Mawby Vineyards taps next generation of innovation

By Madeleine Hill Vedel

Sun contributor

The clinking of bottles fills the air as I sit down with Larry Mawby, founder of Mawby Vineyards in Suttons Bay, and Mike Laing, who, with his brother Pete, has taken the reins from Larry and is now running Mawby Vineyards as well as their still wine company Big Little Wines. As we settle around the table in the upper floor office area of the sparkling wine-focused structure, hundreds of bottles below us lie tilted on their sides, awaiting a quarter turn in their riddling process.

I had come to learn about the past and future of Mawby Vineyards, one of our region’s oldest and best loved wineries. It was in 1973, just a year out of college, that Larry planted his first vineyards, with a first wine harvest in 1978. A child of the local fruit industry, Larry supported himself and his dreams in those early years by running his family fruit farm alongside his father. In a prescient move, Larry early on chose to focus on bubbly wines which can be made in good years, and less good years, when cold, dark days might limit fruit ripening.

The winery has grown considerably over the years. Ten years in, Larry realized that he had sales potential beyond what his vineyards could supply. Along with his fellow Leelanau County winery pioneer Bruce Simpson of Good Harbor Vineyards, Larry began working with Leelanau County residents to plant vineyards and sell him their grapes. In any given year he purchases from four to six different local vineyards, often consulting in their management. He then reached out to downstate Michigan vineyards to supply fruit and juice for his rising production. And, in 2003, a year when Michigan vineyards took a terrible hit, he reached out to vineyards on the West Coast. Aware this would not be a one-time affair, he established partnerships in which he could direct which grapes and style of fermentation he required. To this day, Mawby Vineyards produces both estate-grown wines and wines made with juice brought in from Michigan and West Coast partners.

“Wine making is really three distinct businesses,” says Larry. “There’s growing grapes, making the wine, and selling the wine. Our business structure takes this into account. Early on I sought to hire and work with individuals who were strong in each area.”

Forty-seven years later, Larry is shifting to an advisory role, with a special emphasis on his strengths in marketing (how many of us are still in awe at his audacity and brilliance in calling his rosé bubbly SEX?) and the winery’s history. Though still part of the business, he will no longer be its public face.

This move has been years in the making. Around 11 years ago Larry saw that Mawby Vineyards along with its two brands, L. Mawby and Lawrence, were getting too big for him to manage on his own. He reached out to Stu Laing, a local grape grower and a former consultant for Arthur Anderson. Seeking advice for how to obtain outside financing and an eventual partner at Mawby, Larry instead found his future colleague. “After a few months of working out what made sense, I sold half the business to Stu,” says Larry.

At that point, Stu’s son Mike—who started working at the winery in June 2007—had been at the winery nearly two years having left his career as a high school math teacher in Chicago (and Abu Dhabi in the Middle East, but that’s another story). “I wanted to try something else, and I’ve never taught since,” said Mike. “I am an ideas’ guy, the creative thinker. I enjoy working with the staff. I enjoy talking on the radio and TV, telling our story. I like this time of year when we’re blending, and thinking about new products, which wines are suited for which markets.”

Mike’s brother Pete joined the team in 2009. An industrial engineer by training, he worked for UPS and Capitol One before switching to the wine world. “He’s a data analyst, a computer guy. The financial numbers guy. He figures out how to get things done.” Mike told me. “We’re complimentary, but yeah, competitive as well.” Pete also represents the business outside of the business. He participates in the Citizens’ Climate Lobby group, going to the meetings of the socially responsible projects in which Mawby Vineyards and Big Little Wines participate.

As Larry explains, the running of Mawby Vineyards has been a joint effort for a number of years now. Mike has been functionally the head wine maker for the past four to five years, a member of the winemaking team for more than a dozen. Combined, Pete and Mike have more than 20 years of experience at Mawby. “It seemed easy for me and Stu to step back and let Pete and Mike run the business,” Larry says.

And so, Larry continues, “In the beginning of this year, I sold half of my half to the business and Stu. I am now a minority owner. But in fact everyone is a minority owner. No individual owns a majority share. Pete, Mike, their mom and dad and I are part-owners. My [current] role is to be there for the weekly owners’ meetings where Mike and Pete let us know what is going on, and ask for advice as they wish.”

“He helps with marketing strategy once a month as well,” adds Mike.

There are 13 full-time staff at Mawby. Some have been there more than a decade, others, such as vineyard manager Megan Budd, were recently recruited by Mike and Pete. “It’s a relatively flat—or collegial—team. Not hierarchical.” Each team member has his or her special area of expertise. Mike works with Claire Lepine (marketing) and Holly Smith (tasting room manager) and Tony Jacobson (production winemaker), Bill Wieske (assistant winemaker) while Budd (vineyard manager who we featured in our Oct. 15 edition), Virginia Powell (office manager) and Joe Simoni (warehouse manager) report to Pete. Tasting room and winery assistants fill out the roster, with additional seasonal help in both the vineyards and the tasting room.

It is an exciting and challenging time for Mawby Vineyards. There are new markets to expand into beyond the state of Michigan and the urban center of Chicago. “The wine distribution world is evolving. New customers and new generations are coming along,” Larry says.

Mike shares his thoughts on his customer base, both actual and potential: there is the customer who visits the winery in person and takes away a great experience and a love of the wine; the Leelanau County visitor who has a positive association with the region; the client who has heard of this up and coming wine region and decides to try a bottle; and, lastly, the person who has heard of neither Upper Lower Michigan’s wine reputation, nor Leelanau County, nor Mawby Vineyards, but might be tempted to try a domestic bottle of bubbly. How do you get that person walking down the aisle at Kroger’s or Wholefoods to purchase a bottle of Mawby?

As Larry points out, the marketing strategies Mawby has chosen to date were aimed at people of his generation, but what about the young people coming into their own today? Are they clients who will be lured in through wine tasting dinners with great chefs? Or will they discover the wines during a bridesmaids’ bus tour, or in a cocktail at a favorite bar downstate? It’s time to hand off the challenges of managing and expanding the winery to the younger generation (Mike is 40 and Pete 38).

“We will continue to focus on the experience.” Mike says, “It is really critical to us—as it has been for Larry—to make sure that the customer experience stands out. We always try to innovate, and to hire good people and keep it fun, and the products good. It’s wine. It’s pleasure. And the sparkling story is still an important one for us. Larry made that decision and stuck to it. To focus on sparkling wine has done a lot for the business. And sparkling wine still has tremendous growth potential.” 

“This brand has been built on relationships and conversations and hard work. It’s not going to be any different. It takes all of that and more these days.” And with that affirmation underlying their daily tasks, Mike and Larry head their separate ways.