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.

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