Whenever I stop in to see old Warren Raftshol in Leelanau’s answer to Area 51, I’m sort of overwhelmed; I feel both wildly lonely and strangely optimistic. He hangs on inside his wayward depot despite the odds, and Warren—whose sculpted face is a Dorothea Lange wet dream—greets all comers, new and old, with a sort of fierce, fatalistic indifference.
Asked about his views about the changing face of Leelanau wine country, he offers exactly that, shrugging, “The wine business is pretty much a blur to me.”
Such a response might be viewed by some scribes as interview-kryptonite, but not me—by golly, to me Warren Raftshol is the Grand Traverse lighthouse, still standing and always accounted for despite the ravages of time, the gales of November coming early or juggernaut technology. Like the lighthouse, Warren Raftshol essentially serves the same function as he has always served; and, like visiting the lighthouse is accompanied by a certain wistful melancholy, a glance at Warren Raftshol’s secluded, ramshackle tasting room, where inside, unsold wine sits in cardboard cases and outside a stone silo slowly crumbles to dust, the experience is a snapshot of the flip-side of Leelanau’s emergence as an appellation worthy of notice.
The Grand Traverse Lighthouse has been operating since 1857, and although Warren’s tenure as a winemaker is less, I wouldn’t bet on it being too much less. From what he can remember and from what I can glean from outside sources, the Raftshol family has been a fixture on the peninsula for many generations. A page from the Sutton’s Bay High School Class of 1926 yearbook shows Rudolph Raftshol—Warren’s uncle—among fifteen graduating seniors; a 2014 edition of Leelanau Enterprise notes Olivia Raftshol—Warren’s niece—entering the Marines. Within the archives of that same newspaper, Warren’s name keeps surfacing with a certain WTF? charm. For example, in a February, 2012 column about Leelanau County’s ‘Odd and Quirky’, Warren is described as ‘a one-time write-in candidate for Leelanau County sheriff whose political views appear to come from somewhere to the right of Attila the Hun.’ Yet another piece on medical marijuana that same year leads with, ‘Finding someone in Leelanau County who will admit publicly that they plan to vote “yes” on Proposal 1 in November is not an easy task,’—then goes on to quote the single yes-voter willing to go on record, Warren Raftshol.
Needless to say, he did not win the sheriff’s badge. Nor a bong.
Stories abound about Warren’s eccentricities, and most of them are pretty quaint and pretty hilarious, but I won’t relate them. Not because I don’t want to, but because the people who told me them don’t want me to—and I have to respect that. See, around here, Warren Raftshol—if not exactly venerated—is treated like any Historical Marker. Regardless of your opinion over what it represents, you don’t leave your cigarette butts on the front lawn.
What Warren Raftshol and his one-man wine show represents is Leelanau wine country as it was in the beginning, ain’t now, and likely will never be again.
Like many area winegrowers, the Raftshols began in the tart cherry business, souring on it in the ‘60s when prices dropped, finally tossing in the red-stained towel in the 1980s after Warren’s father passed away and the trees had outlived their productive cycle. By that point, Warren had jobbed himself out as a pruner at Leelanau Wine Cellars in nearby Omena, and had developed a fascination for what grapes could do on land that had formerly been planted to montmorency and morello cherries.
Although today he expresses no interest in hybrids, in the early days of wine growing in the peninsula, the Leelanau Fruit Company of Sutton’s Bay was advising farmers who wanted to get into the nascent wine biz to go the safe route.
“The co-op was more cautious in those days,” Warren relates with a small sneer. “And farmers tended to do what the co-op told them.” He cites the lead taken by the pioneers of the Leelanau wine community: “Bernie [Rink], Larry [Mawby] and Bruce [Simpson] all planted hybrids, so that what I did. I put in aurora and chelois; didn’t like the wine. Those fields have since been grafted over to cabernet franc.”
In fact, according to former Raftshol winemaker Chris Guest, one of the props due Warren Raftshol is his dogged persistence of vinifera in the peninsula, particularly red grape varieties.
“Peninsula Cellars made a popular blend from Warren’s vineyards; Raftshol Red,” Guest says. “A mix of everything, cab franc, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and pinot noir. That was not only one of the area’s first attempt to promote vineyard-specific bottlings, back when the industry was trying to gain a foothold, those vines were often the first indication to outsiders driving through—a few of ‘em lost trying to get to the casino—that the focus of the peninsula was shifting from cherries to grapes.”
By his own admission, Warren Raftshol can no longer afford a winemaker. He also (proudly) insists that he stopped chaptalizing his wine in 2008 and one is forced to wonder if he simply can’t afford the sugar. While true to variety, his wines are uniformly and sometimes painfully acidic—a teaspoon of sugar would have no doubt helped the cabernet go down.
Acidic wines, ramshackle winery, unkempt-looking vines, taciturn tasting room host, somewhat creepy photo of Jean Raftshol (1919-2001, Warren’s mother) on the label; you’d think this story is, to me, nothing but an endless pejorative.
Not so and not by a long shot. When I stop by Raftshol Vineyards, I do it for the man, not the plan. I do it because he is a reflection of his product: Thin, acidic, ramshackle and somewhat creepy—but, like the lonely lighthouse at the tip of the peninsula, outdated by modernity yet standing strong against opposing tides to mark the passage of Lake Michigan eliding into Grand Traverse Bay, Warren Raftshol remains as an outpost of originality in a sea of increasingly gentrified business models.