The Castle on the Hill
New winery aims high, digs deep on Old Mission Peninsula
For Marty Lagina, passion for wine is a matter of both nature and nurture.
The owner of newly opened Mari Vineyards on Old Mission Peninsula believes his 100 percent Mediterranean heritage put that passion into his blood, and his experiences as a youth helped it thrive.
Growing up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the now successful businessman remembers his immigrant grandparents' wine cellar as one of his favorite places. Hand chiseled from solid granite beneath their home, it was chock full of wonders for a little boy.
"My brother and I used to sneak in, because technically, we weren't exactly allowed to be there," he recalls. "It was small — probably 200 square feet — but what a magic place! Big wooden wine barrels and all sorts of giant cheeses and plants … and preserved meats and prosciutto hanging from the ceiling, and everywhere the lovely smell of fermenting wine."
To make his wine, Lagina's grandfather brought in grapes via rail from a former neighbor in Italy who had moved to California — "who happened to be Cesare Mondavi, Robert's father," says Lagina. "It was a big community event, and all the Italians who worked in the iron mines of bitterly cold Iron Mountain (Michigan) made wine and pretended they were back in sunny Italy."
The house of stone and wood
Fast forward a few decades, and the seed planted in Lagina's mind way back when has sprung to life in Northern Michigan.
Fifteen years ago, Lagina and his wife, Olivia, planted their first vineyards on Old Mission Peninsula. And after two-plus years of planning and construction, Lagina's Mari Vineyards — named after his grandmother — opened its tasting room and winery facility to the public in late May.
This is no 200-square-foot wine cellar; stepping into Mari's castle-like compound is like transporting to another time and place.
"We tried to have it be rustic Italian, without going over the top," explains Cristin Hosmer, the winery's operations manager.
Glancing around at the sprawling facility surrounding her, she laughs. "Obviously, we went a little over the top. But we want it to be approachable and comfortable, not hoity-toity."
Wood and stone are abundant throughout the building. The wood is from Lagina's personal collection; the stone — all of which was hand-laid — was culled from the Upper Peninsula.
The main bar is made from ash, and what appears to be a beautiful, intricately etched design winding across it is actually the aftermath of an Emerald ash borer feeding on it, says Hosmer.
According to Hosmer, all of the tables in the building are handcrafted, and many are so charmingly rustic that they look as if they were sliced directly from a tree, given legs and plunked down into the tasting room.
Scott Gundersen. a Michigan artist well known for his work with Artprize, created the focal point above the main tasting bar: a mosaic-style mural made entirely from cork. The piece, which Hosmer says required 15,000-plus corks to create, depicts the Mari building against a sunset backdrop.
Chain mail from England (another of Lagina's fascinations) sits on the mantel of the large fireplace in the main lobby. Guests seated around the interior fireplace can look straight through its transparent center and onto the patio, which in turn looks out over the vineyards and to East Grand Traverse Bay.
The building seems to go on and on from there, upward and downward, with a 70-foot change in elevation from the base of the bell tower (for which acquisition of a bell was still pending as of May) to the floor of the winery’s expansive caves, dug into a hillside.
Multiple branches of the caves will house Mari's own wine, as well as the collections of private wine collectors looking for a secure storage site, says Hosmer.
The facility is oriented to align perfectly with the summer solstice, a concept that was important to Lagina, says Hosmer. An oculus directs light onto the center of an ornate compass on the floor of the caves; beneath it lies a time capsule, stashed by the Lagina family for unearthing in 2116.
The building also is studded with conference rooms and lounges for private meetings and parties. Hosmer says Mari will eventually have a full kitchen and offer a small plates and tapas menu.
A taste of Italy
Long before Mari Vineyards had a facility of its own, Sean O'Keefe, formerly a winemaker at nearby Chateau Grand Traverse, was producing wine from Lagina's grapes, but those wines were only available at select restaurants and retailers. Last year, Mari's 2012 Praefectus netted the Best in Class Red award in the Michigan Wine Competition.
Mari has employed a growing technique called "Nellaserra" — basically, hoophouses — to ripen some varietals not typically feasible for Northern Michigan. Besides Michigan staples like cabernet franc, pinot noir, pinot grigio and chardonnay, Mari's vineyards also include syrah, cabernet sauvignon, nebbiolo, refosco and Malvasia blanc.
O'Keefe described the system as 10-foot arcs over the vineyard — open to air on the sides for most of the season — that act as greenhouses, raising the temperature 10-15 degrees night and day.
Varieties like nebbiolo — which would otherwise never thrive on Old Mission — and even merlot and cab franc "get shocked" when the temperatures dip too low, he says, and it can take a while for them to shake that shock, even when it warms up again.
"The vine starts shutting down prematurely, before all the ripe flavors develop," he says. "So the tunnels kind of trick the vines into continuing sugar and flavor production."
It's expensive and labor intensive, he adds, but "it helps us make some cool Michigan reds that this region wouldn't be capable of making otherwise."
Lagina insists that the technique, combined with the area's microclimate and soil, "can produce wines from these varieties that will be superior to the Old World wines and superior to those produced in California."
According to Hosmer, Mari also is one of only a handful of wineries in the world producing a sparkling Grüner Veltliner. The only other two the team has found came from Austria, she says.
Mari currently has 100 barrels in production, with intentions to increase to 300. The team plans to produce 8,000 cases of wine this year and eventually cap out at 17,000, says Hosmer.
The initial compound is just the beginning: Hosmer says Phase II includes plans for guest rooms and "chateau" home sites with views of the bay and vineyards. Completion is anticipated by spring 2018.
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 (coming in July 2016) Auburn Hills. Contact her at email@example.com.