Bernie Rink: The Laird of Leelanau

soup naziIn the beginning, God created Leelanau Peninsula, and very shortly after that, Bernie Rink was born.  Today, at 88, you can find him sitting in the half-light at the entrance of Boskydel’s tasting room, exactly where a bouncer would sit if Boskydel needed a bouncer.  But, with an ‘Open’ sign that easily flips over to ‘Go Away’ and Bernie owning the reputation as someone who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, no outside muscle required.  Known locally as ‘The Wine Nazi’ after Seinfeld’s soup-strict character, the tasting room remains a place where only non-fools dare to tread.

Bernie Rink

Bernie Rink

Lest Bernie consider me a fool, I thought better of naming this piece ‘The Little Librarian Who Could… And Did,’ even though it would have been perfectly accurate.  But it is not sufficiently deferential, and although Bernie Rink is somewhat self-effacing in a ferocious, confident sort of way, and even though he is, in fact, a little (ex) librarian, the truth of the matter is that in the intervening Biblical years between Leelanau’s formation and Bernie’s eureka moment in the early 1960s, nobody up here had thought to put a wine grape vine in the ground.  Now, it’s about all anybody thinks about, and so, credit where it’s due: Humble schmumble—leave that for the pie. When Mr. Rink sits at his doorway and looks across the expanse of vineyards that festoon this fair finger of frontier farmland, he is truly the monarch of all he surveys.

And in my book, that is worth a boatload of deference, with a little reverence thrown in for good measure.

Jim Rink reacts to my interviewing prowess

Jim Rink reacts to my interviewing prowess

Bernie Rink came from an Avon, Ohio subsistence farm, where his father grew truck (his word) and surfaced from the Depression by selling bootleg wine for three dollars a gallon.  Ohio was—and is—an often overlooked wine producing region, and in the years after the Civil War, made more wine than any other state in the country.  It was forgettable stuff, no question; Bernie uses the pejorative ‘foxy’ to describe wines made from the widely-grown Ohioan wine grapes catawba, niagara and delaware, and he admits that his father’s bootleg barrels were likely at the lower end of that spectrum.  But the whole process fascinated him, and with ethanol in his bloodstream—figuratively more than literally—he went off to his first post-college job as a librarian at Northwestern Michigan College.  There, according to his son Jim—an excellent writer who has chronicled much of the human history of Leelanau with wit and detail—Bernie came upon a book on winemaking by Phil Wagner and decided to revive his latent—and now legal—winemaking skills by planting a number of grape cuttings purchased from Wagner’s Maryland nursery.

Phil Wagner

Phil Wagner

“The first plot was a single test acre; by then I owned sixteen acres in the center of the Peninsula.  It was all a wild experiment—no one had ever grown wine grapes up here.  I worked with Stanley Howell of Michigan State University—he brought students up here as a field research opportunity.”

Those students may have counted themselves among the lucky ones; Rink’s five sons, not so much. Taking the whole enterprise very personally, Jim writes in his essay, ‘Field Of Dreams in Leelanau County’:

“I first realized that my father was serious about growing grapes when he announced his intention to raze our modest, but popular baseball diamond in favor of a nursery. My brothers and I created that ball park, hacking it out from a fallow field with a regular push-type lawnmower. We even built a substantial chicken-wire backstop to halt the progress of an errant pitch.

“In a rude reversal of the magical ‘Field of Dreams’ scenario, Bernie Rink told us the diamond would have to go, replaced by a crop that no one in those parts had ever heard of: Wine grapes.”

To add insult to injury, Jim suspects that Bernie saw the vineyard as an ideal way to keep the boys occupied.  He goes on to lament:

“As economic assets, we were expected to chop weeds in the sweltering heat of mid-summer and pick grapes in the stinging sleet of late fall. Not to mention pruning in knee-deep snow in the winter and sorting out the good wood, which would be plunged into our new-found nursery in the spring to repeat the endless, monotonous cycle.

But it was fun. We used to make up lively little songs about the vineyard to the tune of ‘Tah, Rah, Rah, Boom-de-ay’:

“We work at Boskydel,

the closest thing to hell.

We’re never treated well,

at Slave Camp Boskydel.”

The House That Rink Built

As it happens, Jim and his brother Andy Rink are still at work at Slave Camp Boskydel.  While Bernie holds court in his seat by the doorway, they’re the ones behind the tasting-room counter, quality control and the day-to-day winemaking grind; it’s a regular three Rink circus.

Bernie Rink, Leon Adams and Bob Herbst.

Bernie Rink, Leon Adams and Bob Herbst.

According to Jim, the vineyard test lasted seven years, and during that time, score was kept, with points going to the varieties that survived the frosty finger relatively unscathed, meaning, were resistance to disease and winter-kill while still producing commercial quantities of grapes that could make commercially sellable wine.  Meanwhile, Bernie’s buddy Bob Herbst, a retired chemistry professor, had a similar experiment going on the eastern shore of the peninsula and over the years, they compared notes.  In the end, Rink settled on soleil blanc, vignoles, seyval blanc, aurore, cascade noir and de chaunac—varietals that produced the dry, French-style wines that he was after without actually being French grapes.  Chardonnay and pinot noir gave it their best shot, but didn’t make the final cut.

As for riesling, the vinifera that most experts believed showed the best promise in Leelanau, Bernie says, “I planted it in what turned out to be a natural wildlife corridor between a couple of swamps.  In short, the deer ate all my riesling.  That took care of that.”

The Baxevanis American Wine Review in all its glory

The Baxevanis American Wine Review in all its glory

That was the early Seventies; now, in the middle Teens, Rink remains reliant on hybrid grapes, especially, de chaunac.  Among his current labels, there’s nary a vinifera to be found and none needed. As the liner notes note, some obscurely-named publication called the Baxevanis American Wine Review considers Boskydel De Chaunac the best wine of its kind in the United States.

