Wine Pioneer

Raise a glass to Len Olson, who launched Michigan on a path to grow European vinifera grape varieties


Len Olson, one of the early pioneers of the post-World War II Michigan wine industry, died in December. 

Olson’s significance was that in 1969 he and his partner, Carl Banholzer, were the first Michigan winemakers on record to plant chardonnay and riesling, two of European vinifera grape varieties that most experts in viticulture of the period did not believe could survive Michigan’s cold weather. 

In 1970, Olson and Banholzer founded Tabor Hill Winery in Buchanan, the first winery in Michigan to obtain a license since Prohibition ended in 1933. 

Today, European grape varieties, and especially riesling, dominate Michigan’s industry, often challenging and beating their French, German, Australian, and other American counterparts in competitions here and abroad. 

In the 1960s, the Michigan wine industry was centered in the southwest part of the state along I-94 near Paw Paw, and to its south. Two or three others winegrowers were also experimenting with various grapes up north in the Leelanau and the Old Mission peninsulas, eventually launching in the mid-1970s, and becoming highly successful. 

But in the 1960s, only a few wineries made table wine drinkable by today’s standards from Michigan-grown grapes. Many of the 12 existing wineries imported grapes from California and Italy. The most visible and largest winery was St. Julian Wine Co., in Paw Paw, also known in Chicago’s Jewish community as the supplier of the grapes that went into kosher Manischewitz wine. 

Olson and Banholzer also planted weather hardy French and American hybrids, including Vidal, Baco Noir, Marechal Foch, Chambourcin, Cascade, Aurora, Seyval Blanc, and Vignoles. 

According to a history of Tabor Hill Winery by Sharon Kegerreis and Lorri Hathaway, “With no formal wine training, the two initially relied on knowledge gleaned from a book called American Wine and Wine-making by Philip M. Wagner, and from speaking with growers at nurseries. Incidentally, Wagner was the first to introduce French- American hybrids into the United States when he imported 25 Baco Noir vines from France.” 

But the partnership Banholzer and Olson dissolved within a year; Olson continued solo. 

By 1979, with Tabor Hill teetering financially, Olson sold a majority share to David Upton of the Whirlpool family, a relationship that lasted until 1983, when Olson went into the beer business and developed wine interests in Kentucky and Illinois. 

Olson returned to southwest Michigan and in 2009 launched a new winery, Baroda Founders Wine Cellar in Baroda, where he was making wine when he died. 

Today, Michigan has 107 fully operating wineries, and grows 15,000 acres of grapes, 2,600 of which go to produce 1.4 million gallons of red and white wine annually, and contribute $300 million annually to Michigan’s economy. 

Those early experiments by Olson with chardonnay and riesling opened the door, and the majority of Michigan wines are now made those and other European varieties such as viognier, merlot, pinot noir, cabernet franc, and pinot grigio. 

Olson was by no means the only one who did it, but he was one of the few with the foresight to believe it could be done. 

Today, Michigan ranks up there, not so much in volume, but certainly in recognition, as one of the top cold-climate vinifera producers along with New York, Washington state, Oregon, Missouri, and Virginia. Olson’s vision contributed mightily to leading the state there. 

Edit Module
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags

Archive »Related Content

Trending: Wine in a Can

A Western Michigan winery serves their summer wine in convenient packaging

Leelanau Wineries to Celebrate Wine Pioneer Bernie Rink

The former owner of now-shuttered Boskydel Vineyards will be honored during a July tribute

Michigan's Wine Industry is Adding $5 Billion to the Local Economy

There are more than 130 wineries statewide

Making Bad Wine Extinct

Better education and new technologies are improving nearly everyone’s output

DIY Home Vineyard

Become a home vintner with just a fraction of an acre
Edit Module
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Most Popular

  1. Top Docs List 2018
  2. Memories of Miya
    Citizen Yoga founder, Kacee Must Leeb reflects on her sister’s suicide, its impact on her...
  3. Introducing the Piekie
    These cookie-shaped pies win big on-screen and off
  4. Mending Migraines
    Nausea, excruciating head pain, sensitivity to light and noise: The oppressiveness of the list of...
  5. The Sixth Man
    A youth basketball coach teaches lessons on and off the court
  6. Seeking Support
    Like many metro areas across the U.S., finding a therapist in and around Detroit can prove to be...
  7. Therapy in the Digital Age
    New innovations that revolutionize traditional approaches to counseling
  8. Food Recipe: Chili
    Michael Keys, of Red Crown in Grosse Pointe Park, shares his favorite chili recipe
  9. Author's Cuisine
    At M Cantina in Dearborn, Junior Merino is creating a new kind of Mexican cuisine that is...
  10. Seeing Clearly
    The co-founders behind Genusee on making eyewear with a mission