Experiencing Northern Michigan: Toast the Season on the Leelanau Peninsula Wine Trail
Now that it’s November, we’ve fallen back our clocks, and the colorful leaves (and even snow!) have already graced the ground, there’s no better activity in this region for grown-up locals and tourists alike than soaking in spectacular freshwater and vineyard views while cozying up by a fire with friends and loved ones over a glass of locally made wine. To start getting in the holiday spirit a little early this year, I thought I’d spend a lovely rainy Sunday afternoon doing something so quintessentially Northern Michigan that I can’t believe I’d never experienced it before: wine tasting through the beautiful Leelanau Peninsula.
To kick off the season, you can warm up with dazzling samplings of local wines and ciders from more than two dozen wineries along the Leelanau Peninsula Wine Trail for their Toast the Season event. I toured a total of six wineries along the trail’s Northern Loop, starting at Leelanau Wine Cellars overlooking West Grand Traverse Bay and planned a route to head southwest from there to visit as many places as possible. Tickets for the seasonal event included a featured wine and food pairing at twenty-three wineries plus a souvenir wine glass and holiday gift, which consisted of a wild cherry tea tin from Cherry Republic, a bag of kettle cooked potato chips from the Great Lakes Potato Chip Co., a poetry collection by Leland James called Northern Trails, and a Leelanau Peninsula Wine Trail mug.
Leelanau Wine Cellars is home to an impressive open selection of more than 30 labels of dry, sweet, fruity, and seasonal wines. What’s unique about Leelanau Cellars compared to other wineries on the peninsula is that they offer free wine tasting all year long. After weighing the menu options, I asked one of the friendly pourers, Loren, about Leelanau’s raspberry wine, and he recommended I try their cranberry instead, which is arguably the best of all their fruit wines. One sip in, and I was sold! The cranberry wine’s balance between sparkling sweet and tangy is heavenly, plus it’s so festive for Thanksgiving and winter holiday dinners to pair with turkey alongside cranberry sauce. Given their tagline, “a taste of Northern Michigan,” Leelanau Cellars shows there’s a “delight of life” that’s been present through their winemaking since 1977, and that delight is apparent in their pristine, airy tasting room.
Next we went to Silver Leaf Vineyard & Winery, where owner Mark Lienau was super friendly and knowledgeable about all their handcrafted, small batch wines. Mark’s parents, Dave and Jane, greeted guests and poured the first wine, a Pinot Grigio aged in a stainless steel barrel, so no trees were harmed in the making of it! It tasted clear, smooth, freshwater lake-like, and was paired with a few bites of a refreshing deli-style wrap.
I also tried Silver Leaf’s Chafia Cherry wine paired with a welcome chunk of milk chocolate. Featuring local artwork on display throughout the space, Silver Leaf offers spectacular views, outdoor seating overlooking the vineyards, and a warm atmosphere that makes you feel like you’re visiting a neighbor’s house for a glass of wine. The Lienau’s even have a little cottage on the property that can be rented out so you can wake up in the morning to views of the vines.
On our route next we arrived at one of my favorite stops in terms of overall design: French Valley Vineyards, featuring Leelanau’s only beach-front wine tasting room. For this Toast the Season event, French Valley paired a mini mug of butternut squash bisque and a ginger cookie with a pour of their 2011 Chardonnay. I thoroughly enjoyed the thoughtful combination—perfectly autumnal. French Valley also offered wines to taste in their outdoor tent, including a 2014 Rosé, 2011 Riesling, 2011 Merlot, and 2013 Jubilee, a “sultry blend of Cab Franc, Merlot, and cherries aged in oak for six months.” I tried the Jubilee while chatting with a friend of mine from high school who was pouring wine for the event. It was fun catching up with her, and it reminded me how close-knit the communities throughout Northern Michigan truly are—like family.
I love orchards, and the setting at Tandem Ciders is understatedly enchanting. I wish they offered tandem bike ride tours around the property! Inside the tiny tasting room it already felt like the holidays. A lot of love goes into the cidermaking process, and the red apple-colored walls inside make this gem such a heartwarming community space. In addition to their hard ciders, Tandem also served handcrafted ginger ale and sparkling apple soda, and they have a passionate philosophy when it comes to what they do.
For this year’s Toast the Season event, Tandem paired the best cider I’ve ever had—their Cinnamon Cider—with a delicious, gluten-free buckwheat crepe filled with applesauce and Raclette cheese from Leelanau Cheese Company. This crepe and cider together: absolutely scrumptious! Tandem Ciders also offered additional complimentary pours of their semi-dry cider called The Green Man and their Cyser made from honey and apples called Bee’s Dream. All three pours were phenomenal, though my favorite was the Cinnamon Cider, so I ordered a sixty-four ounce growler to go back home with me to Cadillac.
I still had cider on my mind upon arriving to the next stop, 45 North Vineyard & Winery, so I decided to try their dry hard cider, Fresh Coast, first. It was positively fresh, crisp, and ideal for fall. The food offering at 45 North was a BBQ chicken wing from Dick’s Pour House with ranch paired with a delightful Red Barn Red. I also sipped the 45 Red, unique to the winery from 2016, which I liked a lot, and I had to try their 2015 Cabernet Franc / Merlot (since it sounded incredible and normally goes for $45 a bottle).
All three pours were fantastic, and the scenery inside and out was so eclectic—a funky mix of rustic-industrial and whimsical-western. One interesting feature of 45 North is that they host a bimonthly wine club, where two to four bottles of wine plus wine club extras can be shipped directly to you every other week. It’s free to sign up (you pay for the wines and shipping), and you can join the club online. With the phrase “attitude for gratitude” inscribed on their fireplace mantel, 45 North is located in a breathtaking setting.
For our last stop of the seasonal tour on the Leelanau Peninsula’s Northern Loop, we pulled up to Blustone Vineyards, the most contemporary styled winery along the trail. I tried their dessert wine Connexion, which was delicious, their 2015 Winemaker’s Red, and their Apple Ginger “incognito hard cider,” and they offered event-goers one awesome meatball for the top-notch food pairing. Situated on forty gorgeous acres of vineyards and orchards, Blustone offers panoramic views throughout their bright, open tasting room, with walls of windows and a super-hip see-through fireplace. I love the vibes at Blustone, where the sweeping landscape is its own timeless masterpiece. So much beauty, so little time.
What I love about the Leelanau Peninsula is that it’s drop-dead gorgeous, and still there’s a humility to it that feels genuine. An understood gratitude comes with being present among such goodness—it’s no wonder Leelanau means “Land of Delight.” Given the area’s natural beauty, you’d think Leelanau couldn’t get any more remarkable, yet the vineyards, wineries, orchards, and cider houses that have boomed on this peninsula are proof that business, lifestyle, and nature in Northern Michigan can thrive together.
The Leelanau Peninsula’s Toast the Season event continues next weekend, November 11-12. Tickets ($50 for singles, $75 for couples, $25 for designated drivers with a food-only ticket) just recently sold out, but you can still map out your own DIY path if you wish to explore the wineries winding around the Northern Loop, Sleeping Bear Loop, and/or Grand Traverse Bay Loop of the Leelanau Peninsula next weekend to “toast the season” for yourself.
If you need a winery guide on the road, you can download the LP Wines App and use the interactive trail map to route your adventure. Touring some of the most picturesque destinations in Leelanau County thanks to this quintessential Northern Michigan experience was more magical and in-the-moment than I could have ever imagined. If you’re a fan of fantastic food, crisp hard ciders, and sublime local wines, you’ll love going wine tasting along the Leelanau Peninsula Wine Trail in the heart of Northern Michigan.