Faces of Michigan Wine: Coenraad Stassen
Brys Estate’s winemaker crossed an ocean to work in Michigan
Coenraad Stassen has the best job in the world, and he knows it.
Since 2007, the South African native has worked as winemaker at Brys Estate Vineyard and Winery on Old Mission Peninsula, near Traverse City.
“I love to make people happy through wine, one glass at a time,” he says.
You could say that a career tied to the land was in Stassen’s blood all along. He grew up on a farm in South Africa’s Western Cape, surrounded by crops like peaches, apricots, and grapes and abundant livestock: Merino sheep, farm goats, ostriches, and a handful of dairy cows.
“There was never a shortage for exploration and getting myself into trouble,” he recalls. “I was a farm boy at heart before I ever realized I would become a winemaker.
“Growing up on the farm taught me about life, what it took to take care of animals, and how to respect the land you worked. I didn’t realize at a young age how things come full circle, and how what I learned then would be applied halfway across the world to what I do now. Growing up with grapes was part of my identity long before I ever realized it.”
After graduating from high school and enlisting in the South African Air Force, Stassen had time to kill before basic training and decided to work the January 1995 (harvest seasons are flip-flopped south of the equator) grape harvest at a winery called Montagu Co-Op.
“Once I started working, they offered me a permanent position at the winery, and I canceled my application to the Air Force,” he says. “In a way, it was meant to be.”
While working at Montagu Co-Op, Stassen attended the Elsenburg Agricultural Training Institute in South Africa’s renowned Stellenbosch region, graduating at the top of his class in 1998.
“After graduating, the real learning began: It is called trial and error. I am still attending those classes every season,” he quips.
At Montagu Co-Op — which produced about 2.3 million gallons of wine annually — “I started at the bottom and learned all aspects of winemaking,” Stassen says. “Whatever it took, I was the guy to help. From scrubbing floors to taking the night shift when nobody else had the energy to do so, I did it all. Working 20-hour days, seven days a week, was not out of the ordinary during harvest. It was not the most fun I’ve ever had, but the lessons learned were invaluable to who I am today.”
It was during his first harvest at Montagu Co-Op “when I first knew what I should be doing for the rest of my life — making people happy through wine,” he says.
Stassen’s next stint was at nearby Uitvlucht Winery — where he worked from 2000-2003, taking on more of a winemaker’s role — before he decided to move overseas, motivated by the changing political climate in South Africa and a desire to expand his horizons.
“Since starting in the industry, I knew that I would want to learn as much as I could from successful winemakers all over the world, and the idea of traveling was always in the back of my mind,” he says. “By 2000, I knew that it was a good time for me to share what I had learned so far and focus on who I wanted to be as a winemaker — but not in South Africa.”
Confident in his English skills — his second language, after Afrikaans — Stassen sought placement in the United States through the World Agricultural Exchange Program.
Following an initial interview, the program links candidates with hosts for an internship. Three wineries expressed interest in Stassen: one in Napa Valley, one in Virginia, and one on Old Mission Peninsula — Chateau Chantal.
“If you look anywhere in the world to where the best wines are made, there is almost always a body of water that creates an ideal climate,” Stassen says. “In Cape Town, you have the Indian and Atlantic oceans; on Old Mission, you have East and West Grand Traverse bays. I picked Michigan based on the microclimate and the mystique of producing ice wine.”
Stassen arrived in Michigan in January 2003, “in the dead of an arctic blast.” It was a preview of what was to come, weather-wise, over his years here.
“The most difficult thing for me is to make decisions based on Mother Nature’s mood swings,” he says. “It is a real challenge for us. Some years, you are faced with subzero temperatures that could damage the buds for the upcoming season. Some years, the winter is mild, but you are faced with an early spring and the greater risk of a spring freeze. Other years, you get 13 inches of rain during harvest and the fruit does not hold up. Throw in the occasional hailstorm and I think we’ve got it all covered.”
But Stassen says he’s learned to live with Michigan’s temperamental weather: “All the negative things aside, only you can determine how difficult you want it to be. A positive attitude goes a long way, and I think the key is to be positive and give out positive energy.”
After working at Chateau Chantal for several years, Stassen moved down the street to Brys Estate Vineyard in 2007.
Walter Brys — who owns and operates Brys Estate with his wife, Eileen, and their family — says a number of traits convinced him Stassen was the best fit for the winery, including Stassen’s years of experience in the South African wine industry; his passion for red wine making; his “excellent palate;” and his “friendly and inviting persona with the public.”
Stassen, Brys says, holds himself to high standards — “extreme quality is his bare minimum” — and “thinks and acts like part of the Brys family.”
The feeling is mutual: “I love the freedom that Walt and Eileen Brys give me to create wines that people truly enjoy — wines that put a smile on your face, and not wines that you will find in the big-box stores,” Stassen says. “I do not have to make wine on a budget. To create wines that demand a following is sometimes not the most inexpensive venture, and I appreciate the fact that I can focus on the wine and nothing else. Walter’s words to me are always: ‘Make great wines.’ ”
At Brys Estate, Stassen produces a range of reds and whites, including Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Franc, but he insists he can’t choose just one favorite grape from his repertoire.
“My favorite grape to work with will be the one that has the best chance of becoming an exceptional wine in each season,” he says. “Some are spectacular white wine-producing years, and other years we can produce world-class reds. Reds create a special challenge in our climate, so I might favor them slightly.”
After back-to-back brutal winters in 2014 and 2015, Stassen is excited about 2016’s vintage, calling the the new release wines “exceptional.”
“We truly needed a year like 2016 to get us back on track,” he says. “The summer was dry and warm, which allowed the fruit to fully ripen. I would say that 2016 will go down in history as a very good vintage.”
For Michigan wine skeptics who haven’t picked up a local bottle in years, Stassen insists that another try is in order.
“The Michigan wines you knew and drank 15 years ago are not the Michigan wines being produced in the state today,” he says. “You do not need to be afraid of buying an inferior product in comparison to other states. We have consistently ranked among the top producers by state in any national or international wine competition we have entered in the last five years.”
Whether you’re seeking crisp, clean, elegant whites or sparkling wines or big, bold reds, “we have something for every taste,” he adds. “Explore and drink what you like.”
On a personal note, Stassen is married to Lindsay — “a beautiful, strong artist” — with whom he earned his black belt in taekwondo and with whom he enjoys cooking and working out. He also is an avid golfer.
Cortney Casey is a certified sommelier and co-founder of MichiganByTheBottle.com, a website and online community that promotes the entire Michigan wine industry. She’s also co-owner of Michigan By the Bottle Tasting Room, tasting rooms operated in partnership with multiple Michigan wineries, located in Shelby Township, Royal Oak, and Auburn Hills. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.