Vineyard Volunteers

Help from the locals keeps Northern Sun Winery Running smooth

Above, Kim Johnson (left) coordinates pickers as they go deep into vines for grapes. Inset, Summer Sunday afternoon concerts on the vineyard grounds,     overseen by the winery dog, Smitty.

Dave and Susie Anthony of Bark River, Northern Sun Winery owners.

Smitty, recognized as Midwest Winery Dog of the year in 2013, sits in front of some Northern Sun wine, ready for shipping.

By Nancy Mathews

Photos courtesy of Northern Sun Winery

When wines from Northern Sun Winery recently took top honors in a Sonoma County, California, vintner competition, Anthony Vineyards President David Anthony quipped, “It’s all about the quality of our pickers.” But, of course, it all began long before those volunteer pickers harvested mature grapes at the Upper Peninsula’s premier estate-grown winery.

The U.P.’s nontraditional climate and season for growing grapes may seem an unlikely environment for producing award-winning wines. But Anthony and his wife Susie and a cadre of family, friends, neighbors, customers and others interested in their craft have defied the odds for more than 10 years to coax exceptional qualities and local flavor from the 5,000-plus plantings on their 5.5 acres of vines south of Bark River.

Northern Sun varietals have been carefully selected to flourish in the south-central U.P.’s long, warm summer days and its cold winters, Anthony explained. This care in establishing the right grapes for climate and conditions has yielded distinctive flavors that recently won Northern Sun special recognition in the fall 2017 Harvest Challenge competition in Sonoma wine country. The vineyard’s estate-grown, produced and bottled Marquette and LaCrescent wines each won best of class; the white LaCrescent also received a gold award while the popular Marquette red received a coveted double gold. Other Northern Sun award winners from the 2016 season recognized in Sonoma were its Pater (silver), Sur-Lie Frog (silver) and Sole Di Sera (bronze).

Starting in 1999 with several dozen vine plantings and expanded in 2005 with the addition of more than 1,000 hybrid varietal plants developed by the University of Minnesota for cold climates, the Anthonys and a handful of volunteers launched the commercial estate-grown winery operation. In the beginning, hard, rocky ground yielded to the post-digger, and fragile vines put down roots in western Delta County farmland.

Now beginning its seventh year of full production, Northern Sun’s owners spend winter months processing and fermenting wines, like those pressed from 20 tons of the tasty green and red orbs harvested last fall. The 2017 harvest between mid-September and mid-October involved some 75-plus volunteers of all ages with a wide range of backgrounds and interests.

Among early harvest volunteers at Northern Sun were Estelle and Kel Smyth of Escanaba, who thought it might be fun to try their hand at picking. He tried it first and soon they were both “hooked.”

“It turned out to be fun because of the other volunteers who started to help with the harvest,” Estelle said. “Lots of conversation around the vines, family stories, jokes and how great the weather is or isn’t.”

That camaraderie also appeals to retirees Don and Sue Victorson of Escanaba, who were new volunteers in 2017. Don brought with him a bit of vineyard experience: as a young soldier stationed in Germany, he and his company were regularly called out to the vines to help German growers bring in their grapes.

For those who have participated in Northern Sun’s harvests, the photo of volunteer “John” (see above) certainly represents the community nature of the winery harvest and its enthusiastic volunteers.

Reminiscent of farm gatherings of the past like barn-raisings, Northern Sun picking weekends become a social as well as agricultural event. It’s a come-as-you-are, come-when-you-can affair beginning at 9 a.m. and sometimes running into the early evening hours when the vines are especially productive.

Each picker, armed with a bin and pruning clippers, takes his/her place along assigned rows to clear the day’s designated vines of their fruit. The atmosphere is casual and chatty, tales told and banter crossing the rows and through the vines. The vineyard dog, Smitty, welcomes each new picker, then patrols the rows of volunteers or tracks wildlife in nearby fields. Full bins of grapes are collected and carried away to be pressed in the wine cellar.

A hearty lunch and afternoon snack breaks are provided, buoying volunteers’ energies. “Yummy…lunch is always excellent,” Kel Smyth said.

The day concludes in the Northern Sun tasting room or under the vine-covered pergola outside, sipping their favorite red, white or fruit wines (yes, the winery also bottles apple and rhubarb varieties).

