It was just one of those pie-in-the-sky ideas. For years, longtime wine aficionados Michael Goodell and his wife, Mary Northcutt, toyed with the idea of opening their own winery. But their seemingly far-off dreams took on a whole new urgency when Mary was diagnosed with cancer. Mary passed away before the dream came to fruition, but her husband and grown children are carrying on in her memory at Amoritas Vineyards, one of the most recent additions to the Leelanau Peninsula Wine Trail.
Planting the seed
As a California native who grew up in Lodi, Michael jokes that wine was “in his blood” from birth. He met Mary at college in California, and together they enjoyed visiting wineries nearby and abroad. Originally from Arizona, Mary inherited her grandparents’ home in the Grosse Pointe area, and they eventually relocated there permanently.
The Goodell children, Emily and Matt, were accustomed to accompanying their parents on winery trips, and had more of a European-style introduction to wine as youngsters. They were often allowed to try the wine their parents were drinking and sample small amounts during special occasions. When traveling in Europe, they were permitted a glass of their own.
“I didn’t have quite the barrier that some people have in accessing the wine culture,” Emily says. “I knew it could be a fun, easy, and interesting thing, and it was an interest I could share with [my parents] as I became an adult. I also feel fortunate that it was never implied to me that it was a man or a woman thing, but a human thing. Wine wasn’t exclusively book club and ladies’ night territory, and wine lists and tastes were not exclusively a male right.”
Matt, meanwhile, says he rarely cared for the wine his parents let him sample as a kid. But as he grew older, he developed an appreciation for Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay at a time when his peers were still fond of Boone’s Farm and the like, he jokes. “Wine seemed like a drink that had a lot more going on behind it besides just the fact that it was alcohol in a bottle,” he says.
Michael isn’t exactly sure when their winery discussions began, but he guesses it was around 2005. He and Mary had bought a home on Glen Lake in 1993 and began spending more time in northern Michigan. Joking that he was initially a “California wine snob” about Michigan wine in the early days, Michael recalls trying a “world-class” Peninsula Cellars Pinot Blanc about a decade ago and becoming an enthusiastic convert. The more they became invested in the area, the more they became interested in establishing their own winery.
“It just developed organically, going from, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if …’ ” Michael recalls, “the same way as, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to spend a year in Tuscany, or Paris, or hike the Appalachian Trail,’ to the gradual realization that we were serious about this in a way we weren’t about any of the other ‘Wouldn’t it be nice ifs.’ ”
Very slowly, the thought began to gain traction. Around that time, Cornell University — where Emily was already pursuing a bachelor’s degree in plant science with plans to become a plant pathology professor — had just introduced an undergrad degree in viticulture and enology. She contemplated switching majors to help with the potential new family business, but her parents, still pondering, urged her to stick with her current program.
The next time the topic arose, Emily was out of college, working in the health insurance field and ready to get back to what she loved. Her parents were exploring the possibility of purchasing a turnkey winery operation, she says, so it had become clear that they were serious. Emily sought admission and was accepted into the viticulture and enology master’s program at UC Davis in 2009.
The following year, the Goodells’ winery plans got fast tracked in a major way. “I think it was when Mary was diagnosed with cancer that we stopped talking about it and started acting,” Michael says, “because it’s like, we can’t keep putting this off if we’re going to do this.”
In 2011, after Emily completed her master’s degree, the family found “a perfect spot” in Lake Leelanau for their vineyards. They planted their first vines in 2013 and 2014: Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Auxerrois, Muscat Ottonel, and Pinot Blanc, spanning 14 acres.
Mary and Emily christened the winery “Amoritas,” a mashup of “Amore,” the road on which the vineyards are located, and “veritas,” from the famous expression, “in vino veritas.”
The entire family’s commitment continued to deepen. In 2014, Matt enrolled in a two-year program — a collaboration between Michigan State University, Northwestern Michigan College, and the Viticulture Enology Science Technology Alliance — to study plant biology, chemistry, vineyard planting, and more.
The Goodells contracted with local custom crush facility French Road Cellars to make their inaugural wines, with plans to eventually bring all winemaking in house in the near future.
Michael says they currently have a small facility where Emily and Matt are “turning theoretical winemaking knowledge into practical skills.”
“There were times I felt like I had maybe conned them into the whole thing,” says Emily, “because somehow, a dream of mine was getting fulfilled.”
The Amoritas tasting room opened Dec. 6, 2017, amid the first major snowstorm of the season. It was more than a decade after the Goodells’ initial conversations about starting a winery, and about a year and a half after Mary passed away.
“Losing my mom was beyond difficult,” Emily says. “She was a big part of the business, always dreaming things up with me, challenging us, gluing us together.”
Though their first choice was to construct the tasting room directly on their nearby vineyard site, complications with road permits prevented it. Instead, they found a suitable building about 4.5 miles away, on Duck Lake Road in Lake Leelanau.
The airy, pastel-painted space is warm and welcoming. Guests step into a main entryway that leads to the tasting bar. Off to the left, a cozy lounge area sports a sofa, armchair, and shelves lined with books. They include several penned by Michael; one, The World Shifted, chronicles Mary’s cancer journey. To the right, a hallway leads to a private room where the Goodells can accommodate small groups.
“I want people to feel welcome and comfortable, to enjoy some of the Leelanau spirit and sense of place enough to want to take a souvenir of their experience home,” Emily says.
Amoritas has already garnered kudos for its wines, including a gold medal for a 2016 Chardonnay and silvers for Pinot Gris and Riesling in the Mid-American Wine Festival.
“We really wanted to shoot for mixing Old World and New World styles,” Matt says. “I think all of our wines are food pairable and can enhance the food and be enhanced by food also. But they’re also just really approachable and drinkable on their own.”
The Goodells plan to host events and plant more grapes, including Gewürztraminer and a yet-to-be-determined red, possibly Gamay Noir.
“We’ve had some challenges, and I’m just proud of us for keeping going and not quitting, especially when it was hard,” Emily says. “That we were able to grow clean, quality fruit and make wines — both with French Road [Cellars] and by ourselves — and have the final product be something I actually enjoy is just so rewarding.
“So I suppose when people walk in, I want them to feel all of the love that we put into this project, and the way we’ve allowed it to be part of our truth, uniting us as a family.”
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.