In Vino Veritas: the wisdom of Leelanau’s early winemakers

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Photo: Dom and Charlie of Bel Lago.

By Rebecca Gearing Carlson

Sun contributor

“In wine, there is truth.” Overquoted? Maybe. But in the case of my interview with a few of the early winery owners and their family members of the Leelanau Peninsula, the expression held true. It always amazes me the treasures I find when I begin digging in to research a topic. In this case I wanted to understand the origins of the current successful wine industry in Leelanau. Through years of experimenting, working and taming the soil and vines, “In Vino Veritas” is in the lifeblood of these early Leelanau Peninsula vintners.

Bernie Rink

Working in the winery industry here in Northern Michigan imparts my appreciation for the craft and quality of the local wines. The idea for the meeting of winemaking pioneers of the Leelanau Peninsula began a few years ago. The plan was to interview the OG (original group of early winery owners and winemakers) to find out why they and their families chose this area to develop into a wine producing region. What hurdles did they face? What successes and failures did they experience in creating their beautiful wines? I thought all directions would point to Bernie Rink, hobbyist, creator, and owner of Boskydel Vineyard. My belief was that Bernie sat in the center of a wheel and the succeeding wineries formed the spokes. After speaking with: Andy and Jim Rink (sons of Bernie, Boskydel), Larry Mawby (Mawby Wines), Charlie Edson (Bel Lago) and Sam Simpson (son of Bruce Simpson who began Good Harbor Winery), they did confirm that much of the early growth and success of the Great Lakes Wine Coast is due to Bernie’s championing the industry in the 1960s. Furthermore, Bernie creates a communal effort to pave the path for healthy sustainable grape varieties, land conservation and a thriving wine industry.

At the beginning of this interview which took place towards the end of May, sixteen questions waited in the pipeline. In the end, I only asked seven. Were they particularly bad questions? After posing the first two questions about background and history of their and their family’s various paths to Leelanau County, the conversation began digressing into other directions than what I intended. However, letting their conversation amongst themselves develop freeform became more important. If I had not scrapped the prepared questions, I would never have learned that Bernie was labeled the ‘Wine Nazi’, a moniker supplied by a customer referencing his personality similar to a Seinfeld episode of the ‘Soup Nazi.’ His son Andy further explained Bernie’s sales pitch was simple, “If you like the wine, buy some. If not, get out.” I learned Larry enjoyed leaving “quirky messages,” according to Andy Rink, on the Mawby Winery answering machine. “Bates here, Mr. Mawby does not answer his phone. If you wish to communicate with Mr. Mawby, I can take a message. He may respond.” Lastly, I learned Charlie’s father-in-law, Domenic Lezzoni, named the winery Bel Lago (‘beautiful lake’ in Italian) while sitting on a hillside enjoying the beauty of Lake Leelanau. As the interview progressed, the interviewees began asking questions of each other. For myself, the best part of the interview was the fluid conversation between the five.

A theme that kept repeating in the conversation: Building Blocks. The growth of the wine industry in the Leelanau Peninsula did not begin with one person, it was a communal effort. Jim Rink stated the early winemaking years of his father’s business was a “cooperative, collegial enterprise.” This idea was seconded by the rest of the group. The success of the wine industry was built upon knowledge from local farmers, scientists, trial and error testing, but most importantly sharing information amongst the early winemakers. Together, this group set the building block foundation for a thriving and prosperous wine industry here in Leelanau County.

The earliest commercial winemaking business was German immigrant Simon Schaub in Provement (now Lake Leelanau). “In 1856 Simon built a winery, using the hillside behind the house to plant his vineyard…Entire families gathered at the Simon Schaub farm after Sunday Mass with the men gathering at the winery and the women enjoying each other’s hospitality” (Bélanger Heritage of Provement). Many of the German immigrants to this area brought seeds for the grape vines with them as the growing conditions were similar to their home country. In further research of Leelanau winemaking, I found many more attempts at winemaking as a hobby or for homebrew at various family farms.

The achievement of the 21st century wine industry success of the Leelanau Peninsula can be humbly traced to the 1950s and 1960s and hobby winegrowers such as Robert Herbst, retired Organic Chemistry Professor from Michigan State University and Bernie Rink, Library Director at Northwestern Michigan College. Their amateur efforts in growing grapes and winemaking created the foundation for many other winemakers in the following years. Purchasing their first grape vines from a nursery in Maryland named Boordy, the game was afoot to see which grape varieties and areas (Bernie along the shores of Lake Leelanau and Herbst along Lake Michigan) were successful. While both experimented with growing grapes and winemaking, only Bernie turned his hobby into a commercial business. Bernie’s goal, as stated by Larry Mawby, make “wine people could drink every day.”

I asked the Rink brothers about the origins of the name ‘Boskydel.’ The name begins with unpublished children’s stories written by Bernie’s English Professor, Al Bungert. The stories were called “The Elves of Bosky Dingle.” The stories were written for Bungert’s children and shared with Bernie and his wife Suzanne for their five sons. ‘Bosky’ translates to shaded or wooded and ‘dingle’ translates to dell or valley (American Heritage Dictionary). According to Andy Rink, the story name “seemed pertinent to dad as a suitable basis for a unique winery name.” Although Bernie’s “bigger hobby,” according to son Andy, was “keeping five boys out of trouble.” Both Andy and Jim spoke of the long days working and maintaining the vineyard and working in the tasting room at Boskydel. Jim stated, he was the “oldest serving wine laborer in the county.”

