Big brother, little brother; big wine, little winery
Peter and Michael Laing are brothers. Peter is the big brother and Michael is the younger. They also are the partners behind bigLITTLE wines
here in the Leelanau Peninsula.
Many families are in the wine business, from famous folks like the Mondavis, whose brothers Michael and Tim are sons of the American wine icon, Robert Mondavi, to the Moueix family of Bordeaux. Christian Moueix makes the world-renowned wine Chateau Petrus ($2,750.00 a bottle!) while his older brother Jean-Francois has a chain of wine stores in France.
The Laing brothers might not quite be on that scale yet, but one thing is the same: they are in this business because of their love of wine and the land. Neither one is a classically trained winemaker. Peter is an industrial engineer while Michael is a math teacher. So much for getting stuck in a career rut.
The Laing family had vacationed in the Peninsula as the boys grew up. Their father, Stuart Laing, was seeking a change of pace from the world of manufacturing downstate. He and his wife, Sharon Laing, decided to make their move north.
After their parents planted two thousand vines of Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir in 2003, the call of the Leelanau grew stronger still for Peter and Michael. Spending countless hours working in the vineyards and cellars of friends and neighbors, the Laing brothers became full-time winemakers by 2010.
Aided by their friend and mentor, Larry Mawby, they began producing wines at the L. Mawby winery
. Michael has worked for Larry Mawby for about five years. He's now the assistant winemaker. He also spent time in New Zealand learning the craft of winemaking from some expert Kiwi winemakers. Peter has been with Larry Mawby for more than two years, now as operations manager.
Most unusually, the brothers share the responsibilities of winemaking and business development for bigLITTLE wines. As Michael says, "We make all the winemaking decisions together, as well as all of the business decisions."
It's certainly fortunate that they're "best friends forever," Peter enthusiastically chimes in. Both are analytical thinkers.
"Michael is more creative than I am; I'm the process flow guy. But while we occasionally disagree on minor matters, we're always on the same page for the big decisions," says Peter.
The greatest challenge up to this point was their logo. The brothers were adamant that it be "just right." After letting numerous ideas and concepts "ferment" for more than two years, they agreed bigLITTLE expressed who they are and the wines they want to make.
Not only does the brand represent both big and little brothers, it also embodies their style of winemaking. The wines are big in flavors, full-bodied and robust. The Leelanau is the little peninsula where they are crafting big white wines.
All of their wines are made at the L. Mawby winery. Larry Mawby, a legend in Michigan winemaking, has been instrumental in helping the Laings every step of the way.
"He's not only our mentor, he's a great friend who understands what we're all about," says Michael. Another renowned Michigan winemaker, Bryan Ulbrich of Left Foot Charley
wines, is lending an experienced hand in the production of a couple of wines from the 2011 vintage.
In November 2011 the Laings released their first wines. Crayfish, a white wine made from 100 percent pinot gris from the Leelanau Peninsula. Here's a little secret: pinot gris and pinot grigio are the same grape. Called pinot grigio in Italy, this grape makes delicious wines varying in style from crisp and clean to soft and supple. The grapes for this initial offering were handpicked and fermented in stainless steel and two types of oak barrels. This dry wine is fruity and round. Crayfish is an excellent accompaniment to whitefish, pesto pizza or scallops.
Tire Swing is a sparkling wine made in a brut style. Brut bubblies are actually drier than extra dry sparklers. This blend of Riesling, Gewurztraminer, pinot gris and pinot noir grapes has aromas of apples and pears with a dry, elegant finish. All the grapes were handpicked from the Old Mission Peninsula and the Leelanau Peninsula. Perfect as an aperitif, this complex wine pairs well with just about any food, particularly popcorn.
This summer brings two new wines from the brothers in wine. Mixtape is a fun and fruity blend of Riesling, pinot gris and pinot noir. Offdry and aromatic, great for picnics, poolside and quaffing anytime. Spicy dishes, like buffalo wings, Pad Thai and Indian curries are all complimented by this fresh new wine.
The most unusual wine made by Michael and Peter is Treehouse. This white still wine is composed of 100 percent pinot noir grapes.That's right, a white wine created solely from pinot noir grapes. Made by pressing the whole grape cluster, the brothers minimize the time the juice is in contact with the grapeskins, where the color pigments reside.
Blanc de Noirs champagne is also produced from black-skinned pinot noir grapes. Blanc de Noirs means literally "white of blacks" so Treehouse is their still version of a fine champagne. This dry white wine will be soft, rich and full of body. This may be the biggest white wine you will enjoy this summer. Pair it with roast chicken, shrimp Alfredo or lobster.
Currently, production is still very limited. As the business expands Peter and Michael will continue to express themselves and the grapes from Northwest Michigan in unique and delectable wines. There's a lot going on at bigLITTLE wines and even more to come.
Michael Schafer, Esq. Sommelier aka The Wine Counselor is a writer, educator and consultant whose trademark phrase, "I taste bad wine so you don't have to" embodies his humorous approach to wine. You can reach him by email.
Photos by Andrew Williamson