Speaking of obscure names, Bernie Rink speaks with fond nostalgia about the late Professor Al Bungart, to whom he refers as ‘a one-suspender farmer and professor; both my mentor and my friend.’  Al wrote a Tolkien-esque poem called ‘The Elves of Bosky Dingle’, which was never officially published but reaches the hoi polloi via the Boskydel (edited into a bite-sized word by bookworm Bernie) label, depicting a couple of elves—not monks as has been suggested—filching wine from a vat.  Although to Bernie’s amusement someone suggested that ‘bosky’ is a synonym for ‘drunk’, it’s more likely a derivation of the Middle English bosk, from Anglo-Latin bosca for ‘firewood’. Without debate, however, the dingle in the jingle is a dell.

A Rinky-Dink Operation

Boskydel-stoveOutside the battered barn that serves as the wine-talk locus at Boskydel sits a tractor, a trashcan and either a snow shovel or a chair for Bernie, depending on the season.  Inside is a rustic, lived-in tasting room heated with a wood stove and hung with mostly obscure and often private-joke photographs.  It’s been described as ‘primitive’ and ‘off-putting’, but since it only has a capacity of eight, neither descriptor matters to those wine people in search of local lore and all-go, no-show legend and not just another tour bus whistle stop.

Jim and Andy, who have not yet achieved curmudgeon status, seem more eager to chat and swap tales than oversell the wine.  And gratefully so: At under twelve dollars a bottle, the used-car sales approach is neither appropriate nor necessary.

In short, this is the sort of rinky-dink roadside attraction that gives the multi-million dollar-hoopla hoop vineyard being erected on Old Mission Peninsula a run for my money.

“ We’ve had customers loyal for thirty-eight years,” says Jim.  “We sell everything we make, so we don’t worry much about judges or competitions.  We love our repeat customers, but one newer groups with which we’ve had a lot of success are Millennials; they don’t seem to have as many preconceptions about wine; they don’t have the brand loyalty of their parents, but they also don’t come in demanding pinot or riesling…”

bottlesWhat most of them come in to find is a set of varietals they’ve never even heard of let alone tried—a introductory course to the unique Land of Hybridia; wines with an individual backstory.

You either like this kind of experience or you don’t.  I’m a ‘do’.

Soleil blanc means ‘white sun’; a bit more poetic than its former name, Seibel 10.868, but that hasn’t made the grape more vineyard-popular. In fact, I can’t find another winery that produces it.  Rink’s soleil statement is bright and brisk with a pineapple-scented bouquet, a tropical palate and a sharp, acidic conclusion.

vignolesVignoles is among the most successful hybrid in Michigan; vinified dry, like Boskydel’s, it produces a soft, supple wine resplendent with notes of green apple and undertones of peach.  Rink’s 2012 Vignoles is tinged with an unexpected touch of clove and a stylish citrus finish.

Seyval blanc is a viticulture balancing act; it ripens early and can fight off the most inclement winter weather, but is susceptible to the twin mildews, powdery and down, while producing large clusters that can rot (nobly or otherwise) if not picked at peak ripeness.  When it is, the result is as demonstrated with Boskydel’s 2013—a round, chenin-like wine with melon and grapefruit on the nose, and a creamy apple mid-palate.  As with all of Bernie’s wines, there is a finish that’s shivery-crisp with acid.

Boskydel’s go-to red wine grape is de chaunac; the winery produces a full-bore chocolate-cherry wine that is firm on the palate and filled with tart boysenberry flavors and very light oak notes.  The rosé is an equal palate pleaser, with bright raspberry and watermelon in the nose and a sweetness that the Rinks emphasize comes only from Michigan-grown beet sugar.  Talk about locavoracity.

In fact, so insular is Bernie Rink that when I asked him about the above-mentioned hoop vineyard being erected a few miles away on Old Mission, (which hadn’t opened yet but whose wines have been available for a year or more—make of that what you will—) he shook his head; he hadn’t heard of it.

Bernie by the door; an icon.

Bernie by the door; an icon.

“I never leave the county,” he maintains with a shrug.  “Every since they put up the third traffic light on Division, even Traverse City is too damn much for me.”

Which works out fine for the rest of us.  Primogeniture being what it is and two Rink brothers manning the bottle stations, there is no doubt that Bernie Rink’s scepter will pass into worthy and deserving hands—hands that rose from the Rink ranks of indentured servants at Slave Camp Boskydel and now run the plantation.  Until the final curtain, the sight of Bernie in his chair by the door, autumn light filtering in from the doorway, rows of vines tumbling down toward the bay, remains one of the transient glories of Leelanau Peninsula.

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4 Responses to Bernie Rink: The Laird of Leelanau

  1. Chris, what a wonderful tribute to someone whose contribution to Michigan winemakiing is inestimable, and truly underappreciated. A few years back, I had the opportunity to post another piece about Bernie by Fred McTaggart:, which is sworthy of a link: http://www.michwine.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=273:bernie-rink-of-boskydel-souvenirs-from-leelanaus-past&catid=38:lead-story

  2. Amy Tennis says:

    Bernie’s generosity should be mentioned too. He offers a free case of wine to anyone who donates $150 or more to WNMC’s annual fall fund drive. He has a stack of redeemed coupons that is at least 6 inches tall.

  3. Kathy (Matthews) Reid says:

    My Dad used to come and audit the winery back in the 70’s & 80’s and had so much respect for Bernie. He always spoke of him fondly. My dad passed a way in 2001.

  4. Pingback: Father’s Day | Tipsy Teetotaler

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