Old Mission Winery Founder Passes On, But Leaves a Lasting Legacy

Chateau Grand Traverse Founder Ed O'Keefe was 89

A founding father of the northern Michigan wine industry is gone. Ed O’Keefe, of Chateau Grand Traverse, died on Friday at age 89.

His son, Eddie O’Keefe, says he’s blown away, but not entirely surprised by the response from the community. “The response from people was overwhelming. Just the amount of people he touched, helped, motivated, and just inspired. It’s really just been a wonderful experience to know that he reached that many people.”

The outpouring of support has been overwhelming, and many are pouring a glass in Ed’s memory for what he accomplished on Old Mission Peninsula. “Before my father came here it was thought all but impossible that those grapes could even survive up here… he proved them wrong. And 46 years later it was an overnight success.”

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Courtesy: Eddie O’Keefe/Chateau Grand Traverse

Others were had already started trying to grow grapes in the region. But with Chateau Grand Traverse, O’Keefe was the first to start a winery here back in 1974. “It takes a lot of guts and a lot of effort to go into the wine business up here. And he was the first… my dad came in and started the first commercial vineyard and that’s a big feat in its own right. But to come in and plant the European varietals of grapes. People have heard of Riesling and Chardonnay and Merlot and grapes like that. Those are the European varietals.”

Friends and Rivals

Friend and rival Robert Begin founded Chateau Chantal, and laughs when he remembers seeing O’Keefe get started on Old Mission. “He was, at the time, moving more dirt than anyone I had seen before in my life. He picked out this piece of land. It was so beautiful. Started carving it up and putting grapes in there. (He was) creating the beginning of the wine industry in northern Michigan, without any question.”

Even though Begin managed to pry away O’Keefe’s winemaker at one point, the two owners had an ongoing relationship. It was generally a friendly competition. But it was one where everyone knew that Ed was here first.  Begin says, “He’s certainly an innovative an entrepreneur more than anyone I’ve ever met. The wine industry here is a mark that Ed has laid… that will survive and continue what we like to call ‘agri-tourismo,’ agricultural tourism.”

Chateau Grand TraverseEddie O’Keefe describes his father in the ways that people came to know him. “He could be an aggressive, gruff sort of fellow to some. Yet on the backside he was a very gentle, giving, person that really wanted the best in people.” He says his dad often acted as a father-figure to people who didn’t have that role model in their own family.

Ed was always driven to do more, and to do better. “My sister has said, my father always had a philosophy of ‘Start at the top and work your way up.’ He just had a way about him that if he was told he couldn’t do it or that it were impossible, he would find a way to do it.”

And he left his mark on the region – and the industry – that is now recognized all over the world. “It’s not one winery that makes a wine region, but the culmination of all the wineries that draw attention to the region. So it took my dad to be the catalyst to start it, but what the others have done and gone forward is pretty remarkable. To be here and have him have created a second generation that’s now running it is his legacy and he couldn’t be happier.”

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Courtesy: Eddie O’Keefe

A Life Before Wine

While Ed O’Keefe’s legacy might be right here at Chateau Grand Traverse, he also had a previous life, a life before-wine. It’s full of remarkable stories that most people knew nothing about.  “He has done so much, from being a runner-up for the US Olympic team in gymnastics. An undercover narcotics agent. An Army Green Beret and Paratrooper. And hand-(to-hand) combat guy. A guy that really has just done it all.”

Chateau Dry RieslingRobert Begin had heard the stories too, especially about fighting gangsters and the mafia in New York City when Ed was undercover. “His high risk life was the kind of person he was. Anything he wanted to do or believed in, he would attempt to do it.”

Ed O’Keefe leaves behind his vineyards… the winery… his favorite “Dry Riesling”… plus five children and six grandchildren.