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Q & A: Sean O'Keefe, Chateau Grand Traverse
By Tina Caputo
Aug 28, 2012
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As a Michigan native, I’ve kept an eye on the state’s wine scene for many years.  During that time, I’ve gone from being a skeptic, to being pleasantly surprised at the quality of certain wines, to becoming a True Believer in the ability of Northern Michigan vintners to produce fantastic wines. 

One producer that’s been doing this all along is Chateau Grand Traverse.  Located near Traverse City on the beautiful Old Mission Peninsula, Chateau Grand Traverse is the oldest and largest winery and vineyard operation in Northern Michigan.

When Ed O’Keefe founded the winery in 1974, only a few acres of European vinifera grapes had been planted in Northern Michigan.  Despite recommendations from local viticulture consultants to stick to cold-hardy native and French hybrid grape varieties that could survive the cold winters, O’Keefe was determined to plant 100% of his vineyard to vinifera grapes.  He consulted with worldwide experts and took research trips to Europe to learn how to make vinifera work in Old Mission, and with the help of his mentors, he succeeded. 

With day-to-day operations now run by O’Keefe’s sons Sean and Eddie, Chateau Grand Traverse has 125 acres of estate vineyards and produces 100,000 cases of wine per year.  The winery produces a wide range of
varietals, from Chardonnay to Gamay Noir, but Riesling is the heart of the operation.  Chateau Grand Traverse makes nine different versions, ranging from bone dry to intensely sweet. 

It was the Rieslings that impressed me most when I visited the winery several years ago and spent time in the cellar with Sean.  Our paths have crossed many times since, and in early August, I had the pleasure of tasting his 2011 Whole Cluster Riesling and 2011 Gamay Noir wines (both gold medal winners), while judging the Best of Class rounds in the Michigan Wine Competition. 

Sean’s own winemaking journey is just as interesting as that of his pioneering father.

Wine Review Online (WRO): How did you learn about vineyards and winemaking?

Sean O’Keefe (SO): After studying German Literature at the University of Michigan, I moved to Germany in 1994 and apprenticed at the winery of our family’s former winemaker, Weingut Jakob Pfleger, in the Pfalz.  I also attended viticulture classes at the nearby wine school in Neustadt, where I soon learned that I knew far less than I thought about farming, let alone making wine.  I pretty much immersed myself in learning everything I could about winemaking -- and spending a year scouring the winery clean!  I transferred the following year to the wine university in Geisenheim in the Rheingau, where I truly fell in love with Riesling in all its forms. 

The lectures and labs were great, but it was in the discussions and debates with fellow classmates that I learned the most.  I became lifelong friends with winemakers from all the different wine regions of Germany, and I continue to learn from them today.   

WRO: What did you bring home from that experience to your family’s vineyards?

SO: The German Riesling revival was well on its way in the mid `90s when I arrived in Geisenheim.  Stuart Pigott had just published his controversial book calling out many of Germany’s most famous traditional producers for making lackluster wines, while also championing the new guard of quality-conscious winemakers like Johannes Leitz, Hermann Dönnhoff, Georg Breuer and Peter Jakob Kuhn.  I took it on myself to visit and get to know these winemakers, and found that the secret to their success was their intense personal attention to detail in their vineyards, and the winemaking intuition that comes from working amongst their vines every day. 

WRO: What prompted your father to start a winemaking operation in Northern Michigan -- especially one growing vinifera -- back in 1974?

SO: My father is a true-blue entrepreneur, and is only truly happy when he’s creating something new.  I’ve heard various creation myths of how he fell in love with Riesling and started Chateau Grand Traverse, but the one common thread in all the stories is the huge influence of Dr. Helmut Becker of Geisenheim.  He was a very charismatic promoter of Riesling and a major influence on New World Riesling growers.  My father met him in Germany in the early `70s, back when he had a wine importing business.  They probably hatched the idea of planting vines near our vacation home in Traverse City after a long, fruitful discussion over many bottles of wine.  As for his focus on vinifera, my father never wanted to make wines that were “almost” as good as the wines he enjoyed from Northern Europe. 

WRO: Your dad must be a pretty headstrong guy.  What’s your working relationship like with him, and your brother Eddie? Who does what at the winery?

