The Traverse City area hugs the so-called pinky of Michigan’s “mitt”, the Lower Peninsula.
This charming cherry capital should be equally celebrated for its burgeoning wine scene, complete with two American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). Together, the Leelanau Peninsula AVA and the Old Mission Peninsula AVA form America’s next great wine region, the Traverse Wine Coast.
Leelanau Peninsula AVA
Likely the best known of Michigan’s wine regions is the Leelanau Peninsula AVA. Named for the beautiful peninsula that juts in a northwesterly direction from Traverse City, this area produces some excellent wines. Even though it’s “up north”, Lake Michigan and Grand Traverse Bay help provide a more temperate wine climate, which means even old world vines can succeed here. And it’s clear that something magical is happening in the Leelanau Peninsula AVA, because in 2018, the Black Star Farms riesling was named the best in the world, beating out traditional European riesling powerhouses like Austria, Alsace, and Germany. This author also loved their pinot blanc, late harvest riesling (as a dessert wine option), and sauvignon blanc. Oenophiles should be sure to visit the grand Kentucky-style property near Suttons Bay, complete with seasonal restaurant, super pleasant and knowledgeable owner, horse stables, inn, hiking trails through the vineyards, an on-site distillery, and so much more. The tasting room is an excellent way to get to know the Black Star Farms wine portfolio, but feel free to order online now as they are offering free shipping when you buy six bottles.
There are numerous other noteworthy properties on the Leelanau Peninsula, like French Valley Vineyard, Baia Estate, and Verterra Winery. These and more can be easily accessed using the Leelanau Wine Trail system, which is conveniently organized into three loops. Just be sure to look up COVID era procedures and plan accordingly for maximum safety.
Old Mission Peninsula AVA
The smaller of the two “fingers” that climb out of Traverse City, the Old Mission AVA boasts 10 wineries. In this author’s opinion, Chateau Chantal is the most charming of them all. The property’s high elevation means both sides of the Bay can be viewed, which is stunning for sunrise and sunset.
Plus, Chateau Chantal has likely the most romantic of all winery origin stories: a Catholic priest and nun fell in love, left their respective religious orders, and planted a vineyard with sweeping water views; their lovely daughter Marie now runs the place and is a certified sommelier. If you need an overnight spot, consider the on-site bed & breakfast, as guests get a complimentary bottle of vino and delicious meal to start the day. Try the pinot noir, canned bubbly wines, pinot gris, and ice wine on their expansive outdoor patio.
Brys Estate has an awesome deck with views of the Bay and vineyards, and other area favorites include Mari Vineyards with its insta-worthy lawn and Bowers Harbor, with a delightful owner and tons of beautiful spots to sample wine right in the vineyards; I loved their pinot grigio!
Pro tip: For travelers who are crunched for time, stop into Left Foot Charley in actual Traverse City to sample the plethora of wine and cider offerings from Northern Michigan.
Though the wine was a highlight of my autumnal trip to Michigan, there is so much more offered in the greater Traverse City area. Culinary delights like their famous pie and Lake Michigan whitefish with a sunset view at the Boathouse Restaurant make this area a perfect foodie destination too.
Outdoor enthusiasts can also celebrate, because Michigan is especially renowned for its natural beauty. I loved hiking the Empire Bluff Trail at nearby Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Another favorite hike, which I especially recommend at sunrise, is at the Old Mission Point Park trail system. The Mission Point Lighthouse, which you can play lightkeeper at for just $200 a week, makes for the perfect scenic backdrop for a hike in this area, complete with soft sandy shores and bay views for days. (Michigan’s wide open spaces allow for natural social distancing as well.)
For those who prefer to experience a cute lake town, head up north to Leland, which has one of the best preserved fishing villages/shanties on Lake Michigan, known as Fishtown. Tons of cute shops now occupy this historic area, so consider biking or walking around town for a dose of old world charm meets innovative new businesses. And don’t forget to stop at the famed Village Cheese Shanty, which is just as great as it sounds.
Overall, the Traverse City region deserves a spot on your eventual travel bucket list. With a bevy of natural beauty, a world class wine region, and lake town charm, this northern Michigan outpost is truly something special.