Blustone Vineyards is still putting the finishing touches on its Leelanau Peninsula tasting room, but it already has an impressive lineup of wines — and some serious medals to go with them! Here, Tom Knighton, the owner and general manager, and his son, Matt, the marketing manager, talk about what their fledgling winery already has accomplished, and what lies ahead.
Tell us about your winery's origins.
Tom: "Our family has always enjoyed good wine and has traveled to some of the great wine destinations of the world. We've also had a home in Leland for the past 12 years. Over the years, we've watched the wine industry in northern Michigan grow, and began to inquire of some of the prominent vintners in the region about what it takes to be successful in the wine business. They were both encouraging and realistic. We also learned that some of the success factors linked up with our skills. We looked for property for over three years and finally found a picturesque vineyard for sale on Sylt Road in Lake Leelanau. That's how it all started."
What's the story behind the name of your winery?
Matt: "We've always loved how wine connects you to the environment, and we wanted to choose a name that is linked to the Leelanau Peninsula, the lifestyle here, and that had a story Leland Bluestone is a rock that represents all three things and as such we knew instantly it would be our identity. We've walked the beaches along Lake Michigan for many years and found these bright blue pieces of rock that are only found in this part of the world. s the tagline on the back of our bottles states: 'Discovering a piece of Leland Bluestone on the shore of Lake Michigan is finding a rare treasure of nature. Blustone wine is inspired by these unanticipated moments of life.'"
What should people know about your winery and your tasting room?
Tom: "Our Sylt Road vineyard was first planted seven years ago, even before we purchased the property in 2010. It's made up of 40 acres in the middle of the peninsula, right off of M-204, that has about 10 acres of grapes planted right now, with three acres in cover crop ready to be planted next year. The hill is perfect for the vineyard ,with good drainage and a slope that really absorbs all of the Leelanau sun evenly. Because the vineyard is situated over limestone, the soil has a unique minerality that you can taste in several of our wines. This gives our wines a special character. Currently, we've planted Pinot Grigio, Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Noir, with plans for Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc soon.
Our vineyard is managed by Doug Matthies and his team. Our winemaking is done at French Road Cellars under the watchful eye of Shawn Walters. As far as wine aging, we use both stainless steel and oak barrels. We're especially keen (to) allow the wine to take its own path rather than forcing in one direction or the other. In some years, a particular grape will tell us to go a certain direction with it and we listen to that. When aging in wood, we purchase the highest quality cooperage with different combos of wood (French Oak, Appalachian Oak, Acacia wood) to compliment the wine.
Our tasting room is currently under construction, and we're really excited to see it come together! The grand opening will be in early August. The design is modern and light-filled, with elements that complement the Leelanau landscape at the vineyard. You'll immediately notice the amount of windows and the lines of the building when you arrive. The tasting room will be aimed at emerging our customers in the surrounding vineyard, and is being built at the crest of the hill, overlooking vineyards, orchards and the beautiful Leelanau landscape."
Let's talk wine: Tell us about your current offerings.
Matt: We're offering 10 wines for our debut year. Honestly, we don't ever see ourselves producing many more than this because we think that wineries produce better product when you can focus on just a few well-done, well thought out varietals each year. For 2012, we have:
2011 Pinot Grigio
2011 Late Harvest Riesling
2011 Pinot Noir Rose
2010 Pinot Noir
2010 Winemaker's Red (blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Syrah)
2011 Ad-Lib (Casual Red Wine)
2010 Connexion (Cherry Port)
All but one of the wines are Leelanau AVA, the other being Michigan AVA. We always source local if we can! As you can see, the majority are 2011, but each year we'll do our reds and our Chardonnay in two-year cycles to get the best flavor possible. Price will range between $14-$24; we really want to make all our wines easily accessible at reasonable prices. The majority of the wines are done in stainless steel with a few being aged in oak. Our Pinot Noir, Winemaker's Red and Connexion are all done in various types of oak. Specifically the Winemaker's Red uses barrels with alternating French and American Oak staves to give it a softer feel that still has great body. The Connexion is made in heavily toasted oak barrels where it ages for two years! This really makes it a beefy dessert wine that holds up to chocolates and cigars really well!
Our winemaker is Shawn Walters. A local resident of Leelanau all his life, Shawn crafts wines for a few different wineries in the region and is amazing at what he does. He really believes that it's his role to guide each wine into what it is, not manipulating it into something its not and it really shows in the wines he creates! We're always in love with what he's able to make possible. Our winemaking process starts with a principle: Let the wine express itself. It takes a lot of time and patience to make a stand-out bottle of wine, and while it's tempting to make wines that answer to deadlines and constraints, we're constantly refocusing to make it all about a product that reflects the labor of the vines and the joy of tasting a piece of Leelanau."
Tell us about the wines you hope to produce in the future.
Matt: "We're going to let our current lineup ride for awhile, as we see how customers respond. We're pretty proud of what we already have and want to be careful not to put too much out there. Don't be surprised if you see a Sparkling Wine or hard cider in our line up sometime soon though ..."
What is your current and planned case production, and where can consumers purchase your products?
