Old Mission winery keeps expanding its horizons
As a visitor might guess from the grandeur of its setting, Chateau Chantal'
s ambitions have never been limited to the 65 acres on Old Mission peninsula that it started off with in the early 1980s.
At one of the highest points on the peninsula that rambles some 18 miles out M-37 and rises 211 feet above Lake Michigan's Grand Traverse Bay, the rolling property offers an arresting view of the water's east and west arms -- a sure sign of the young vineyard's soaring intentions even back then.
It was the view that led founders Robert and Nadine Begin -- former Roman Catholic priest and nun -- to establish their original vineyard at the location in the early 1980s and a bed and breakfast there a decade later, says their daughter, 32-year-old Marie-Chantal Dalese, marketing director and namesake of the development.
Over the years, the Begins have kept expanding their horizons. They have steadily brought more acreage under cultivation, mechanized their operations, taken on shareholders, forged alliances with Old Mission farmers, and even established a foreign outpost in a winemaking region of South America. Currently, Chateau Chantal is expanding distribution outside Michigan and undertaking a $1.1-million expansion of its tasting room and cellar to handle its growing tourist trade and wine production.
But despite all the changes, Chateau Chantal's goal has remained the same: simply to offer an intimate bed-and-breakfast experience at a winery and vineyard, where the owners live on site -- right above the tasting room, in fact.
"The point from the beginning was that there is an overlap between people who love bed and breakfasts and people who love wines," says Dalese, who lived at the inn for two years before heading off to college.
To their guests' great relief, they find that Michigan's Napa North is no Napa West -- at least not yet. On Old Mission, they don't encounter the throngs of visitors and the traffic jams of the West Coast wine destination on busy weekends.
For its part, Chateau Chantal looks to Europe as its model, trying to re-create the feeling of a stay at a French chateau. "There you taste the wine made from grapes grown right outside your door, and eat the local food specialties," she says.
Last year Chateau Chantal was named one of the top country inns in the U.S. by the upscale website gayot.com
. The sprawling facility, vaguely reminiscent of the missions of the U.S. Southwest, has 11 rooms, a 2,000-foot common area for B&B guests, an imposing entrance portico, and porches strategically positioned to maximize the dramatic vistas around it.
"And you have people working in the tasting room who may be the farmer, one of the owners, the winemaker or people who are local and really knowledgeable," says Dalese, who recently returned to her namesake winery after more than a decade studying abroad and working in the wine trade. "So you get a better sense of the region and what makes the wines here special."
Of course, there can be no full appreciation of wine without good food, and Chateau Chantal has had to struggle a bit on that score. It was only in 2004 that Peninsula Township officials gave estate wineries the green light to offer dinner seminars and lunchtime "tapas tours." Along with the B&B's culinary classes, each with a strong educational component, these events helped turn Chateau Chantal into a year-round destination.
The wine estate's next goal is to win approval to hold medium- and large-scale weddings and receptions. "We get requests for this all the time," Dalese says. While not completely ruling out weddings, current zoning drastically limits their size and potential to a mere 42 guests.
Chateau Chantal's wines and free wine tastings are, of course, the big draw: Its cellar contains a selection of whites and reds -- Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Grigio, Merlot, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Meunier, Ice Wine, sparkling, fortified, Eau de Vie -- six of which won gold medals at the 2009 Taster's Guild International wine judging.
If the growth now underway is any indication, the Chateau Chantal formula is certainly working. As part of its current project, it is adding 1,800 square feet to its tasting room and creating a 2,700-square-foot patio for outdoor tasting. Its wine cellar, already filled to the brim, is being expanded by 10,000 square feet. "It won't be used in its entirety right away, but it's there for the long haul," Dalese says.
Chateau Chantal also owns 43 acres of Malbec grapes, one of the constituents of a classic Bordeaux, in the province of Mendoza in Argentina, and winemaker Mark Johnson regularly travels there to make the rich wines of this varietal. The grape does not flourish in Michigan.
Dalese herself is perhaps the best example of Chateau Chantal's internationalization. When the time came for her to get an advanced degree in the wine business, she headed off to the University of Adelaide in Australia, still one of the few colleges in the world to offer a master's in the field. She then spent several years in wine distribution and retailing in Chicago before coming back to the estate last year.
At first, Dalese wanted to gain experience outside the family company. But by 2009, the timing seemed right to move back to the peninsula with husband Paul. She took on the role of marketing manager, and Paul, who is originally from Adelaide, works as vineyard manager. "I wanted to be actively involved in it and carry it forward," she says.
Her experience is being put to good use. Chateau Chantal has sealed its first contract to begin distributing outside Michigan. "This year, we started distributing in Illinois. We have broken out, but not with any large volumes." She is optimistic about the future, though. "There will be greater awareness of Michigan wines as more and more vineyards are planted and more wineries are created." Gary Hoffman is a longtime journalist, translator and freelance writer based in Ann Arbor.