By MIKE NORTON
Over the past couple of days, spring seems to have made its definitive arrival here in Traverse City, so it’s weird to think that just this past Saturday we awoke to find a substantial amount of snow on the ground.
But that didn’t deter me or the dozens of food, wine and travel writers who had signed up to spend the day visiting the 25 wineries of the Leelanau Peninsula. After all, wine-tasting is something you can do in almost any kind of weather – and we were rewarded for our tenacity by mid-morning, when the sun made its first tentative appearance and began burning away that snow.
Each spring for the past five years, the member wineries of the Leelanau Peninsula Vintners’ Association have conducted this annual weekend get-together to introduce members of the travel media to the new wineries and new vintages of northern Michigan’s oldest and most densely populated viticultural region.
Fortunately for the participants, nobody was expected to visit all 25 Leelanau wineries. In fact, the LPVA has created a nifty new system to make wine-touring in their region easier, less confusing and more adventurous.
Unlike our other wine-growing area — the relatively narrow Old Mission Peninsula, whose geography makes its seven wineries pretty easy to find and visit – the Leelanau Peninsula is big enough to include several good-sized villages and a labyrinth of country roads that sometimes even confuse the locals.
Couple that with the fact that this steep triangle of land contains one-fourth of all the wineries in Michigan, with more being added every year, and you can see what might happen. Nobody with any sense would try to tour 10 wineries in a day, and visiting 25 wineries is downright impossible. So vineyards close to Traverse City, where most visitors stay, tend to get lots and lots of business, while those located farther away, in the Peninsula’s northern and western marches, get fewer visitors even when their wines are superb.
I have to admit that I’ve done this myself, and I should know better.
This year the Vintner’s Association decided to do something about this growing problem. They divided their lengthy Leelanau Peninsula Wine Trail into three separate “touring loops.”
The Grand Traverse Bay Loop stretches along the peninsula’s eastern edge between Traverse City and Suttons Bay, and features nine wineries and the Leelanau Bike Trail. The Sleeping Bear Loop includes six wineries in the western half of the peninsula between Glen Arbor and Lake Leelanau, plus the added beauty of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. The Northern Loop covers 10 wineries in and around the villages of Lake Leelanau, Leland, Northport and Omena, and includes destinations like the Grand Traverse Lighthouse and Leland’s historic Fishtown.
“The growth in wineries in Leelanau Peninsula has been amazing, and these loops should make it easier for visitors to plan trips through wine country,” said wine trail president Matt Gregory.
The system still seems a little lopsided –the Northern Loop’s 10 wineries and the Grand Traverse Bay Loop’s nine wineries are really more than a judicious wine-lover ought to try in a single day – but it’s a big improvement over the previous system. And the Sleeping Bear Loop (which I tried out on Saturday) was just about perfect. I got to see some old friends that I hadn’t seen in years (Bel Lago, Longview and Good Harbor) made another of my frequent visits to Cherry Republic, and was able to explore two wineries I hadn’t been to before (Chateau Fontaine and the brand-new Laurentide Winery).
Best of all, I think this loopy new system encourages visitors to take time to enjoy the special atmosphere and character of each area instead of scurrying around from one corner of the Peninsula to the next. Honestly, wine is one of those things you should enjoy in a leisurely manner.
Visitors can pick up a Leelanau Peninsula Wine Trail brochure with a handy map at any of the LPVA member wineries as well as a number of other store and businesses throughout the area. The brochure and maps are available online at http://www.lpwines.com. The trail has also released a free iPhone app for easy access to Leelanau wineries, lodging, restaurants and more.