter snowfall typically does not negatively impact the vineyard; in fact, it actually helps!” Lopiccolo said. “Snow acts as insulation for the vine, protecting it from harsh ice and wind. Winters without heavy snow and freezing temperatures can pose problems for vine health and impact the future crop.”
Heavy snowfall doesn’t ruin the vines just like a hard year doesn’t ruin dreams. It enhances them. In the Midwest, we’re all too familiar with the idea that summer feels better once you’ve weathered the storm. Those summer nights with the sun still out at 10 pm is that much better because six/seven months ago it went down at 4. A dream only becomes sweeter when you’ve made it through a nightmare.
And a dream doesn’t need to become “real” to be real. The dream already has a life of its own, one that warms the brain like a fire every time you sit next to it.
As the fire grows, some people drop everything and run after a dream, right in the moment. Burn the boats! Others take a few years, diligently planning things out. Making their leap of faith a little less leapy.
But the dream itself is the magical part. When Walt and Eileen sat together in Napa Valley imagining their fantasy vineyard, that was enough. For decades, every time they thought about it, dreamed about it, there was another log on the fire. So whether they ever got started, started and failed, started and became the #1 vineyard in Traverse City, those are just different outcomes. Good and bad winters for the vines. Because, regardless of outcomes, dreams never turn into nightmares. A nightmare is not being able to dream.
Thankfully, for all of us, we can visit Walt and Eileen’s dream in-person. It’s hard to picture right now, especially with the sun going down at 4 and COVID numbers still going up, but I imagine a summer day at Brys Estate. The vaccine has knocked out COVID-19. Masks are gone. People are hugging each other and we’ve kind of gotten used to it. Someone coughs. Eh, we haven’t quite gotten used to it. The wine is flowing, the sun is out, everyone’s looking out at East Bay like it’s the first time we’ve ever seen a body of water.
Away from it all, Ashley walks the lavender fields with a look of peace and tranquility.
We think about a dream of our own.
This is the Medium Rare finale, both for 2020 and this ongoing series chronicling restaurants and small businesses. Most are located in Lakeview East, Chicago, but figured we could take a little vacation up north and have some wine.
To catch up on previous posts and read about other great local spots, here they are below. I’m taking a little Medium Rare vacation and next post will go up January 13th.
- Chicago, Argentina (Part 1)
- Chicago, Argentina (Kierkegaard intermission)
- Chicago, Argentina (Part 2: The Family Behind Tango Sur)
- Chicago, Argentina (Kierkegaard Finale)
To subscribe to Medium Rare via email, just enter your email address in the box below. Merry Christmas and see you next year!
Tags: 2020, 45th parallel, 45th parallel wine making, best wineries, best winery in michigan, best winery in Traverse City, Brys Estate, Brys Secret Garden, getting through 2020, Michigan, Northern Michigan, Old Mission Peninsula, the peninsula, Traverse City, vines, winemaking