When I first wrote about Villa Mari in 2014, it was just beginning to take shape, emerging from a pretty hillside along Highway 37 and forming itself from the living stones like one of the Nephilim in Genesis 6. Meanwhile, the locals stood back and watched with a combination of awe, respect, puzzlement and cynicism—although granted, some of the latter came from me when I first wrote about Villa Mari.
Today, the winery is done, renamed ‘Mari Vineyards’, and it’s a work of imposing splendor—Old Mission’s answer to the Roman Colosseum. Whether or not Old Mission needed an answer to the Roman Colosseum remains to be seen, but it’s there nonetheless; a mountainous shrine to a dream that if not exactly impossible, requires an outlay of major success expectations guaranteed to make a rational winemaker like Sean O’Keefe, who lives on the edge of viticultural disaster, pull out of what remains of his hair.
Sean joined Mari as winemaker shortly after my 2014 write-up, but he’s been a fixture on Old Mission (the skinny promontory to the east of the Lelanau Peninsula) for nearly his entire life. Youngest son of Ed O’Keefe, Chateau Grand Traverse’s pioneering patriarch, the man who first successfully raised vinifera in the northwest outpost of the Great Lakes wine region, Sean was never (as far as I know) his father’s chief vintner—that title has gone to Bernd Croissant nearly from the beginning. But Sean hung around the cellar with a certain obsessive drive, and he had personal projects happening at the winery, and they were usually unique, exciting and high-quality enough to draw my attention away from his old man’s winery story. Sean thinks deeply—almost compulsively—about the nuances contained within every bottle of wine he produces and of every row of vine he manages.
That’s one of the reasons Sean is among my favorite peninsular personalities. You can find winemakers who can discuss the aesthetics of wine, and you can find winemakers who can discuss the mechanics of wine, but it’s rare to find a winemaker who can discuss the philosophy of wine. And Sean O’Keefe is one of them.
That said, I’ve known him for years, and all our wine conversations have generally gravitated toward the two varietals that appear to be fused to his enological DNA: Riesling and Gamay. Sean is convinced that, all things being equal (and in wine making, all things rarely are equal) these are the two vinifera grapes best suited to the terroirs of Northern Michigan.
So it was strange, to say the least, to hear him, in his Mari Vineyard armor, waxing wise about Refosco, Teraldego and Scuppatino—grapes that generally don’t appear in the same sentence as ‘Michigan wine’. Then again, neither does ‘nellaserra’, a system of greenhouses that Mari Vineyards uses to get a jump on the growing season and extend it into November. In my original version of this story, I was a skosh sarcastic and a scad skeptical of this technique, believing that if you really want to grow Italian varietals, you should stick to a climate when you can do it without smoke and mirrors.
But, having tasted the wines, I’ve come around entirely; every vineyard manager in Northern Michigan has tricks up his/her sleeves, including Sean’s dad, who imported several tons of dirt to make a south facing slope on his property.
It takes a big man to admit when he’s… well, not 100% right.
And anyway, these are canny viticultural techniques, not the magic silver bullet used by other Northern Michigan wineries, which is, quite literally, a silver bullet: The steel-bottomed tankers filled with grape juice from Washington and California that cruise the twin peninsulas every year and sell Merlot, Cabernet, Syrah, etc. to winemakers trying to shore up naturally thin wine. And in years like the last two, when the harvest has been severely limited, it is tough to find a winery that absolutely refuses to adulterate Michigan product with West Coast product, and yet, still insist on calling it ‘Michigan’ wine. It’s perfectly legal—the TTB allows you to add up to 25% of wine from a different appellation, or state, or country, or planet, or nebulae and still maintain the sanctity of your own appellation’s name.
And if you think it isn’t done all the friggin’ time, you might be interested in buying a time-share portion of the Mackinac Bridge I’m selling.
Based on that, a wee greenhouse doesn’t sound so squirrely, does it? And, according to Sean, the overhead involved in building a plastic overhead is huge, so many of the grapes grown this way wind up blended with those grown under the blue empyrean.
