Black Star Farms celebrates a silver anniversary, wine and horse style

By Sandra Serra Bradshaw

Sun contributor

Nestled in the wooded hills just south of Suttons Bay, Black Star Farms has become an iconic and unique part of Leelanau County’s most memorable landscape. The lovely paddocks with horses quietly grazing in their pastures reminds one of blue-blooded horse country in Kentucky right here in northern Michigan. It is a splendid sight even when just passing by on M-22 at Shady Lane.

Turning into Black Star Farms’ long and inviting drive with wide-open wrought iron gates you will pass the farm’s hillside vineyards—a foreground to the thickly wooded hills in back—and the well-kept, immaculate stables in front. This 160-acre winery and farm-to-table café has become a year-round place of welcome not only for visitors to the Leelanau Peninsula but a special place to visit for the community, too.

“Creating interesting local experiences, that is what we want it to be all about,” said Sherri Campbell Fenton, managing owner of Black Star Farms. “This year marks our silver anniversary and to honor this milestone we plan to celebrate with special offers throughout the year.

“In 1998, our co-founding partners, Kerm Campbell and Don Coe, along with head winemaker, Lee Lutes, had the vision to create a word-class wine-country destination. Today, that goal has been far exceeded, and our business now includes our highly-acclaimed inn, plus extensive culinary and special events programs,” Fenton said. This to go along with Black Star Farms’ now award-winning winery, a tasting room and distillery. The estate has so much to offer, whether you come for just a few hours, or for a night or more, there are unique event venues and much more to discover year ’round to peruse and enjoy.

Near the end of the main drive and just up on the right is the property’s crowned jewel—the stunning Black Star Inn. It was originally the home of the late Barry Boone (of local Boone restaurants fame), and his first wife Marla. It was built by Boone, along with help from Easling Construction of Leland. “Barry took over four years to build this place and did much of the work by himself,” said Fenton. That with a sound of a reverent acknowledgment towards the late Barry, for the home is truly to this day magnificent. Step inside and you will note the original large black star Barry had engraved in the foyer’s entrance’s floor.

Campbell was the partner who came up with the name Black Star Farms—based upon the iconic star which was built into the original marble foyer.

“Barry was very creative,” said Marla Hokewater Boone. Barry and Marla remodeled the old existing cow barn in 1984. Marla ran a dressage facility there. They named the farm “Boone’s Sport Valley Equestrian Farm.” Many of their horses were European Warmbloods, including some of those they boarded.

The inn features five fireplaces, 10 sumptuous guest rooms, and other drop-dead gorgeous spaces that host weddings, special events (such as an anniversary or milestone birthday celebration), and special corporate retreats. Back outdoors and just past the inn is the Hearth & Vine Café (open seasonally). It is here where guests have the opportunity to enjoy some of the finest wines and culinary delights in an elegantly unique equestrian setting. Black Star Farms is in company with only a few other spots pairing horses and wines in the same setting. These include the famous Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, and Shadybrook Estates in Napa Valley, Calif. Here in Michigan it is the only facility of its kind. “Guests are welcome to bring their horses here when they stay,” Fenton said. “They are as welcome as their owners!”

Here in Leelanau County we have the opportunity to savor Black Star Farms right at our doorstep. Now that says something, and in fact, according to Wine Enthusiast magazine, “From the medieval monks who used draft horses to clear vineyards in Burgundy, to the horse culture of Spain’s Jerez de la Frontera (where the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art is located) they celebrated annually during Feria del Caballo (the annual horse fair held in that Spanish city), horses and wine have long held a deep connection.”

The winery proudly keeps a personal hand-crafted approach to their wine-making. Black Star Farms produces more than 50 classic varietal wines and fruit brandies. They have received awards in state, national, and international wine competitions—proof the wine industry across northern Michigan is growing and thriving—and being recognized worldwide. Black Star Farms has become a unique way for wine lovers to retreat and enjoy the heart of Leelanau County in a growing part of northern Michigan’s very own wine country. “Our region is fast becoming recognized for the tremendous opportunities for growing grapes.” said Fenton. “The lake-effect climate enables the growth of classic vinifera grape varieties, including Chardonnay, Riesling, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, and others.”

“Thanks to our skilled and passionate wine-making team, we are thrilled to announce that a number of our wines have recently received awards at two prestigious wine competitions, the 2023 American Fine Wine Competition and the 2023 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition,” Fenton said. Black Star Farms offers an expansive range of varietal wines and fruit brandies that showcase their vineyard-to-bottle philosophy. The inviting tasting room features a wine club membership-only barrel room and an inviting outside terrace where their friendly and knowledgeable staff await your visit.

Michigan is regarded as being the nation’s second most agriculturally diverse state after California, and this region is at the center of the state’s farm-to-table revolution. In line with this, Black Star Farms offers Progressive Wine & Food Tastings, something Fenton is especially pleased with. “Ignite your senses with this exclusive experience that travels through our winery estate,” said Fenton. “Your private tasting journey begins with a sparkling wine toast and a featured white wine while learning about the history of our unique wine region. Next, your journey continues to our wine cave. You will enjoy some of our signature red wines while getting behind the scenes of the wine-making and aging process. Your journey will culminate in our VIP Barrel Room while indulging in some dessert wines. A carefully selected small bite prepared by our culinary team will accompany each wine along this tasting trip to showcase the magic of food and wine pairing.

“We celebrate our winery’s vineyard-to-table practices where we grow our grapes locally, then harvest, process and bottle them at our two area wineries (the other is on Old Mission Peninsula which opened in 2007),” said Fenton. “We embrace our seasonal harvest bounties, a farm-to-fork practice our culinary team takes to heart by growing, raising, and sourcing from our own and regional farms.” The evening begins with a welcome reception featuring a specialty-themed craft cocktail followed by dinner at a large feasting table where conversations and new friendships are said to abound. The Chef will share the inspiration behind the evening’s menu, and in addition, a winery representative will discuss the wine pairings and share updates on new releases and vintages.

“In appreciation of our silver anniversary, Black Star Farms is offering new sparkling wine releases, our own unique wine-tasting options, along with delicious and creative dining experiences, our special inn promotions, and (looking ahead to summer) cocktail parties in the vineyard and patio.” These are just some of the exciting things they have in store. “Our brunches, aimed at local community members, began on Easter Sunday in 2018,” said Fenton. They are held in honor of the late Sallie Campbell, Sherri Fenton’s mother. “Please join us for Easter Brunch on Sunday, April 9. Gather your friends and family for a memorable event provided by our inspired culinary and events team. The strolling brunch will include many savory and sweet options, sure to delight everyone. An outdoor Easter Egg Hunt for the little ones will follow your meal. Easter is the only time when it is perfectly safe to put all your eggs in one basket,” she added with a smile.

“When you visit, it’s not just for the wine, though it plays a part in every aspect of the farm,” she said. Fenton wants guests to experience what she terms as “beyond the scene, to get to what is happening.” That includes the entire farm experience—in the tasting room casually sipping wines or brandies, taking a leisurely stroll, an invigorating snow ski, snowshoe hike, or a ride on your bike, or on your horse through the lovely woods surrounding the property. “All are welcome,” Fenton warmly said. “We look forward to celebrating our 25 years with you.”