Matt: "Right now we've produced just under 3,000 cases, and that's something else that won't flex too much in the immediate future. Our focus is always on making the highest quality wines possible, which is harder to do with larger quantities. We'd rather be thankful for a standout wine one year that we sell out of, rather than having surplus of a cheaper wines. A lot of wineries have their sights set on being bigger, which is fine. We're excited about being a moderate-size operation that is known for producing big wines.
Wines will be available in our tasting room and online at our website, when it's up and running. We're also really selective in our retail presence. You can find us in the Traverse City area right now with our Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio at Red Ginger downtown! We're also at the Leland Mercantile, Hansen's Foods in Sutton's Bay, Andersen's IGA in Glen Arbor and at Burritt's Market and The Blue Goat in Traverse City. We might be in a couple other fine restaurants in the area, so keep your eyes peeled for us!
When people visit your winery and try your wines, what kind of vibe do you hope they get? What do you hope to communicate through your wines?
Matt: We hope that when people taste a wine from Blustone, they feel several things right off the bat. First is a quality wine that really makes them step back and recognize the type of fruit Michigan is producing and the extraordinary talent of our winemaker. Second, we'd love for them to get a vibe that is both classy and casual. Our wines are meant to be enjoyed both watching a sunset and seated around a nice dining table with friends. One of the things that we've consciously built our brand around is that our customers feel comfortable with our wines and want to share them with friends."
Tell us about the process of creating a winery and the steps you went through to make it a reality.
Matt: "Our family has been visiting the Leelanau Peninsula for the last 25 years and we've had a home in Leland for the past 12. We've always enjoyed wine and it's something we've had fun making a part of our culinary routine for a long time. The dream to have a winery was born out of our connection with Leelanau, specifically over the past decade. Our neighbor in Leland was very involved with the Leelanau wine scene just as it started gaining legs. He and we've always been connected with it. Thus the idea of owning a vineyard wasn't too far off from reality for us.
The steps have been many but it's worth it! You wouldn't believe all of the different levels of certification you need to go through in order to make and sell wine. In addition to that, we've spent the past three years studying the land and learning the art of caring for vines and making wine. There were several classes in Napa that we took to get a jump on our skills and of course lots of consultation with local winery owners and winemakers. We're really thankful for their support!"
Tom: "The entire process has been both challenging and invigorating. You have to be simultaneously patient and persistent. As one of our mentors told us long ago, things in the wine business don't happen quickly and you need to be ready for surprises."
Tell us about the people behind your winery.
Tom Knighton, General Manager
Tom and Joan Knighton are the proprietors of Blustone Vineyards and have been residents of the Leelanau Peninsula for the past 12 years. Tom has 30 years of experience in business management and branding and is very much looking forward to having a vineyard dog.
Joan Knighton, Tasting Room Manager
Joan handles the retail and customer service at our tasting room at the Sylt Road property. Born and raised in the farmlands of Iowa, Joan is starting to warm up to the idea of having a vineyard dog.
Shawn Walters, Winemaker
Along with his role at Blustone Vineyards, Shawn crafts wines for several wineries in the Leelanau region. A native of Leland, Michigan, Shawn's experience stems from 16 crushes that have yielded awards everywhere from Michigan to the West Coast.
Doug Matthies, Vineyard Manager
If the vineyard looks immaculate and the fruit is happy, it's thanks to Doug Matthies. Doug has been tending local vineyards for the past 10 years, including the Sylt Road property since it was first planted seven years ago.
Tell us about the people and places, Michigan or elsewhere, who inspired you or helped you along the way.
Tom: "When we were first contemplating owning a vineyard, we spoke with Dan Matthies from Chateau Fontaine, as well as Larry Mawby. Both were encouraging and realistic about what it took to be successful in this business. We've chosen to follow their advice, and so far, our experience has been consistent with their counsel."
What makes your winery unique?
Matt: "There are two things that I think people will see are unique about Blustone. First, Blustone is a winery designed around an experience. Even our tasting room/vineyard has been designed to make your visit to Blustone something that is as memorable as the wine you'll taste. The two go hand in hand. Second, is how our practices and philosophies create the connection between the environment of Leelanau and the wine produced there. It's in that imagery of our name, the connection between finding beach stones and discovering the unanticipated. I think people will recognize that about us right away."
What do you want people to know about Michigan wine in general?
Matt: "Northwest Michigan is one of the fastest growing and most exciting wine regions in the country, if not the world. Specifically, the wineries of the Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas really have a fantastic location geographically that we're just starting to learn how to utilize. Being located on the same latitude (as) Bordeaux, France, means we have excellent sun exposure. The fact that we're surrounded by Lake Michigan helps to moderate our weather.
I think the vibe from all the wineries up here is that we're really excited about how fast the industry is growing and we're all in it together. If one succeeds, we all succeed. It's that camaraderie and passion that's driving some awesome wine production. We're already gaining a lot of notice at international competitions, and I think that as word spreads, we're going to keep growing.
The other weekend I was up at the vineyard and speaking with several people while making retail deliveries, and it was fun to hear such positive things about the wine industry up here. I think that's part of what makes this endeavor special. We're helping the local businesses and the whole state of Michigan with each new winery that opens, and we're honored to be a part of that. It's a community we love!"
How can people get in touch with you?
800 N. Sylt Road
Lake Leelanau, MI 49653
Phone: (231) 256.0146
Photos courtesy of Blustone Vineyards