SO: At 81, my father has mellowed just a little and has turned the day-to-day operations of the winery over to my brother and me.  He still remains CEO and is very active on the political side of the wine business. 

As for my brother and me, we’re lucky that we each are interested in different facets of the business.  My brother is the president, and makes sure we stay firmly grounded in our business and marketing decisions.  I oversee the vineyards and winemaking, and make sure that we keep the focus on quality.  It’s very easy to fall in a rut in an emerging region by making wines that sell easily in the short term, as opposed to building a reputation for the long run.  It’s a tricky balancing act for my brother and me, but we’ve managed to do it very successfully so far.

WRO: What’s your role as far as the vineyards and winemaking?

SO: I oversee our vineyard operations, where my main focus has been on finding the best ways to fully eliminate all herbicides and inorganic fertilizer use.  One hundred twenty acres is a large area to look after in this part of the world, where the climate can differ so drastically from one season to the next. 

In the cellar, I assist our head winemaker Bernd Croissant mainly on blends, and work behind the scenes to make sure he has the resources to make the highest quality wines possible.  I also am the winemaker for our “winery within winery,” CGT Eclectic, which has grown to an annual production of approximately 4,000 cases. 

WRO: Which of the winery’s many Rieslings is your favorite?

SO: Our Lot 49 Riesling is a wine where I have taken my hands off the winemaking handlebars, and trusted the wine to follow its own course every vintage.  It’s sourced from a steep west-facing hillside section of our Bailiwick Vineyard.  I love all of our Rieslings, but the Lot 49 stands every vintage as having the most interesting succession of flavors and texture, along with complex floral and lees aromas that give the wine such a distinct personality. 
WRO: How would you describe the character of Northern Michigan Rieslings compared to those from Germany or the Finger Lakes of New York?

SO: I just organized a comprehensive tasting of over 90 United States dry Rieslings last month in New York City with wine critic Stuart Pigott, where we tried to answer that very question.  It’s tough to come to a definitive answer when dealing with emerging wine regions whose oldest vineyards are relatively young -- meaning less than 50 years old. 

Northern Michigan vineyards are grown for the most part on very sandy glacial till, which I find results in lighter-bodied, highly aromatic Rieslings with distinct apple, lime, pear and grapefruit pith notes.  The Finger Lakes Rieslings are grown at a more southerly latitude in stonier soils with a typically higher clay content.  They often seem a bit more “peachy” and fuller bodied to me, as well as a bit more restrained aromatically in their youth.  However, the differences between individual wineries were much more striking than those between regions. 

WRO: Growing up with Chateau Grand Traverse, you’ve seen lots of new wineries pop up in Northern Michigan.  What’s your take on the progress of the industry?
SO: Northern Michigan wines have come of age over the last decade, with many wineries having successfully transitioned to their second generation.  Wineries are less worried about day-to-day economic survival, and are focusing more on how to make memorable, distinctive wines that will stand out and compete in the world marketplace. 

WRO: Are you working on any new vineyard projects at Chateau Grand Traverse?

SO: I’m not the biggest cheerleader for reds, besides Gamay Noir, in our appellation.  Nevertheless I’m working with one of our growers on an experimental planting of Schiopettino, Teroldego and Refosco at the tip of the Peninsula.  I’m also hopeful about our Grüner Veltliner, and am looking forward to the day when new Austrian clones will be available to plant. 

WRO: Who are some of your favorite Michigan producers?

SO: I grew up as a winemaker talking shop with Bryan Ulbrich of Left Foot Charley and Spencer Stegenga of Bowers Harbor Vineyards.  Our South African transplants Cornel Olivier at 2 Lads and Coenraad Staahsen at Brys Estate have made me reconsider my views on Northern Michigan reds.  Larry Mawby in neighboring Leelanau County makes world-class sparkling wines.
WRO: Where are your wines available outside of Michigan?

SO: Our largest metro markets are in Chicago, Washington D.C., New York City, Miami and Minneapolis/St. Paul.  Sommeliers are our best champions, and have been enormously helpful in spreading the word about our Northern Michigan wines.

Remarkably, while we have already sent several orders of wine to Shanghai this year, we are still working on reestablishing a presence in California.  We’ll see what the future holds.