Speaking of budgets, the bucks behind the behemoth belongs to Marty Lagina, and he earned it by hunting for buried treasure. Not the elusive kind on his History Channel adventure series ‘The Curse of Oak Island’, which has made him a household names in those households fond of watching rich people spend a lot of money to get even richer and failing, but the kind that nestles inside Antrim shale. Terra Energy, the company he founded in the ‘90’s, perfected a method of extracting biogenic gas from the thick layer of sedimentary rock that forms much of Northern Michigan’s basement. In 2011, the company sold to CMS Energy for a number that starts with a five and ends with a whole lot of zeros; the precise figure is not discussed. Lagina threw some of it to the wind, investing in Heritage Sustainable Energy, leasing 120,000 acres and creating utility-scale wind energy projects throughout the State of Michigan.
Lagina’s rake-hell switch from drilling to spinning, from non-renewable to renewable energy sources, is reflected in the recycled schematics of Mari Vineyards tasting room, where the prominent feature is the thirty=foot bar made of polished Michigan ash. Like the phylloxera louse did to the world’s vinifera crop, so the Emerald Ash Borer has done to tens of millions of ash trees across the United States. But unlike the louse, the borer has left a few aesthetics in their wake, and the bar reflects the beautiful, snaking, sensuous—albeit deadly—pattern that borer larvae makes through the wood.
The stone that makes the mantel, the outside wall and the fireplace surround is likewise hewn from Michigan quarries, and the accouterments, from the framed church keys to the tables made from slices of maple stump, are all local.
As, most assuredly, is the wine. Says Sean, “We produce 100% estate-grown wine, most of it red. The greenhouse tunnels push temperatures up ten to twelve degrees in the spring and late fall, and that’s what you have to do in a ‘borderline’ wine region if you want to create big, ripe reds consistently without importing grape juice. The terroir is not always good up here, and I understand the philosophy of other wineries, where keeping the doors open and the lights on is paramount, but personally, I feel that if I have to bring in grapes from other states, I’ve failed.”
In fact, he shares a guilty secret: “I wasn’t entirely sorry that the last two vintages were so bad. It gave me two years to study, a couple of harvests to read up on the methodology used by other regions who are producing the kind of wine that the Lagina’s want.”
A lot of it is still theory, because 2016 will be the first year Sean will make appreciable quantities of wine a Mari—upwards of 9000 cases, ten times what the winery currently produces. Among the all-natural tricks he’s picked up, especially for high-pyrazine grapes like Cabernet Franc, which in cool years develop a striking, generally unpleasant green-pepper taste, is to dry the grapes before crushing them. Where additional hang time is impossible due to climate, and red grapes are picked at between 15 and 20°Bx, a time of drying—on racks, or straw; the medium is not important—can often temper the harshest pyrazines.
Likewise, he intends to produce heavily in good harvests, and store wine in huge casks with thicker walls to prevent premature aging and the over-oaked quality that wine kept in smaller barrels over many years develops. Also, he will load up on méthode champenoise sparkling wine which can age on the lees for a decade and improve, ultimately selling for $50 a bottle.
Caves ‘n’ casks are the cornerstone of the Mari business model, and currently under construction are a network of underground caverns, the first such innovative/millennia-old facilities in Northern Michigan. As a tribute to sustainability, these caves, along with the building, are being built for the long haul—centuries, according to Lagina.
Like the multi-million dollar estate, some of these revolutionary ideas are still on the drawing board, but the vines sure aren’t: Team Lagina has been growing grapes on Old Mission Peninsula since 1999, and a lot of that produce was sold to Ed O’Keefe at Chateau Grand Traverse. The rest was vinified (Sean was the consultant) into a portfolio of wines that is at once exclusive, unusual, pricey and sensational.
Taking them as an oeuvre, it’s clear that Sean, steered by Marty Legina and his son Alex, are on to something…
And Here’s What It Is:
Sitting beneath a set of chain mail that over the tasting room fireplace—one of many folksy if inexplicable tchotchkes that ring the place—Sean poured through the current portfolio—all the while burbling with excitement over the first major, real-time harvest coming up in a couple months.
Mari Vineyards Cabernet Franc, 2011, $26: This was a cool year with relative high yields, and the resulting wine’s color does not appear stable. It’s pinkish pale and slightly herbaceous. But the fruit is apparent, and it’s fresh and elegant, touched with notes of Traverse City cherries, which is what many of these vineyards used to be.
Mari Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, 2012, $25: Simple but solid; red fruits and pepper underscore an example of what non-greenhouse Cab does in Northern Michigan; it’s slightly, oaky and quick on the finish, but bright and sharp and juicy in the meantime.
