Tucked away on a large sand ridge that extends inland from Lake Michigan between the Black River and the Kalamazoo River valleys, you’ll find Fenn Valley Vineyards. Family owned and operated, the Fenn Valley estate is both a vineyard and winery complex that spans 240 acres of farmland. Since 1973, Fenn Valley has strived to make quality wines from grapes grown in the Lake Michigan Shore AVA. The winery is five miles from Lake Michigan, and, according to their website, Fenn Valley’s location is ideal for “receiving a significant moderation of winter temperatures and far enough away from the lake so that during the summer months we will have a moderate cooling effect.”
To give you a snapshot of Michigan’s place in the American scene, here are a few facts:
- Michigan is the 5th largest wine grape producer in America
- As of 2013, Michigan has 226 wineries (Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau)
- Over 2 million tourists visited Michigan wineries in 2012
Two weeks ago the pinot noir grapes on Fenn Valley’s vines started to change from green to dark purple (the ripening phase known as veraison) as I found myself, along with ten other people, being pulled around in a wooden “wine wagon” as the head winemaker, Bryan Lesperance, drove a blue tractor that tugged us around the vineyards.
This surprisingly spacious and very relaxing ride is part of Fenn Valley’s 90-minute tour. At each stop, the knowledgeable winemaker hops off the tractor, grabs two to three bottles of wine out of his cooler and passes the bottles around for tasting. You instantly feel like you’re cozied up in flannels at a beachside campfire listening to your friend’s fascinating stories--all while tasting a whopping eleven wines from your souvenir wine glass. Bryan covers every topic from the winemaking process to the history and terrior of the unique Michigan property.
Fenn Valley Vineyards is a little bit country, but a whole lot of of rock-solid dedication to the winemaking and crowd-pleasing craft. They have tourism--and wine--down to an art and science. (They’re a 2014 Trip Advisor “Certificate of Excellence” winner.) Everything from sophisticated winemaker dinners to 5K races in the vineyards and kitschy, yet informative “wine wagon” tours. When you’re here, you’re instantly welcomed by everyone, including a ubiquitous winemaker, and most of all, you’re pleasantly surprised by the wines that pass your palette.
Bryan is responsible for producing an array of bold red blends, crisp white wines, some outstanding late harvests and ports, as well as some fruity summer sippers. I sat down with him to see how he got started in wine and what he would teach the world about Michigan wines.
What attracted you to winemaking?
“My background was in software marketing, which is a whole different world, but I always had a passion for wine. I actually took classes in college that exposed me to the different wines across the world and the various regions, especially how the different regions would affect the ultimate product. When my wife and I were approached by my father-in-law (former owner of Fenn Valley Vineyards), I came into the business side things. As luck would have it, I took a liking into the wine side as well. When our winemaker left it was the perfect opportunity for me to work alongside my father in-law as he’s still here enough to really guide the process from his forty years of experience over the next couple of years. Hopefully when we move forward we can take all the lessons we have learned to move ahead. So that’s where we are at right now. I am very much still learning the ropes of it, but I have been here long enough and worked alongside the winemaker enough to get a base knowledge to work through it.”
Describe a typical work week as a winemaker.
“I’m sure it’s different at every winery. Here the winemaker is very much at the center of the customer experience. I do a lot of tours, I’m out with the customers and we try to be out in the tasting room as much as possible, even though that doesn’t happen as much as I would like.
A lot of the time I’m basically working with the cellar staff on what operations are coming up. I’m trying to be a couple of days to a couple of weeks ahead of them in operational-level stuff--and--then a few months ahead of them on strategic-level stuff.
Right now I’m planning harvest. We’re looking at working with the farm manager on the estimated crop load--that will drive the operation strategy for harvest so when we get to Pinot Gris, we’re not figuring out how much we will get but, ideally, we already have an idea of how much we’re looking to get. I’ve already mapped out what we’re going to do there and in the case of Riesling. With the Riesling we’re going to do two different things: we’re going to do dry and semi-dry, and we actually do a sparkling. That’s three different procedures right there, and I’ve already planned what those procedures are going to be, so when we are in the throes of harvest, I’m not trying to plan on the fly. I do a lot of planning during this time of year.
And then in the fall, we go straight out. The best place the winemaker can be in the fall is on the crush pad with the fruits that are coming in. That way I can make those critical decisions about when we’re going to cut from our light press to heavy press, or if the quality of the product coming in is different from what we expected--sometimes better, sometimes not as good--and making those kind of decisions to optimize long term. My ability to do something that could make the whole thing better in the long term is why I’m trying to be near to that process.
Then in the dead of winter here is when we do our blending. By then hopefully all your raw materials have gone through their first fermentation, their initial clean up and you can get them into a place where you can start to assess your blends and put things together. That’s the most stressful time I think for winemakers--during blending.”
What do you like most about your job?
“Actually the people are fun. Everyone here likes wine. Everyone likes local products. And everybody likes farming. There are so many different backgrounds of people here that love wine. I like working with products that you make from scratch. It’s fun to watch the wines grow from the dead of winter, and grow all the way from when we pick them and turn it into something different. It’s really fun.”
What is one aspect of your job that might surprise people?
“People who have never made wine before probably are surprised by how much paperwork has to go into it. The amount of time that I spend on government paperwork is ridiculous, and that is unusual. I think there are other things that would surprise people, too. For instance, how often I run into a situation that has no answer because it’s a piece of equipment that there’s probably twelve of them in the United States--maybe fifty if it’s a popular piece of equipment. If it’s broken, or it’s not working quite right, then you just have to start from the scratch. You start to figure it out and ask, ‘How does it work? Why is it doing this? What are the solutions?’ This is especially crucial if we’re in the middle of crush and it’s something we need. It is amazing how much you learn about mechanics and about different tools that you don’t even think could be part of the winemaking process, but you end up learning how they work.”
What is something you wish people knew about Michigan wines?
“I wish people knew that we make more than sweet wines of fruit wines. Not a day goes by if you work in the tasting room that you don’t get somebody that’s completely blown away when they come in and try our crisp Pinot Grigio or a Meritage that’s got some tannic backbone and dryness to it. They never expect it. I think it’s a good problem to have for a marketer--it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. All I have to do is make them aware of the products and they’re going to like them. But, it still would be nice if there was a more of a groundswell of people learning about that on their own.”
For more information about Fenn Valley, check out Fenn Valley Vineyards
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Originally from Missouri, Katie has lived in Switzerland, Chicago, San Francisco, Brooklyn and Arizona--and prefers to live in close proximity to old vines. Her first job in college was pouring wines and pruning vines at a winery in Augusta, Missouri, which was the first designated AVA in America. Since then, Katie has spent several years working in corporate America as a copywriter and content marketer. She now works for herself because "her boss" adheres to a strict unlimited winery vacation policy. Follow her tasting and travel notes: @eieigel.