I want you to take the following statement with a grain of salt, and then I want to sell you a desalination plant:
Salesmen are born, not made—and Don Matthies was born to be a salesman.
Whether he is hawking real estate, cheese balls, SX 92 Equipe ski boots, wall mounted cork-holders, Who Doesn’t Drink Alone? coasters or bottles of ‘multi-gold award winning’ Chateau Fontaine Woodland Red, the pitch is the same: All superlatives all the time.
Because that’s what salesmen do.
Which should not be construed as a bad thing. It’s just sort of an unusual thing up here in backwater wine country, miles from big city lights and Zig Ziglar’s hunting grounds; up here, a lot of the attitudes are self-effacing, a lot of the winemakers are debilitatingly shy and a lot of their wares are so excellent and scarce that they sell themselves.
This is the kind of vigneron I tend to encounter, here in Michigan and all over the globe: Gruff, taciturn guys with dirty hands, planted feet and tied tongues.
And then there’s Dan; Leelanau’s answer to Dale Carnegie, Willy Loman, Ron Popeil and George Babbitt—Barnum & Bailey rolled into one. Again, this is not a pejorative: As e.e. cummings once quipped, ‘Damn everything but the circus.’
It is, however, a fact: Chateau Fontaine’s tasting room doubles as a crafty country general tchotchke emporium, carrying everything from bird feeders to drink mixers, and although the space is top-heavy with remnants of the scores of prizes that Dan Matthies has won over the years (many of them remarkably prestigious), I was directed to the winery by someone who claimed it was her favorite stop on the peninsula, not for the back-to-back George Rose Awards (Finger Lakes Competition) for the Best Riesling in the World, but for the gourmet cheese ball that Matthies serves in measured, complimentary portions to guests—then sells them a pack of Monk’s Meadow Cheese Ball Seasoning Mix so they can make their own.
Creating the niche, then filling it is key to the Dan Matthies character, and you can tell that he loves every second of it. A personality quirk that becomes obvious the first time you meet him is how he couches the comparative consequence of his conversation in body lingo: The more important the thing he is about to tell you is, the closer in he moves toward you—spider and fly—and the softer his voice becomes. You feel like you are party to a special marketing campaign designed for your ears only—the old ‘For anybody else, this is ten bucks. For you…”
That’s the point that you know you are seeing him in top form; you can tell he’s totally, irrevocably in his element. And of course, like any successful motivational speaker, the commodity that Dan Matthies likes selling most of all is Dan Matthies.
And here’s where the plot gets thicker than the ankles on a Cedar polka princess…
But no desalination plant salesman worth his salt would get to the plot thickener without the story’s beginning, so here it is:
Four decades ago, Dan Matthies was a banker in Saginaw who was good enough on the ski slopes that world-class Sugar Loaf Mountain Resort—then the largest employer in Leelanau County—hired him to teach new techniques to affluent ski-club bums. It was a seasonal gig, but true to form, Matthies saw the niche and filled it: He abandoned city banks for snow banks, stayed and opened a ski shop inside the Sugar Loaf lodge.
And, like Navin R. Johnson discovering his ‘special purpose’, it was off to the slalom: “It was a gold mine,” Matthies smiles; and indeed, the string of blue ribbons that he has won throughout his career began soon enough when he was awarded Ski Retailer of the Year for selling the most equipment from the smallest space.
Alas, the resort’s ownership was operating on a lesser grade of business acumen than he was, and in 1998, reading the handwriting on the bunny slope, Matthies packed up his Rossignol snowboards and K2 twin tips and went home.
Fortunately, by that point home included some fertile acres of Leelanau, and when Matthies saw an ad in the Leelanau Enterprise looking for people willing to grow wine grapes, the light bulb of opportunity again went off in his eyes. G. Stanley Howell, head of MSU’s horticulture program, came to check out the property, ran some tests and pronounced it, “Possibly the best site in the state of Michigan to grow vinifera.”
