Why Northern Michigan's Wine Country Is a Winter Wonderland
Looking up from my desk, I glance out the window toward the neighboring vineyard and let out a gasp: "It's snowing!" Here in Leelanau County, Michigan, about four hours northwest of Detroit, I always greet winter with enthusiasm—eager to lace up my boots, build that first snowman and wrap my chilled fingers around mugs of mulled wine. And yet every year, as Old Man Winter refuses to retreat to spring, I loathe the white stuff. But last December, I looked out at those snow-dusted vines and vowed to make our cold-weather months so much fun that I wouldn't want them to end.
That year, we downhill skied at Boyne Mountain near Petoskey. We snow tubed at Timberlee Hills in Traverse City. We dipped fishing line into holes we'd drilled in the frozen lakes. We chopped more wood and laid more fires than my husband cares to count. But it was living among the vines that made the season unique. The world over, I can't think of many wine regions where it's commonplace to strap on your snowshoes for a lunchtime hike through the grapes, or pick your kids up from an after-school ski club that meets at a winery.
Together, the peninsulas of Leelanau County and Old Mission make up the Midwest's most respected wine region, promoted collectively as the Traverse Wine Coast. Surrounded by Lake Michigan—and with lively Traverse City as a hub—this is a wildly popular destination during swimsuit season. But those of us who live here know that winter is arguably better. The moment those grapes come off the vines and go into the tanks, hundreds of acres of vineyards scattered across the peninsulas open up for snowshoeing or Nordic skiing. In other words, during snowy months, visitors can really earn that tasting room flight.
"I like taking the red trail to the green trail because it takes you alongside rolling cherry orchards," says Kimberly Zacharias of Black Star Farms in Suttons Bay. "Then you head through a mature forest and end up at the top of the vineyard, the apex of the trip, getting peekaboo views of the Bay"—which, on a clear day, gleams Caribbean-turquoise even at 20 degrees. Black Star began offering snowshoe rentals in 2016. Today, many of the area's 40-plus wineries have winter trails, outdoor firepits with s'mores kits and certainly those mugs of mulled wine.
The rest of the region shines in the cold too. Sitting at the foots of the peninsulas, Traverse City boasts a refurbished boutique hotel with heated indoor and outdoor pools. Chefs at area restaurants can be more playful and inventive than during the frenetic peak season. And not far away, a massive sand dune becomes the largest (and fastest) sledding hill around.
On a recent trek at Black Star, I huffed and puffed my way up a trail that Zacharias had turned me on to, carefully planting the metal treads of my snowshoes with each step. I crested the hill, and there she was: Mama Lake, as some of us who live here call Lake Michigan. From the top of that snow-covered vineyard she radiated a shade of blue so vibrant that it looked fake—every bit as stunning in winter as we know her in summer. Maybe better. My snowshoes and I had worked for it.
Where to Eat
In Traverse City in winter, the crowds are away, but the chefs still play. Forrest, A Food Studio—a popular natural wine shop—hosts multicourse dinners on Friday and Saturday nights. To sample dishes such as slow-roasted beef with Detroit's beloved Zip Sauce, nab seats in advance; they sell out quickly. Those in the know eat at Modern Bird, which opened in July. The couple who runs the sleek cafe previously worked at Michelin-starred kitchens in Chicago. They'll be plating things like chicory salad with warm caper vinaigrette this season. Consider yourself lucky if you'll be in town for one of the five-course dinners at The Cooks' House. Any meal under chef Jennifer Blakeslee's care is unforgettable, but the dinners she organizes with local winemakers, brewers and distillers are alone worth the trip. For a special occasion, book the Shepherd's Tent at Farm Club. This nationally celebrated farm-market-brewery-restaurant serves a tasting menu in a canvas tent heated by a wood stove.
What to Do
Shady Lane Cellars At Shady Lane south of Suttons Bay, 3 miles of vineyard trails connect with the longer Leelanau Trail. Venture as far as you wish on this out-and-back system before ordering a glass of sustainably farmed Blaufränkisch, an Austrian red.
45 North Vineyard and Winery Near Lake Leelanau, go for a twofer special at 45 North, home to 3 miles of groomed trails plus a backcountry connector to neighboring Blustone Vineyards. Back at the winery, duck into an igloo and try the acidic, peach-flecked Dry Riesling.
French Valley Vineyard Every Thursday, this recently remodeled winery near Cedar brings in tamales from local favorite Spanglish. Get there before sunset for a 2.5-mile glide through the vines and order the floral Chardonnay Unoaked with your chicken tamale.
Several wineries in Leelanau County machine-groom Nordic trails for skate and classic skiing. Rent Nordic skis from Suttons Bay Bikes and get out there.
Dune Climbs and More
We would never assume that you only wish to drink wine on vacation. Those wanting drier days (figuratively, anyway) should brave the Dune Climb at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, 28 miles west of Traverse City. If you think the steep cliff of sand is impressive in the summer, wait until you careen down it in a snow saucer. Those who can't travel with sleds can hit Timberlee Hills, an old ski hill where snow tubes await. Satisfied your need for speed? Head to Timber Ridge Resort to rent fat-tire bikes; pedal past the snow-kissed pines that flank an extensive trail system. Visitors who prefer to stick closer to town can rent bikes from Brick Wheels in Traverse City and hop on a TART Trail.
Related: Top Things to Do in Traverse City
Where to Stay
Situated at the base of West Bay with views of both the Old Mission and Leelanau County wine regions, the Delamar in Traverse City is a great jumping-off point for a winter weekend. The 173-room hotel recently changed hands and underwent a renovation. Refreshed touches include throw pillows from a local fabric artist and headboards made from a willow tree on the property. Guests can refuel at the on-site Artisan Restaurant and soak tired ski legs in all-season indoor and outdoor pools.