Chemical engineering, carafes, and Laurentide wine

By Madeleine Hill Vedel

Sun contributor

Susan Braymer is passionate about what she does. And what she does during the vast majority of her waking hours is run her and her husband Bill’s Laurentide winery in Leelanau County. Opened in 2012, Laurentide is the culmination of shared dreams for doing something in the wine business that started bubbling many years ago. Wine is part of Susan and Bill’s love story, on the table at celebrations, guiding their vacation destinations, and a source of endless learning and conversations. 

“I have made wine in the past, but how I ended up here is not separable from how we ended up here. I’ve known my husband for a very long time. We do everything together.”

Susan and Bill met during their freshman year at the University of Michigan. Their first jobs sent them across the country to California where their family grew through the arrival of daughter Calla, and Susan obtained a certificate in wine making. There they experimented making wine in their West Coast garage and looked for land to purchase. But it was here in Leelanau County that the story has come to fruition. 

Bill, originally from Kalamazoo, brought his bride, originally from New Jersey, up north to explore the haunts of his childhood summers. Here they tasted wine, and realized that though many consider California the prime wine territory in the United States, here in Michigan great wines were being made. And, they observed, with the shifting climate, what had once been considered a cold climate growing region was evolving into the cool climate range; a promising development for these wine enthusiasts.

From this epiphany came their purchase of an old cherry farm on French Road north of Lake Leelanau in 2006. Bill was able to find a job back in his favorite state, returning the family to Ann Arbor. Soon vinifera vines were planted, relationships knit with French Road Custom Crush, first with winemaker Shawn Walters, now Charlie Schmidt, and in September 2012 they had their grand opening in their French Road tasting room. Barely five months later their 2011 Riesling won the prestigious Riesling Challenge at the International Eastern Wine Competition (where they also won Best of Show White Wine).

Visiting with Susan, I am struck by how she brings her intelligence (she’s an accomplished chemical engineer), creativity (she masterminds all the winery’s food and wine pairings, preparing all the dishes herself), and determination to her ownership and management of the winery. She and her husband hopscotch between Ann Arbor and Lake Leelanau, but she is the person you will most often meet when you visit the winery.

“My job is being the face of the tasting room, taking care of our vineyard meadow and doing all the other 20,000 jobs needed to run this business,” says Susan. “My husband still lives in Ann Arbor. I live down there three months of the year, when we’re not open full time. It’s a crazy life of things to do. But it is what it is. The Ann Arbor life pays for the life up here.”

Susan manages the informative and beautiful website, chooses the artists who display their pieces on the winery’s walls, as well as the instructive maps and geological cuts to illustrate the soils of the winery. She hires and trains staff, attends festivals, and covers the day-to-day tasks.

However, as partners in this project, she and Bill together decided to plant only cool climate vinifera, and to vinify with Custom Crush, making use of their experience and expertise. “We’re happy to be part of that team. They have a great facility and business model. It hearkens back to how things are done in Europe where grapes are brought into the village co-ops and the wine is bottled, then brought back to the wineries.”

Working in the wine business, actively selling her award-winning wines—including a lovely expression of Sauvignon Blanc, the wine that distinguishes them from their closest colleagues—Susan’s mind travels to how Leelanau, and northern Michigan wineries, might expand their reach. She is concerned that the reliance on summer tourism is difficult for all, exacerbated by the uneven distribution of wealth and opportunity in the region. Sharing delight in the excellent restaurants in the area, we agree that they require patrons who can afford to go out to dinner, but also that those who work in them require affordable housing and year-round employment. Affluent summer residents and visitors should boost the local revenue stream, but not be the primary one.

Expanding on the subjects of local restaurants and drinking habits, Susan says, “You go to France and you drink the local wine, the house carafe of white/rosé/red will always be local. That’s what it needs to be here. You’re in Michigan, drink Michigan wine, drive Michigan cars, go to Michigan schools. It sounds very provincial, but in a way it’s not. It’s extremely proud of where you are and what you do and what you believe in. If you live here, you want to partake in what you have here. I love French wine, and have a cellar full. But I hardly every drink it. It’s very important that you support what’s here.”

(The next day I spoke with restauranteur Martha Ryan of Martha’s Leelanau Table, and she loved the idea of serving local wine by the carafe. However, to make such an idea feasible for her, she would hope local wineries would offer to wholesale less expensive (than glass bottle) options such as 5-10 liter bag-in-boxes, from which carafes could be refilled.)

Susan also believes that recognition of northern Michigan as a wine-growing region on the national and international stage would benefit from more money in grapes, more grapes grown, and more wine made. That, by the numbers, if more acres were devoted to the wine industry a certain level of regional impact would be attained: “It would tip us all in the right direction … Opinions and perceptions take decades to change. You don’t do it with just one wine in a restaurant. You need a sea change. And the onus is on us, the winemakers.”

When asked about her experience as a woman in the wine industry, Susan gestures with her hands, brushing away the implication of bias: “I was in chemical engineering for a long time. It just doesn’t even register for me.” As for the wine industry, “Obviously there are a lot of men working in this industry and doing the physical work. But I don’t even try to match them there.”

We share titles of books we have read recently (she is a passionate reader in her downtime, of which there is not much from spring through fall). Range, she recommends to me, a book about liberal studies and the virtues of being adaptable and not to specialize; and The Uninhabitable Earth, “If you want to cry,” she says. With a couple of bottles in my hands, I head out.

Inside her pine-sided tasting room, Susan returns to her more than full day of guiding wine tastings, writing about the season from the viewpoint of a winery owner, and working with her staff to craft the best wines possible from Laurentide’s estate-grown grapes. She may also spend moments worrying about the weather, potential hail storms, fruit flies that find Pinot Noir grapes a tantalizing alternative to cherries, and hoping that warm afternoons and cool evenings through the fall will ripen her grapes and bring a beautiful harvest. And when winter comes, she will welcome the quiet time to reflect, to think, to plan.