Realizing the benefits of growing grapes on the 45th parallel, with similar latitudes to other robust grape growing areas like Italy’s Piedmont region, France’s Rhone Valley and Bordeaux regions, and Oregon’s Willamette Valley, Bernie and Bob understood this was a great place to test cold-hearty, disease resistant grape varieties. While Bernie was experimenting with grape varieties on a one-acre test plot, he wanted to answer the questions: “What didn’t die out” during winter? “What would make good wine?” This sharing and building of a collective knowledge set the foundation for the future successes in the Leelanau Peninsula winery business.

Larry Mawby’s family, fruit growers from the Grand Rapids area, move to the Leelanau Peninsula from the Rockford Michigan area in the 1950s. Larry’s father worked for the Niagara Chemical Company that sold spray for fruit orchards. This job first acquaints Larry’s father with the Leelanau and Traverse City areas. Larry Mawby sought out Bernie in the 1970s for sage information on planting and growing grapes. “Bernie was the guy” to talk to about growing grapes in the area. Larry added, “he was like the Adam.” A college graduate who grew tired of formal education, Larry became “interested in wine as an agricultural crop…[wanting] to grow grapes and make wine on a small scale.” He did not subscribe to the philosophy of his father’s generation who believed “Get big or get out” as a business practice. Larry’s goal was to “make wines expressive of the place where they come from.” Planting thirty varieties purchased from Boordy Nursery in 1973, this was the first trial which unfortunately failed. Larry explained there was one more round of trials before his successful third planting trial when Larry and Bernie planted vines that had been grown straight from the Boskydel Nursery in 1975. By this time, Bernie had realized the survivability of the vines would improve and could be more affordably purchased if grown locally.

The Simpson Family, owners of Harbor Hill Fruit Farm and Good Harbor Winery, makes it to the area after John Simpson, (Bruce Simpson’s father and Sam Simpson’s grandfather) sells out his part of a construction company in Indianapolis. In the early years, the focus was in fruit farming, mostly cherries and apple trees. When Bruce graduates Michigan State University with a degree in Agriculture, he returns back to Leelanau with the intention of working the Simpson Family cherry farm. According to Sam, John Simpson did not see that his son’s returning to run the cherry farm as a viable option. John tells his son Bruce, there is “no future in [cherry farming] for you.” John Simpson did not believe the farming of cherries would continue to support the family. Bruce tells his dad “he likes…wine.” As a result, Bruce heads out to University of California-Davis to audit classes in Oenology and Viticulture. About 1979, the first vines are planted for what will be Good Harbor Winery. While they began their journey with fruit orchards, in 2023 there are only about 140 acres left. According to Sam, his family’s business has “165 acres under vine” in 2023 while also running several successful local wineries, winning awards, and managing several hundred acres of orchard and vineyards. I asked Sam what he considered the highest success for the Simpson Family? He answered, “that the family business is currently in its third generation and still growing.”

Charlie Edson of Bel Lago Winery, has winemaking running through his veins. Growing up Charlie works his grandparents garden, later working at a nursery to support his desire to learn more about horticulture. A Masters graduate of Michigan State’s Horticulture Program, who continues on to study Viticulture under Dr. Stanley Howell, Professor Emeritus, Charlie becomes a Viticulture Professor in Missouri; He truly embodies the devoted student of Oenology, the study of wine and winemaking. While a student at MSU under Dr. Howell, Charlie first meets Bernie Rink and works in his vineyard staying in a cottage he kept next to Lake Leelanau for student interns. According to Charlie, Dr. Howell encouraged work outside of the classroom by arranging internships and an “all hands on while studying” approach—learn through doing. Charlie makes his way to the Leelanau Peninsula to live and work. He “knocked on door[s] to ask for work” and prunes vines for both Mawby and Boskydel, suffering the “worst sunburn.” For a time, Charlie worked in the cellars at Mawby (Larry) and Good Harbor (Bruce). Charlie explained, he “had a great academic education, but having these guys to talk to and learn from is totally invaluable.” He also works for Bernie in his tasting room to continue his learning of the wine business. His education, long days in the vineyards and cellars, paved the path for Charlie to create Bel Lago Winery with his wife Amy and father-in-law Domenic ‘Dom’ Lezzoni. Dom, an Italian immigrant who becomes a physician, adds his family’s knowledge of winemaking to Charlies life-long experiences learning viticulture, bringing the original brass key from the family’s Italian wine cellar.

Driving around Leelanau County in 2023, the trellised, lush, green leaves of the grapevines dot the hillsides beautifully. The current wine business in the peninsula is thriving as more wineries open and more grapes are planted. How will this trend continue? Sam Simpson offered, the “most successful path to moving more bottles is marketing the area as a destination and the quality across the board.” As wine competitions, awards, and tourism open this wine region to a wider audience, more people will gravitate to and appreciate the building blocks started by Bernie Rink, Robert Herbst, Larry Mawby, Bruce Simpson and Charlie Edson to name a few of the early wine pioneers of Leelanau County.