A Final Toast to Bernie Rink, Pioneer of Boskydel Vineyard

Iconic winemaker leaves rich legacy behind after death
Bernie Rink Photo by Sharon Kegerreis

Bernie Rink was called a lot of things. Pioneer. Trailblazer. Curmudgeon.

Bernie passed away at age 92 on Nov. 29, 2018, surrounded by family and friends. His passing came almost a year after the Leelanau Peninsula winery he founded, Boskydel, closed down after more than 40 years of operation. Behind the bar, Bernie was known for his unique sense of humor, his distaste for party buses, and his propensity for eschewing niceties in favor of bluntness. As his son, Jim Rink, told me in an interview last year: “It’s like having a velvet Elvis painting: not for everyone, both terrifying and strangely comforting at the same time.” The Boskydel website even cheekily referenced Bernie’s reputation for being “curmudgeonly” and “dour.” But beyond his distinctive demeanor, Bernie was known as the man who paved the way for commercial grape growing in northern Michigan. “He certainly got the ball rolling,” says Jim. “He kick-started the industry; other pioneers followed.”

Bernie grew up among grapes: His father, Carl, farmed vineyards in Avon, Ohio, during Prohibition, and “you may infer the rest,” jokes Jim. In the mid 1960s, Bernie — then library director at Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City — encountered a book about American winemaking, which inspired him to plant a single-acre test plot of French-American hybrid grape varieties and a handful of vinifera grapes to assess their hardiness, says Jim. In 1970, Bernie expanded that Leelanau Peninsula test plot to 16 acres of wine grapes, establishing northern Michigan’s first commercial vineyard. Boskydel’s winery and tasting room were constructed in the mid-1970s. Bernie’s decision to expand to a commercial scale “was driven by his own curiosity, as well as his desire to raise a family of men,” says Larry Mawby, owner and winemaker at L. Mawby Winery, another early player in the northern Michigan wine industry. Bernie loved watching his five sons working the vineyards. “If we were idle, he would quote the Bible and say, ‘Why stand ye here idle? Get ye into the vineyard,’ ” recalls Jim. “Growing up working on a vineyard was rewarding but hard work, which was the whole idea. I certainly learned a good work ethic, which served me well later in life.”

Boskydel was producing about 5,000-6,000 cases a year prior to its closure, and the Rink family specialized in hybrid varietals like Vignoles, De Chaunac, and Frontenac. Bernie “enjoyed making affordable wine for everyday drink,” Jim says. “He felt too much wine was high priced and out of reach or only drunk on special occasions.”

“I always had an appreciation for [Bernie Rink] because of his belief that wine should be a beverage for everybody, not just the wealthy or the well-to-do,” says Lee Lutes, head winemaker and managing member at nearby Black Star Farms. While Bernie had no interest in being a “showman” or spokesman for the overall region, he “was always willing to talk to any of us in the industry that might have a need for some input,” adds Lutes. “He was always open to sharing, being involved, if requested, and telling you really what he thought. I always admired him an awful lot for that. And certainly, we’re all grateful to him for getting the industry started up here and showing that it could be done.”

Mawby also credits Bernie for convincing the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council to commit funds for much-needed wine grape and winemaking research. “We would not be in the place we are today without Bernie,” says Mawby. As Bernie aged and his health deteriorated, Jim and his brother, Andy, assumed responsibility for the day-to-day operations of Boskydel, which they co-owned with their father and brothers. In mid-2017, the Rinks announced that Boskydel would close by the end of the year, stating the winery had “fulfilled [their] original purpose.” Earlier this year, L. Mawby and fellow Leelanau wineries Bel Lago and Good Harbor produced a trio of “tribute wines” from grapes harvested from Boskydel Vineyard in a nod to Bernie and his legacy.

A memorable stop

In the wake of Bernie’s passing, Michigan wine fans took to social media to share their memories of the beloved “curmudgeon.”

“Bernie Rink was one of the winemakers that continues to inspire my passion and dream of making wine here in the state of Michigan that is affordable, easy to drink, and available/approachable to anyone,” says Ben Tselis, who’s studying at Michigan State University with goals to become a commercial winemaker. “Also, that he unabashedly made wine from hybrid grapes — he was a man before his time.” Mark Jackson learned all about “baseball fields, vineyards, and chestnuts” chatting with Bernie across the Boskydel counter. Boskydel’s incomparably quirky atmosphere was what made it Jackson’s favorite winery. “From the big mailbox missing a letter being the only sign at the end of the road, to the hand-lettered warning of no buses, no room, no noise, no picnicking, and no loitering, to the Inuit carving taking [up] a third of the space … I always loved the curmudgeonly uniqueness and reading the tasting room walls,” says Jackson, who lives in Fairfield.

Holly Jo Smith of Marquette recalls stopping at Boskydel to purchase wine for her Michigan Made retail stores in Marquette and Houghton. “[Bernie] told me I wasn’t old enough to own a wine store and then told me I would have to load my own truck, since I was so young,” she says. “I was 52 that day.”

Annette Schultz Grillot from Commerce Township says she always made a point of stopping at Boskydel during her annual trips to Traverse City. “He was no-nonsense, and made us all laugh,” she says. “We were there once when a couple came in, and he said to them, ‘What kind of wine do you like?’ The girl answered, ‘Sweet.’ Bernie promptly responded, ‘We ain’t got sweet!’ and continued with us in our tasting.”

Indeed, Bernie wasn’t shy about favoring dry wines. Macomb Township resident Richard Howell says with a laugh, “Carol [his wife] told him she likes sweet wines. He told her to leave!”

“We enjoyed every visit,” says Amy Tuckerman Rilley of Zeeland. “I remember he encouraged us to enjoy a nice table wine every day. He said that you don’t have to spend a lot of money to enjoy good wine … and he certainly provided that for all.”

Bernie is survived by his five sons, six grandchildren, two siblings, and several nieces and nephews. He was predeceased by his wife, Suzanne, and brother, Carl.

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 cort@michiganbythebottle.com.