Boskydel Bosky: Having trees or shrubs; slang for tipsy
By Jim Rink
Editor, The American Wine Society Wine Journal
I first realized that my father was serious about growing grapes when he announced his intention to raze our modest, but popular baseball diamond in favor of a nursery. My brothers and I created that ball park, hacking it out from a fallow field with a regular push-type lawnmower. We even built a substantial chicken-wire backstop to halt the progress of an errant pitch.
In a rude reversal of the magical "Field of Dreams" scenario, Bernie Rink told us the diamond would have to go, replaced by a crop that no one in those parts had ever heard of-wine grapes. Little did we know at the time, that his field of dreams would eventually lead to the establishment of the commercial wine industry in northern Michigan.
It began in 1965, when dad got hold of Phil Wagner's book, "American Wines and Winemaking" (published today as "Grapes Into Wine"). As the library director of Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City, he had access to a lot of books. He also had access to land, having bought 16 rolling acres in the middle of Leelanau County, the state's "little finger," jutting out into northern Lake Michigan. Sitting on the 45th parallel, the peninsula is on a latitudinal par with winegrowing regions in southern France and northern Italy.
In an effort to turn his five sons into economic assets, Bernie decided to plant a one-acre test plot of several French-American hybrid grape varieties and a few of the less hardy vitis vinifera-Chardonnay, Johannisberg Riesling and Gewurtztraminer. Back then, the hybrids were all numbered - Seibel 5279 (Aurore), Seibel 7053 (Chancellor), Seibel 9549 (deChaunac), Seibel 10878 (Chelois) and Seibel 13053 (Cascade). Seibel, needless to say, had a lot of time on his hands.
As economic assets, we were expected to chop weeds in the sweltering heat of mid-summer and pick grapes in the stinging sleet of late fall. Not to mention pruning in knee-deep snow in the winter and sorting out the good wood, which would be plunged into our new-found nursery in the spring to repeat the endless, monotonous cycle.But it was fun. We used to make up lively little songs about the vineyard to the tune of "Tah, Rah, Rah, Boom-de-ay":
We work at Boskydel,
the closest thing to hell.
We're never treated well,
at slave camp Boskydel.
Working closely with Bernie in the early days was retired Michigan State University chemistry professor Bob Herbst, who established an experimental vineyard of his own in 1971 on the cooler east shore of Lake Michigan. Due to the difference in microclimate between the two sites, Herbst's hybrids would often ripen a week later.
In the ensuing years, Herbst and Rink played host to numerous would-be winemakers, entrepreneurs, members of the media and the just plain curious. All of the individuals who would one day open their own wineries in the region began by talking to these two trailblazers.
Both men began their avocations strictly in the amateur sense. But then, with Rink, something went horribly wrong. The vision of five sons-all that free labor-proved to be irresistible, instilling a larger, grander desire.
In 1970, Rink's initial one-acre test plot was expanded to include 16 additional acres of wine grapes, establishing the first commercial wine vineyard in northern Michigan.
In 1975, construction began on Boskydel Vineyard, the first bonded winecellar in Leelanau County. Rink, the boss of Boskydel, owned 56 acres of land, 25 acres planted in grapes. In 1976, Boskydel opened its tasting room overlooking scenic Lake Leelanau, selling its own estate-bottled wines.
In 1974, on nearby Old Mission Peninsula, business entrepreneur Ed O'Keefe founded Chateau Grand Traverse, which would evolve into a state-of-the-art winery and vineyard operation with an emphasis on European vinifera varietal wines. His first commercial crop was in 1978.
In addition to European vinifera, Chateau Grand Traverse produced a unique product line which blended locally-grown fruit with the aforementioned varietals: Cherry Wine, Cherry Riesling, Spiced Cherry Wine, Cherry Wine Sangria, Cherry Ginseng and Cranberry Riesling.
Boskydel's varietals - Vignoles, Soleil Blanc, Seyval Blanc, deChaunac and Rose de Chaunac - are decidedly French in character. They are crisp, clear wines with a touch of oak and plenty of time in the bottle. The winery bottles approximately 6,500 gallons per year. Emphasis is placed on intensive viticulture. "If you grow good grapes, the wine will make itself," Rink says.
