It feels like fate that McKenzie and Creighton Gallagher had their first official date at a Brys Estate wine dinner.
A decade, a wedding, and four children later, the Gallaghers are still attending wine events together. But more often than not, those events are at their very own winery: Rove Estate Vineyard and Winery, located one Northern Michigan peninsula over from their friends at Brys.
“Not only did we fall in love with each other quickly after that first date, but we fell in love with wine, and the idea that my husband could use farming skills passed along through generations to make world-class wines,” McKenzie recalls. “My husband and I are farmers; it is a big part of our heritage and the way we live.”
Creighton is a fifth-generation farmer; his family started in dairy, then branched out into cherries. In 2010, he and McKenzie purchased part of his family’s farm, near the base of the Leelanau Peninsula, in pursuit of their dream. With 15 acres of cherry trees on the property in need of replacement, the couple jumped at the chance to plant grapes in their stead. McKenzie, then working on her MBA in strategic management, used their business plan as the subject of her thesis.
They weathered the back-to-back brutal winters of 2014 and 2015 and opened Rove’s hilltop tasting room in Spring 2016.
The Gallaghers chose the name “Rove” because it means to wander without a destination, which they felt appropriately tied into the story of the “Wine Geese” that forms the backbone of their business motif.
“This word is our way of paying homage to our Irish ancestors that fled Ireland in the 1600s-1700s due to war and turmoil in their country,” McKenzie explains. “This phenomenon is referred to as the ‘Flight of the Wild Geese.’
“Many of those ‘wild geese’ ended up putting their roots down in some of the most renowned wine regions across the world. They refer to themselves as the ‘wine geese,’ a society and association of Irish winemakers.”
The story resonated with McKenzie and Creighton as plans for their winery began to crystallize.
“My husband and I are predominantly Irish, and feel a kinship with our ancestors that fled everything they knew for the possibility and dream of a better life,” McKenzie says. “The thought of leaving everything you know for an opportunity or chance of a better life is so powerful. We are young, grass-roots farmers with a young family. This is our dream, and that is the reason we have sacrificed so much to make this dream a reality.”
The theme carries throughout the tasting room: a goose appears on Rove’s logo, and a giant goose-feather lamp hangs above their private tasting area known as “the nest,” sealed off from the main room by a sliding barn door.
McKenzie says a quote by T.S. Eliot — printed on the back of Rove T-shirts — sums up their philosophy: “Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”
But it hasn’t been an easy road — nor a predictable one.
“All startup businesses are challenging, but when you throw the unpredictability of Mother Nature into the mix, it is a whole different ballgame,” McKenzie says. “We have already experienced significant crop loss — between our cherry farm and vineyard — in the past seven years we have owned our farm. So pretty much nothing ever goes how you expect it will.”
For the Gallaghers, caring for vineyards and orchards at the same time as seasonal tourism is booming, coupled with raising four young children, “the days are extremely long, and, truthfully, some weeks, I don’t even know how we survived,” McKenzie says.
But despite the trying times, it’s ultimately been worthwhile: “I love giving someone an experience they weren’t expecting when they taste our wine for the first time and sit on our patio and overlook one of the most beautiful landscapes in Northern Michigan,” she says. “It has brought so many incredible people into our lives.”
View from the top
Rove’s modern-looking white tasting room is perched 1,165 feet above sea level — at reportedly the highest point in Leelanau County — affording its guests a magnificent view of the surrounding greenery. A wraparound patio takes full advantage of the perks of the location, and the abundant windows give guests seated or standing at the tasting bar indoors ample opportunity to take in the vista as well.
But aesthetics aren’t all Rove has to offer. Even struggling to get established amid the “polar vortex” winters, the winery has a solid lineup of white wines — including straight varietal sauvignon blanc, riesling, and chardonnay — and several unique blends, such as gewürz/gris (gewürztraminer and pinot gris) and blanc estate (sauvignon blanc and pinot blanc).
Currently, McKenzie is most proud of their 2016 Estate Unoaked Chardonnay, because “it seems to have an elegance to it beyond the 6-year-old vines that produced it.”
As of summertime, they also had a few hard ciders and a single red on the menu, a cabernet franc/merlot blend, with more reds on the way.
“We are excited to focus on reds as our vineyard matures,” McKenzie says. “Right now, we have a fabulous pinot noir, merlot, and cab franc aging in French oak barrels, to be released next spring.”
Fittingly, their wines currently are made, with the Gallaghers’ input, by Coenraad Stassen, the Brys Estate winemaker whose wines were so integral to their first date.
Stassen and Creighton met years ago playing rugby, and Creighton worked for Stassen at Brys Estate in 2007 and 2008, when the winery needed assistance with bottling.
“Creighton really enjoyed all the aspects of winemaking, and with his farming background, it was a natural fit,” says Stassen of the family’s decision to open their own winery.
McKenzie says their goal is to construct a production facility within the next five years and gradually shift the winemaking duties to Creighton.
“Coenraad is a very good friend, and he has been a mentor for almost a decade,” she says. “So this transition will be natural and seamless. Wine is not something you can learn and perfect in a short amount of time. We’re always learning and growing, so this journey will continue on for many years to come.”
The winery has a large tent that can host large groups or private events, Friday night live music on its patio stage, a snack menu, and wine by the glass.
Over the next few years, McKenzie says the family would like to add about 15 acres of vineyards to replace aging cherry orchards, with the goal of their wines eventually being 100 percent estate grown. A sparkling wine and a rosé are on their wish list, hopefully within the next year. And they’re also planning a hiking trail to their farm that they anticipate being ready by fall.
For more information on Rove Estate, visit RoveEstate.com.
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.