By Ross Boissoneau
It’s a tale as old as time: people visit the area, fall in love with it and retire here. But for Marc and Elizabeth Huntoon, retiring was actually the beginning of a new endeavor. Their Gilchrist Farm tasting room and restaurant opened Labor Day weekend, offering locals and visitors a new option for wine and engaging dishes.
A true family affair, it also involves their daughters Laurel and Alyssa as well as Alyssa’s husband George. And while the tasting room opened Sept. 1, Gilchrist Farm actually dates to 2018, when the Huntoons bought 85 acres of land on South French Road. They began planting the next year, and purchased and planted 21 more acres over the next two years.
Both Huntoons are retired physicians who have worked as pain specialists at institutions like the Mayo Clinic and Vanderbilt. While practicing medicine, they published pioneering medical research while raising four daughters. They became familiar with the area after attending a medical conference locally. A wine tour cemented their interest, and Marc followed up his medical career by taking courses in winemaking.
“He’s the wine guy. He chooses the varietals and works with Drew Perry, our winemaker,” says George Brittain. While George typically serves as the public face at the downtown Suttons Bay restaurant, Marc also frequents the place on the weekends, where he can interact with the customers. “He’s gregarious,” Brittain says with a smile. When not at the tasting room, Marc is likely on the tractor or working in the vines.
Blessed with a green thumb, Elizabeth dedicates her time to working alongside Laurel in the market garden to supply the restaurant. Laurel is a soil scientist, whose goal to provide sustenance to the plants and the soil itself. Her sister Alyssa is the designer, with everything from the furnishings, paint colors and the look of the menu to logos, social media and merchandise under her purview. A professional photographer, George says you can often find her designing menus, hanging art and meeting with other tastemakers in the region. George provides oversight as the business manager, CEO and GM of the restaurant.
While the wine was the impetus, Brittain emphasizes the quality of the food. He encourages his chefs to be creative and take chances. That shows in a menu that as of this writing features sacchetini, an interestingly shaped pasta stuffed with pear poached in pinot gris, topped with a gorgonzola cream sauce; a farro salad with winter root vegetables and a caramelized onion vinaigrette; bison gumbo with scallions, lemon and parsley with a Cholula hot sauce; and a Basque cheesecake with orange spice, pumpkin caramel and a cardamom cookie crumble.
The menu is subject to constant change depending on what is available and what the chefs have up their sleeve. “We only wanted to do farm to table,” says Brittain.
The tasting room itself is light and bright, with plenty of windows throughout the smaller rooms that open up into one another. The fireplace room is especially cozy, and the bar opens onto a patio. Brittain says they took pains to make sure the atmosphere was family-friendly, including kid-size furniture and toys.
The tasting room will focus on its wines, rather than including any beer or spirits, along with coffee and other non-alcoholic beverages. Gilchrist Farm offers four reds, five whites and a rosé, along with a bubbly chardonnay. A mulled wine is sure to keep the frosty weather at bay, and it also offers a non-alcoholic cider served with a caramel sugar rim.
And while the weather is turning, the mulled wine isn’t the only way to beat the winter blues. Brittain says they will be constructing a greenhouse on the patio so patrons can partake al fresco throughout the year.
The tasting room is the public-facing side of the operation, but it’s fed (as are the patrons) by the market garden and vineyard. Brittain says the farm provides many of the raw ingredients; they also use numerous local farms and suppliers. All the dishes served at the restaurant are made from scratch. “For our perogies, we make the sauerkraut. We make the jam on the Brie. Every bite is good—(that is) a big deal.
“Having our own real 22 acres of vines and our own real farm adds credibility,” he continues. So too does the fact George and Alyssa have a background in hospitality as owners of the Anchor Inn for the last five years. They also spent time abroad when their jobs took them to Europe for four years, which George says led to their own culinary adventures – handy to have in your back pocket as restaurateurs.
The farm’s unique practices go beyond eschewing chemical fertilizers or insecticides. Under Laurel’s watchful eye, it utilizes a variety of organic material, including grape pomace, spent grain from beermaking operations and wood chips, to make compost. “It’s kind of like our own soil factory,” Brittain says. The goal is to introduce and encourage beneficial microorganisms, which will help all the plants grow while controlling pests. As the farm manager, she ensures its practices adhere to strict guidelines of regenerative agriculture via the Soil Food Web.
Such a process takes time and is not inexpensive. Brittain says it’s simply the right thing to do and the best way to keep the soil and their plants healthy.
They planted familiar vinifera such as Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir, but also others less common here. Northern Italian varietals such as Lagrein and Teroldego, Spanish Albarino and Blaufränkisch and Grüner Veltliner from Austria hold promise in the temperate vinicultural microclimate, particularly when paired with the efforts toward improving their growing medium. “We believe healthy soil is better for grapes,” Brittain says.
It adds up to a unique experience for patrons, whether they’re looking to start the day with brunch, share engaging plates or unwind with a glass of wine. Brittain says it’s about providing a sense of hospitality, much as you would when stopping in to visit a friend. “It’s like going into a home,” he says, albeit a home offering a constantly evolving menu of treats. Its website features an online preview, something friends don’t usually offer, at GilchristFarmWinery.com and on its social media.