Sunday, March 29, 2009

Circa Estate Winery Opens on Northwest Michigan's Leelanau Peninsula

The latest winery to spring from the Leelanau Peninsula’s rolling landscape is Circa Estate Winery – owned by Margaret and David Bell of Leland Township. The Bells tucked their eco-friendly winery into a scenic hillside on their 50-acre farm on Horn Road, where they also make their home in a renovated 1880s farmhouse.

The couple’s winemaking passion began with their own, when they traveled on dates to Southwest Michigan vineyards to pick grapes. After marrying, they planted vines as landscaping at their suburban Chicago home. They also vacationed in the fall at a Leelanau winery, accepting grapes as payment for their picking, which were taken back to Chicago and used in their burgeoning home winemaking.

What David calls “an avocation” grew in time to inspiration, one that compelled the Bells to buy property where Margaret’s family had summered and her great-uncle had homesteaded. Margaret put her music career on hold, David left his job in insurance, and the couple moved to Leelanau permanently in 1992.

Since they first hand-planted three acres of grapevines 17 years ago, the pair has slowly expanded their vineyard, first selling grapes to area wineries, and finally adding favorites for making their Circa wines. Today’s farm includes 24 acres of vinifera and hybrid vines, producing whites such as Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Riesling; and reds such as Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Franconia – a red grape grown in the South Danube River region.

Owner-winemaker Margaret describes Franconia (also known as Lemberger) as “one of the relatively few red grapes that ripen well in cooler areas and makes a deeply-colored, red wine that’s accessible, like our Requisite.”

Circa also offers Improvisation, what Margaret calls an “off-dry” white wine, and Cherry Bop, a sparkling wine made with the region’s other famous fruit.

The Bells have pledged to use only local grapes in their wines, and Margaret can be found at harvest time carefully examining grapes in the vineyard, often making the decision to leave as much as 50% of the clusters that David and the vineyard staff have carefully nurtured on the ground.

Her criteria for picking was developed through years of visiting vineyards in Ontario and New York; by taking classes in Philadelphia and through University of California, Davis; and by studying alongside award-winning Leelanau winemakers. All grapes at Circa are hand sorted, removing stems and leaves, before going in the hopper (crusher).

Six wines are currently available to sip in the recently-completed tasting room.

“We wanted a building that looked like it had been here forever,” Margaret says, explaining the feeling she and her husband hoped to convey through the winery’s Old World-style architecture.

A definite European flavor prevails outside, with an eight-foot, carved-wood front door; stucco-type walls; graduated, tiled rooflines; copper eaves and wrought-iron accents.

Local craftspeople worked diligently to produce the cellar-like interior ambiance created by low lighting, dark wood beams and a wide, quarter-sawn oak bar; deep-hued, hand-rubbed wall surfaces; tiled floors; and small windows carefully positioned to let in shafts of angled light and views from the vineyard, not the parking lot.

“I want you to forget everything else when you’re here,” Margaret explains.

Works by local artists, including oils by David Grath, watercolors by John Scott and paintings by Dan Lisuk, will soon grace the walls. A cozy sitting area off to the side offers visitors and locals a place to unwind, with mostly-jazz melodies from the grand piano. Comfortable seating next to the fireplace – with a black walnut mantle carved from a tree on the farm – is set for intimate conversation, with Wi-Fi access for those seeking a quiet work area or place to hang out. Large groups must make special arrangements in advance for a visit, and Circa will keep later hours than most Leelanau wineries – offering live music on an outdoor patio.

In keeping with their commitment to be as gentle as possible on the environment, the Bells have placed a sod roof over the production area, to maintain the work room’s temperature and funneled heat generated from vats of fermenting wine to the tasting room’s geothermal heating system.

From the vineyard to the wine to the tasting room, the Bells have taken great pride and passion in cultivating a viticultural experience that is as elegant as it is inviting. Circa is truly a one-of-a-kind destination, nestled in the heart of Northern Michigan’s wine country.

“Each vintage at Circa is unique,” Margaret proudly says. “As a winemaker, you can stick to making wine from a book, or you can truly develop a distinctive style.”

It’s clear which path Margaret and David prefer.

- end -

Cabernet Franc ~ Requisite ~ Pinot Grigio ~ Chardonnay ~ Improvisation ~ Cherry Bop
7788 East Horn Road ~ Lake Leelanau, MI 49653

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