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New, hardier grape varieties could be solution for Midwest winemakers

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Dan Wanschura
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Interlochen Public Radio
Buckets of young grape vines ready to be planted at Chateau Chantal in Traverse City.

Winemaker Mark Johnson realized to grow grapes in a changing climate, he needed hardier grapes. Now his son Mattias is carrying out that vision.

It was August 2017 and Mattias Johnson was in a fog.

He was at a memorial service for his father, Mark, who had just passed away from cancer complications at 65.

“A million things were going through my mind...given that I had just given a eulogy and now was meeting dozens of people that I’d never met before,” he recalls.

Mattias’ father Mark Johnson was one of the first winemakers in northern Michigan. And one of the lessons he learned was to grow grapes here, you had to adapt to climate change.

So he formed a business to research and eventually plant more hardy grape varieties in the region.

But on that day back in 2017, that business wasn’t on the mind of his son Mattias. Until one of his father’s partners pulled him aside and said,

“Obviously you have other things going on right now…but we did mention this to your mom, she thought you might be interested in taking over the day to day which was my father’s role in this company.”

But Mattias was a lawyer. Not a winemaker.

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Dan Wanschura
Mattias Johnson at his law office in Traverse City. Here he's looking over some of his dad's hardy grape notes.

Mark Johnson moved to the Old Mission Peninsula in 1983, and he decided to plant a vineyard on his property.

“We’ve got a gut feeling. We look around us and we think this is about as close to heaven as we’re going to get, and there should be a vineyard in heaven. So we’re planting,” said Mark in an interview with IPR in 2015.

Growing grapes went pretty well for a while. But then the brutally cold winters of 2014 and 2015 hit.

Those winters were so rough, that much of northern Michigan’s grape crop was wiped out in back to back years.

Mark Johnson knew this could continue to be a problem for farmers across the Midwest.

“He kinda just wanted to be on the solving side of this,” recalls Mattias. “We can complain about problems and we can look for governmental programs to help subsidize or things like that. At the same time we can see if there’s better solutions and try to figure those out.”

That drive for answers led Mark back to Germany– the place where he learned winemaking.

He and a handful of others went there looking for grape varieties that might be able to withstand colder temperatures and still make good-tasting wine.

What they came back with was about 19 different types of wine to taste and test.

Mattias says his dad's team considered a bunch of different factors.

“Is this too close to something we already have? Is this too different from the things that are generally accepted and the vinifera flavor profile?”

The term vinifera basically means the grapevine originated in Europe. They’re well-known wine flavors you’re probably familiar with: Chardonnay, Pinot noir, Cabernet Franc.

So, eventually Mark and his business partners narrow these 19 different kinds down to four: one red and three whites.

Eric Amberg is one of the partners based out of upstate New York.

“If they don’t have vinifera flavors there’s…a much more difficult learning curve that has to be done...to get people to appreciate and try stuff like that.”

He says the four wines they settled on have vinifera flavors– like Muscat, Riesling, and Dornfelder.

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Dan Wanschura
New grape vines are loaded onto a trailer at Chateau Chantal in May 2021.

Once Mark and his group settled on those varieties, the group began the long, tedious process of importing the grape vines.

To do that, the vines had to be quarantined for three years when they were imported to the U.S. to make sure they didn’t carry any diseases.

Once that was over, they were planted for three more years in New York to produce vines for Michigan.

All the while Mark Johnson was waiting. But during that wait, in the spring of 2017, he discovered he had esophageal cancer.

Initially, Mattias says his dad didn’t seem too worried about the diagnosis.

“Going to different hospitals and getting different opinions on what needed to be done and eventually settling on a procedure to just remove it,” he says. “They had caught it early enough that it wasn’t going to be needing chemo or radiation or anything like that.”

But unfortunately, after a complication from surgery, his dad later passed away at 65.

And that takes us back to the memorial service, where Mattias was asked to step into the business to take his dad’s place. As a criminal defense and family lawyer, he’s quick to say he’s no expert on wine. But that didn’t stop him from saying “yes.”

“You know when you’re in the sort of post-death reflective period– I think it was kind of cathartic for me to have something that I could hold onto and be a part of,” he says. “You know I knew he would be excited to see it continue and to see us continue to have an integral role in that.”

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Dan Wanschura
People gather at Chateau Chantal to witness the planting of new grape vines varieties from Germany. A initiative Mark Johnson set in motion before his death in 2017.

On a late spring day about four years after Mark Johnson died, Mattias and a small group of people slowly gather on the Old Mission Peninsula.

“We don’t typically come out here and watch plantings happen because it’s a bit of a mundane experience,” he says candidly.

278 new grape vines– the hardy varieties that Mark imported from Germany are being planted at Chateau Chantal. Not only are these vines believed to be cold resistant, but also disease resistant.

Because the climate in northern Michigan can get humid, grape vines are susceptible to mildew. But these vines have been bred to better resist those types of diseases.

To test just how much they can handle, the vines planted in one of the coldest locations on the property– a low valley where frost tends to gather.

“If they do well here they will do well anywhere,” says Edson Pontes, now one of Mattias' business partners.

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Dan Wanschura
Edson Pontes holds a few of the hardy grape vines before they are planted at Chateau Chantal on the Old Mission Peninsula.

Not only is this a big moment for the friends, family, and business partners gathered here, but it’s a big moment for grape growers in the Midwest. These varieties could be the key to growing grapes in unpredictable climates for years to come.

After a few vines are planted, Mattias Johnson raises a toast.

“Today is six years in the making. And a very long process, but very exciting to get the plants in the ground,” he says. “And for I think some of us, a little bit of a feeling of rebirth and something that Mark was obviously a part of back then and so to get these in the ground and see them grow and see what they can do, I think is really exciting.”

It’ll still be about three more years before these new vines will be ready to produce grapes for wine. But today, Mattias Johnson is just happy that another one of his dad’s dreams is finally realized.

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Dan Wanschura
Cold and disease resistant variety of grape vine are planted at Chateau Chantal in May 2021.

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Ever since he was young, Dan has been fascinated with radio. From hearing the dulcet tones of John Gordon broadcast Minnesota Twins games, to staying up late listening to radio theater, he was captivated by the imaginative medium.