“The wine is awesome,” Estelle added.

Volunteer Kim Johnson and her family of Bark River have been a part of the harvest for about five years; her husband, Scott Lange, assists in the wine cellar with pressing grapes as they come from the field where she coordinates the pickers. Their children, 11-year-old Sisu and 9-year-old Tillie, have grown up around the vineyard and know enough about the grapes and the operation to assist with details when Anthony gives group tours of the grounds and facilities.

“The harvest experience has been a positive one for my children,” she said. “The many different people who come for picking have given them insights into so many facets of life, work and diversity. They come away each season with a sense of being involved in something special.”

Volunteers come from throughout the central U.P., some experienced pickers and others simply curious about the process of grape growing and wine-making. Customers—impressed by the quality of the wine they’ve experienced in the tasting room—turn out to volunteer. The Anthonys host each year’s volunteers at a “pickers’ party,” which in July 2017 was an Italian-inspired spread on tables set up in the vines among the maturing grapes.

“The feeling of helping and working alongside friends creates a sense of community,” said Mimi Klotz of Escanaba, who is a regular picker along with her husband, Gregg Bruff. “Dave and Susie are good people who care tremendously about those around them. Their grapes and wines are cultivated with passion, and that passion motivates others to be involved with them.”

In addition to the cold-climate hybrid LaCrescent and Marquette varietals that produced the recent award-winning wines of the same names, vintner Anthony has created a range of wines and blends appealing to all tastes, from dry to sweet. Along with LaCrescent, white wines with colorful names include Splendor Di Sole, St. Pepin, Moon Dance, Ragazza Di Sole, Brianna, Rosé and the oak-casked Sur-Lie Frog. The popular Marquette red is an estate reserve; other ruby-hued wines are Leon Millet (“leo-meo”) and blends Sole Di Sera and Pater, the latter named in tribute to Anthony’s father, Bob Anthony of Marquette, who is one of the vineyard’s most dedicated volunteers. Add a pink dry rose’, a new-for-2017 ice wine (Winter Kiss) and the occasional fruit varieties, and Northern Sun’s fermenting tanks are kept full and busy—to the delight of its customers year-round.

Northern Sun’s volunteers assist throughout the year, too, helping with pruning, bottling, lunches, grounds-keeping, promotion and some of the special community events hosted on the vineyard grounds. Each summer, Susie Anthony and her volunteers plan and host four benefit concerts in cooperation with local charitable organizations. The second-Sunday series from June through September brings live music to the outdoor pergola for a relaxing afternoon of entertainment, drawing locals and visitors alike and benefitting the causes of co-host groups. In late summer, the vineyard features prominently as the starting and ending point of a 5K “Off the Vines” run, co-hosted by the local Heart of the North Lioness Club.

Weddings, reunions, retirement parties and other gatherings draw groups to experience the unique rural setting of the vineyard in the rolling hills south of Bark River. The picturesque venue attracts artists and photographers, while the winery’s products draw the interest of many small private winemakers.

The vineyard serves as a “Harvest Host” stopover site for campers with self-contained recreational vehicles; visitors overnight on the grounds of their agricultural hosts under the program. Northern Sun also participates in Travel Michigan’s “Pure Michigan” promotional campaign and regularly hosts travelers on winery tours—a growing phenomenon in the U.P.

Past awards for Northern Sun’s wines have come from competitions in Michigan and around the country: the Indy International Wine Competition (Indianapolis), the International Women’s Wine Competition (California), the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition (New York State) and the International Cold Climate Wine Competition (Minneapolis). In addition to producing award-winning wines, Northern Sun has been recognized as Best Small Business for 2015 by the Michigan Small Business Development Center, U.P. Region. And the winery’s loveable pooch, Smitty, captured “Midwest Winery Dog of the Year” honors in 2013.

Besides Northern Sun wines’ availability in the vineyard’s tasting room, central Upper Peninsula stores stocking its estate beverages include: Michigan Made in Marquette and Houghton, EconoFoods in Marquette; U.P. Inspired in Munising, and Pat’s Foods in Gladstone.

For more information, visit northernsunwinery.com, call 399-9212 or find Northern Sun Winery on Facebook.

MM

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