A Visit to WaterFire Vineyards

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A panoramic photo from the WaterFire parking lot. Tasting room/winery on left, vineyards and apple trees center and right.

I first met Chantal Lefebvre at the 2015 Michigan Wine Showcase. Since it’s the only Michigan wine industry event I get invited to, I try to make the most of it when I’m there. I seek out new wineries or at least ones I haven’t heard of to try. WaterFire was located near the center of the room with the food, so I strolled on over. The table wasn’t crowded so I was able to strike up a conversation with Chantal who was there pouring herself. Chantal is an introvert but not shy, if that makes any sense. As soon as I started asking her questions about the vineyards her passion for sustainable viticulture and winemaking poured out.

Like Mari Vineyards, WaterFire is a relatively new winery but, aside from both having great winemakers making great wine, the two operations couldn’t be more different. There’s no big money behind WaterFire, just Chantal’s (and husband Mike Newman’s) dream and skill. The property was purchased in 2008, planted in 2009 and the first vintage was 2012. The tasting room opened memorial day weekend of 2017, just a few weeks before we visited! They looked for property on Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas but land was too expensive. They eventually found a cherry orachard in Antrim county that was promising and purchased it. It’s located between Torch Lake (WaterFire? get it?) and the East Arm of Grand Traverse Bay, opposite Old Mission Peninsula, north of Elk Rapids. Chantal has heard rumors of other properties being purchased for in the county but has no idea who or where they are.

Before starting her own winery, Chantal worked at many wineries across Michigan, including Left Foot Charley and Bower’s Harbor. WaterFire only has one other employee, also a woman. This makes it the only winery in Michigan with a 100% female workforce! She informed me that the dogs are male, however.

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The winery/tasting room building with dogs greeting us.

In the tasting room they currently offer five selections for tasting, including one wine they don’t make themselves, a Williamette Valley Pinot Noir (for any “I don’t like white wine” types that may straggle in). The estate wines are Rieslings from 2013 and 2014 respectively, a 2012 Grüner Veltliner and a Sauvignon Blanc from 2013. As you may have noticed, WaterFire only produces white wines. Why? White wine grapes do best at this site and in Northern Michigan in general. Why waste time with a fussy grape when you’re just starting out?

Waterfire also produces a hard cider, made from feral apple trees of on the estate and accross the road. The cider is very well balanced with some chewy tannins. It’s only available out of the tap at the tasting room, so bring a growler if you want to take some home.

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Chantal in the tasting room. Photo courtesy of WaterFire Vineyards.

As I alluded to earlier, Chantal’s passion is growing grapes and doing so in a sustainable way. WaterFire has two Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP) certifications, for cropping and farmstead practices. Chantal uses no herbicides and only one pesticide, a natural, fermented product to control beetles. She has considered getting an organic certification for WaterFire, but the pesticide does not qualify as an organic. Chantal thinks the organic certification process is a pain and could stand to be simplified.

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Two rows of Sauvignon Blanc in the front with Riesling behind. Yes, they’re weedy, but Chantal doesn’t care. “Plants have many kinds of relationships, why focus only on competition?”
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Baby Sauv Blanc.
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Chantal and her grapes (Sauv Blanc?). Photo courtesy of WaterFire Vineyards.
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The back block planted with Sauvignon Blanc. Feral apple trees in the midground. 

Chantal’s immediate plans are to put in another vineyard block in front of the tasting room, probably with a (not fussy) red variety, possibly “something Austrian”. Lemberger is grown in Michigan and would be the obvious choice, but Zweigelt is grown widely in Ontario and might also be a possibility. If she asked me, I would suggest Gamay. It’s not Austrian, of course, but it is a grape that does very well in Northern Michigan but is not grown nearly enough.

Something I would also like to see is an East Grand Traverse Bay AVA (or something like that) in that area, if more vineyards do go in. If WaterFire’s vineyards are typical of the terroir there, it’s deserving of AVA status.

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Future home of the next block of vines, possibly red wine grapes.

We didn’t take a look around the winery itself because we were short on time, but we had a lovely visit and conversation with Chantal. I love her wine and I love her committment to growing grapes in a sustainable way. We’re grateful that she was able to spend time talking to us for my little dog and pony show. The next time you’re in the area, stop into WaterFire and try some of the best white wines in Michigan. Then take home a few. Look for reviews of the wines we brought home over the next few weeks.

For more on the beginnings of WaterFire, check out this interview with Chantal and Mike from 2013 by Michigan By The Bottle.

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