In 1977, Leelanau Wine Cellars, Ltd. debuted. Begun by local cherry grower Chuck Kalchik and his partner, attorney Mike Jacobson, the winery was the largest on the Leelanau Peninsula. Nate Stackhouse, their first winemaker, was a congenial, outgoing individual. He and my father shared many an afternoon comparing notes and vintages. Nate once helped us out with a mysterious pectin haze which developed in one of our reds. Leelanau is probably most famous for its cherry wine, a mainstay that will always be popular with the tourists who visit Traverse City, the "Cherry Capitol of the World."
In 1978, Larry Mawby unveiled the third Leelanau Peninsula winery: L. Mawby Vineyards. Called "the best of a new breed of Michigan winemakers" by Detroit Free Press writer James Ricci, Mawby lives up to his reputation by producing traditional, French-style table wines of the highest quality. L. Mawby's annual production is small, on purpose. Crucial to the Mawby method are imported French oak barrels and a high-powered air rifle to "scare" the birds away in the fall.
Both Mawby and Rink subscribe to the French "dying vine theory" which broadly states: the harder a vine has to struggle to survive, the better the wine. This does not mean they go to great lengths to harm the vine; they just don't go out of their way to help it.
Larry was one of our best customers at the baseball field, uh, I mean, grape nursery. His first vineyard was planted in the spring of 1973. His mainstay varietals are Vignoles, Seyval Blanc, Marechal Foch, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay. Mawby makes a methode champenoise Brut sparkling wine from his estate vineyards.
To the uninitiated, Mawby's winery is difficult to locate. Visits by groups numbering more than 20 persons are frequently discouraged. Boskydel is not so easy to find either. The proprietor often asks customers if they are lost. This adds to the mystery and allure of shopping for wine in Leelanau County.
Last, but not least in the roster of Leelanau Peninsula wine pioneers is Good Harbor Vineyards, founded by the late Bruce Simpson. Opened in 1980, the winery was initially equipped with 30,000 gallons of stainless steel cooperage and 2,500 French oak barrels.
The Simpson family has been in the fruit business on the Leelanau Peninsula since the mid-1950s. Bruce studied enology at the University of California-Davis until 1978, when he began planting wine grapes, courtesy of our baseball field, uh, I mean, grape nursery.
Good Harbor is most famous for its delightful blend, Trillium. The label was a marketing masterpiece, based on a popular Michigan wildflower, which resulted in wide acclaim and increased sales. Other Good Harbor varieties include Vignoles, Seyval Blanc, Marechal Foch, Riesling, Chardonnay, Carmine, Lemberger and Pinot Gris.
Simpson, Mawby and Rink are responsible for promoting Leelanau Peninsula wines and putting them, and the industry, in the limelight. There are now two wine festivals each summer which draw large crowds, and the wineries are constantly filled with loyal customers who spread the word on the newest local vintages.
In 1985, in recognition of the growing importance of winegrowing to the state, Gov. James Blanchard formed the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council, of which Rink was a founding member.
It's hard to imagine that, from a former baseball field, 30 wineries and scores of vineyards have sprung into existence. Will Michigan's "little finger" become the Napa Valley of the North? What happens if more than 20 people visit L. Mawby Vineyards? Will people ever get tired of the name "Trillium?"
The questions raised by these and other pressing problems remain to be answered. Personally, I'm more worried about the fate of Boskydel's nursery. Several years ago, my father razed it to plant Chinese chestnuts, which he likes to roast on top of a wood-burning stove for customers.
Who knows? Maybe someday it will be a baseball field again. Well, a guy can dream, can't he?
(l-r) Bernie Rink, Leon Adams, Bob Herbst. Leon Adams was author of Wines of America. Bob Herbst was a retired Chemistry professor from Michigan State, who had his own test vineyard near Leland, Mich.
Boskydel is open
1-5 p.m. Fri.-Sun.
(new winter hours)