That must have been music to the ears of someone with a nose for taste, huh? In 1987, Matthies went into the viticulture business, hand-planting five acres to Chardonnay for which he found a ready market among a growing group of winemakers looking for a group of growers. Those were early days, and his first customers included Larry Mawby and Bruce Simpson at Good Harbor.
That saw him through a decade or so, and then—like a few growers have done since—he worked the math and saw that if he was going to stay in the business, the only thing that made even a modicum of financial sense was to go full monty and make the stuff himself. Figure that if, in the year 2000 (when he opened his tasting room), a ton of Chardonnay grapes was worth around a thousand dollars, and that from that ton, somebody was making around 750 bottles of wine, even with the requisite overhead investment he was leaving a lot of cash on the table. To a man with his entrepreneurial savvy, it seemed to be the only way to go; the way proven out by the fact that he sold out his initial 750 case run within two months—due in part to Dan’s Salesmanship Merit Badge and in part to the undeniable fact that his wines were—and are—first rate.
So, back to the thickened plot. Dan Matthies is the sort of eccentric, personality-laden, self-promoting, fun-to-write-about wine talent that forms the core of an appellation compilation such as this one: He’s an integral part of the show, there from the beginning, consulting with the top names and providing them raw material—someone, in short, who helped define the essence of Northern Michigan wine.
And yet, despite his evident mastery of the marketing metric, the ABCs—‘always be closing’—he was mysteriously unavailable for an interview every… time… I tried.
What I got instead was a Matthies press kit, which is cool—I suppose, in some bizarre alternative universe, I’m a member of the press. But I really don’t hold interviews like that. I like to sit with the subject, get down and dirty (even if half of it winds up being off-the-record), watch reactions, drive quotes, gauge personality. After all, I write character studies more than wine reviews, and as such, I don’t care for interviews conducted over the phone let alone over puff pieces in the Glen Arbor Sun.
But, like a vineyard manager trying to lay down canes and survive another brutal onslaught from Old Man Grand Traverse County Winter, one works with the tools one is given.
Chateau Fontaine, the property, was the first significant investment Dan Matthies made in Leelanau; at 27, he stumbled across an old potato farm on French Road whose south-facing slopes were so steep that growers used to roll the harvest down them. This was the soil of which Stan Howell became so enamored, and today, it forms the nucleus of the Fontaine estate. Intimately involved in the estate’s management is Dan’s wife Lucie and his son Doug, who is also the owner of French Road Cellars, Michigan’s first custom crush facility. This concept, currently booming Napa and Sonoma, allows a start-up winery access to equipment to crush, bottle, label and ship wines from a single location without investing in bricks, mortar or stainless steel. Thus, a winemaker-wannabe with stars and dollar signs in his or her eye (along with the umbra of common sense) can create a market for their wine prior to taking out a second mortgage out on the house. Although Dan, who also runs Dan Matthies Peninsula Properties, Inc , could probably arrange that for you.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Chateau Fontaine continues to rack up more ribbons than a Bavarian maypole. Most of the fifteen labels currently available have taken home prizes at some point, many of them gold, some of them double gold; beside the nonpareil Riesling two-peat at the Finger Lakes Competition, the trophy case is filled with dozens of awards from dozens of award bestowers, and no Michigan Wine & Spirits Competition would be complete without at least one Chateau Fontaine wine standing on the top tier of a category podium. Having washed down a cheese ball with some of this year’s entries, I’m just as sure that Chateau Fontaine will continue to crest the Leelanau wine wave in 2015 as I am that this chapter will not become part of the Dan Matthies press package.
But that’s cool—Bel Lago’s Charlie Edson refers to Dan Matthies as ‘a consummate gentlemen’ and I have no reason to improve on that assessment.
And speaking of consuming, don’t take my word for it: Make a point of stopping by the winery to feel for yourself Dan’s magnetic sales persona. Allow him to draw you in; watch him as he circles closer, making you feel like you are the only taster on earth. Only then, when you’re suitably charmed, inveigled, hooked, have you had the genuine Chateau Fontaine experience.
‘Thanks for your patronage; please exit through the gift shop.’