Mari Vineyards ‘Scriptorium Bestiary’, 2011, $24: Fitting that Sean should name this wine something unpronounceable considering it is a blend of three unpronouncable grapes: Blaufränkisch, Zweigelt and Lagrein. It makes for a well-structured wine with a precise balance of grape tannin, woodsy, almost dried berry flavors and shivery acidity.
Mari Vineyards ‘Row 7’, 2011, $50: The titular row—actually three rows—is an amalgam of all the red varieties initially planted in 1999, and shows a beautiful frame of intense bouquet of cassis and blackberry, with a whiff of iodine. The wine is supple on the palate, nicely textured and resolves into a long, oaky, dark cherry finish.
Mari Vineyards ‘Ultima Thule’, 2011, $55: This is what the hoopla is all about: Hoop wine. A blend of 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Nebbiolo, 20% Merlot and 15% Syrah, the grapes were grown entirely in the nellaserra, and takes full advantage of the extra ripeness the technique permits. A voluptuous nose filled with violets, wood smoke and creamy boysenberry leads into an expansive, velvety palate layered in chocolate-covered cherry, vanilla, tobacco and caramel. This is the sort of product that should convince the most aggressive cynic that Northern Michigan has no chip on her shoulders when it comes to Italian varietals—unless they’re made of oak.
Impressed as I was with these reds, I would not deign to leave Sean O’Keefe’s company without asking about Riesling, and true to form, he poured a 2015, still unlabeled bottle from the Jameison Vineyard, a south-facing, heavier clay lieu-dit. This resulted in a wine with less of the huge perfumes that show up in sandier blocks, but was filled with the sort of ripe peach and delicate, honeyed apricot aromas associated with the great wines of the Rheingau.
O’Keefe, who generally puts in a great showing at the annual Riesling Rendezvous, has spent many years and countless horticultural routines and vinicultural disciplines to elicit the maximum from this potent varietal: He sweeps vineyards several times per harvest, hand picking ripe bunches, he whole-cluster ferments, he allows the wine to sit on the lees. His Rieslings are generally luscious, rich and spectacularly aromatic, and this one was certainly a pick of the litter.
Meanwhile, the televised hunt goes on for the phantom prize on Oak Island, but Marty Lagina may be overlooking the pot-of-gold he has already discovered right here in Old Mission.
Not the beautiful view of the East Bay from the wide-angle tasting room, not the mysterious ‘Oculus’ room in the Mari caverns, not the plots of sensational terroir made temperate beneath the nellaserra network—not even the mighty Mari manse on Highway 37.
I’m talking about the real treasure here: Sean O’Keefe.
Great piece, Chris. Two comments:
First: Sean was always a bad fit — not to say odd-man-out — at CGT. While the other family members were building a commercial juggernaut, he geeked out on pushing Michigan’s wine-making boundaries. Now he’s working at a place where the drive to experiment is the native yeast in the rafters.
Second, please continue to push the discussion you’ve opened about the use of out-of-state juice in Michigan wines. While it’s always been the industry’s man-behind-the-curtain open secret, two successive poor local vintages have brought the issue into sharp relief. The more honest winemakers are acknowledging what they’ve had to do as a necessity, for which few can fault them. Others are dodging bullets via semi-deceptive or “For Sale in Michigan Only” labels that few consumers recognize for what they are. This begs to be written about by someone sympathetic to the industry, but less sanguine about hiding information from its customers.
Thanks, and yeah, and if the use of non-appellation juice is the elephant in the room here, it’s worse in Napa. When I suggested that one of the most well-known producers of expensive fire-hydrant production wine in Napa relies heavily on concentrated juice from Lodi, I had threats made. I’d mention their name if I wasn’t such a pussy.
Strike that. I’m not a pussy: Caymus.
Part of our terroir (growing vinifera on the northwest outpost of the Great Lakes Region) is severe winter damage one year in ten on average. Let’s acknowledge that and be creative in how we deal with it, e.g., diversify like some into cider, or more simply build up inventory in anticipation of the event. At the very minimum, be up front about your grape sources and be creative where you source things (besides just doing your take on the same tanker load of juice from Washington. In any case, keep the “Michigan” appellation at 75% to make everyone breathe easily, but tighten up the regional appellations to the federal max of 95%.