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Sean O'Keefe
Chateau Grand Traverse winemaker Sean O’Keefe uses his hand to illustrate the northwest portion of Michigan, where reislings like his are produced. Submitted photo

You might say winemaker Sean O’Keefe holds the state of Michigan in his right hand. Each time someone asks where the heck you grow wine grapes in Michigan, O’Keefe raises his right hand to approximate the shape of the state. He then points with his left hand to the section (just left of the little finger) where Chateau Grand Traverse is located. 

“It’s probably the most frequent question I get,” O’Keefe said, “that and ‘you grow wine in Michigan?’ They kind of picture us growing vineyards out of the ruins of Detroit or something.”

Chateau Grand Traverse, as the name suggests, is located in Traverse City, a world apart from Detroit. And, before another popular question is asked, O’Keefe is quick to point out that, no, this is not a recent experiment in extreme winemaking. 

“We’ve been operating since 1974,” O’Keefe said. “In fact, we were the first winery and vineyard in the region and we have thrived. We currently produce 85,000 cases a year but almost all of our wine is sold in Michigan, Indiana or northern Ohio, so you almost never see our wines outside that region.”

Chateau Grand Traverse was one of the more popular attractions at the recent International Alsace Varietals Festival in Boonville, with wine enthusiasts lined up three deep to get a taste of Michigan wine. O’Keefe is used to this and doesn’t mind taking advantage of the “curiosity factor” to show off his winery’s wares.

“I kind of like being different,” he said. “We’re an interesting story for most people, but our wines speak for themselves.”

What kind of wine comes from the relatively frigid growing region that sits on the northwestern cusp of Lake Michigan?

“Riesling, riesling, riesling,” O’Keefe enthused. “That’s our main variety. To a lesser extent, we also do pinot blanc, pinot gris, gewürztraminer and a little bit of grüner veltliner. For reds … pinot noir, gamay noir, a little bit of cabernet franc and merlot. But riesling is really our passion … it’s what we do best.”

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Chateau Grand Traverse’s wines were distinctly different from most other rieslings and aromatic varieties being served at the Alsace Festival. 

“I know this festival is all about Alsatian-type wines, but our style is really a Germanic or, hopefully, Michigan style,” he said. “ We have a really high acidity … it’s a crisp acidity with lower alcohol. So we’re a lot more similar to German rieslings than some of those you have out here in California.”

“I don’t bring my red wines out here,” he continued. “I try to bring out the things that the California guys can’t grow.”

O’Keefe acknowledges the sometimes severe challenges he and other Michigan producers face.

“We’re on the edge or a really extreme climate,” he said, indicating where the Arctic Circle begins  above his Michigan-like hand gesture. “I mean we get weather in Michigan that would give growers here a heart attack, like 15- below-zero winters and deep snow where we’re digging down to get to our grapes to make ice wine. But that really dictates what we do. Our climate is really meant for riesling and I can go anywhere in the world and not have to explain why our wine tastes the way it does.”