Traversing Three Generations: Bowers Harbor Vineyards
Spencer Stegnega remembers his childhood filled with animals–cows, chickens, geese, sheep, even a few horses his family boarded on their 20-acre property.
‘It was a full-fledged gentleman’s farm, but I, as the youngest of three children was the idiot taking care of it,” he says, laughing at the memories of chasing after (and getting chased by) some of the animals.
Today Spencer, 39, works just as hard on this same property, though the animals no longer are there. Instead he’s growing grapes as proprietor of Bowers Harbor Vineyards.
‘Now we have 20,000 animals that don’t get out at night,” he jokes, standing in the horse stable-turned-tasting room and glancing out toward the rows of vines that now grace the family property.
Spencer, along with his mother Linda, oversee Bowers Harbor, Old Mission’s second-oldest winery (Chateau Grand Traverse is the first). Tucked neatly next to rolling hills and expansive public parkland and offering views of West Grand Traverse Bay, the ’boutique winery” produces Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, and its signature meritage blend the 2896, Langley Vineyard.
It all began when Spencer’s late father Jack, a stockbroker, was talked into trying his hand at growing grapes in the early 1990s by fellow Old Mission resident Ed O’Keefe of Chateau Grand Traverse.
‘Ed convinced my dad to grow some vines and he’d buy the grapes,” he says.
Bowers Harbor started with 2,500 vines, and in its second year, O’Keefe suggested to his friend that he start up a winery as well, believing that another winery on Old Mission would draw more visitors to the area to enjoy their vintages.
Bowers Harbor Vineyards was the first winery in Michigan to produce pinot grigio, in 1996. The winery will produce 5,000 cases of pinot grigio this year. In fact, it’s the No. 1 Michigan-produced pinot grigio in the state, according to proprietor Spencer Stegnega.
‘It’s a variety we can consistently get right and rely on year in and year out,” he says.
Spencer spent his teen years learning the art of growing grapes for wine. Bowers Harbor added a tasting room in 1992, while its wine was being produced at Chateau Grand Traverse and, eventually, at other regional wineries.
Bowers Harbor started production with 150 cases of wine, and two decades later boasts a total production of some 15,000 cases. Spencer is proud of the winery’s No. 8 state production ranking out of 90-some Michigan wineries ‘The growth has mainly come in the last four years,” he says.
In addition to growing grapes on-site, he sources grapes for his wines from about another 50 acres he maintains throughout northwest Michigan. Bowers Harbor doesn’t bottle its wine on-site; instead, vintages are bottled at Traverse City’s Left Foot Charley, Chateau Grand Traverse and, in neighboring Leelanau County at French Road Cellars.
Bowers Harbor grows its grapes block-style. There are three ‘blocks” of land growing specific varietals. Established in 1991, ‘Block I,” directly in front the tasting room, hosts the first vines planted. The sloping land features vines of Chardonnay and Riesling.
To the north of Block I lies Block II, featuring Riesling. Spencer says he lets Mother Nature be his guide, especially with this Block of the vineyard.
‘We don’t make a plan for the Riesling,” he says. ‘We let the yearly varying weather decide the type of single vineyard Riesling we will make. Block II has produced everything from a Trockenbeerenauslese sweet dessert wine to a triple-select hand harvested Dry Riesling.”
Formerly home to White-Faced Hereford Cows, Block III hosts the vineyard’s Gewurtztraminer vines. “The Gewurtztraminer varietal flourishes in northern Michigan’s cooler climate and long growing seasons,” Spencer says. Bowers Harbor has produced a variety of Gewurtztraminer wines, from Dry all the way to Gewurtztraminer Ice Wine. Bowers Harbor is the only producer of Gewurtztraminer Ice Wine in the U.S., he says.
Grapes also are grown in two additional vineyards: one named for Spencer’s wife Erica (he proposed to her on this then-vacant swath of land in 2000) and another for his grandfather Harold Langley, who instilled in him an appreciation for agriculture. The vineyards are adjacent to the grape-growing ‘blocks.”
The Erica Vineyard includes vines of Pinot Grigio and Cabernet Franc. The Cabernet Franc from this vineyard goes into Bowers Harbor’s special vineyard designated wine, the Erica Vineyard Cabernet Franc, the first vintage being from the 2004 harvest. The Pinot Grigio from the Erica Vineyard, meanwhile, makes up the majority of Bowers Harbor’s flagship wine. ‘We also have selected Pinot Grigio from neighboring Old Mission Peninsula vineyards to blend with our Estate grapes to produce a world-class Pinot Grigio,” Spencer says.
Within Langley Vineyard, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Pinor Noir are grown. The Merlot and Cabernet Franc make up the blend for Bowers Harbor’s 2896 Langley. The Pinot Noir is blended with Pinot Noir from a neighboring Old Mission Peninsula vineyard to make up its single varietal Pinot Noir.
Of the Riesling, Spencer explains,’We sort out some of the Riesling to produce a small batch of single vineyard, single varietal Riesling. The remainder of the Riesling is blended into our BHV Estate Riesling.”
One day soon, he will plant four rows of new vines–two rows for each of his two sons, who are 4 and 7. The boys will grow the vines, learn to care for them, and eventually sell their grapes to their dad.
‘I want my boys to have that specific goal of growing grapes in mind, and I’ll give them fair market value,” he says. He wouldn’t push them into the family business, he adds, but ‘if one or both of them become interested in working at the vineyard and winery, awesome. They’re going to have to earn it. I didn’t have a job when I started here. My dad said, ‘Make one.’ So I did.”
It’s important to Spencer that only the best wines come out of his vineyard, which means in some years not bottling a particular wine — namely the Merlot and Cabernet Franc blend 2896 Langley — because the grapes simply weren’t up to par. The 2896 Langley — the numerals represent Bowers Harbor’s street address — wasn’t bottled in 2002, 2004 and 2009 (though in 2002 and 2004 the grapes were harvested to create different blends).
‘What we are doing separates us from others,” he says. ‘People may say, ‘You’re crazy for not bottling that wine.’ But not really, because we’d be jeopardizing the integrity of the wine.”
‘What we try to do,” he continues, ‘is follow a philosophy of ‘grapes to glass. It’s not rocket science. But one thing we do to ensure quality, especially with our reds, is green harvesting.”
This means reducing the yields of the plants, or creating a ‘balanced vine,” with about 20 clusters of grapes per vine, he says. Bowers Harbor uses vertical shoot position trellising to maximize sun exposure–an important consideration in cool-climate Michigan.
Spencer is proud that the vines are touched by hand eight to 10 times a year, including hand-harvesting and hand-pruning. He explains that such practices are in line with Bowers Harbor’s overall commitment to sustainability.
Along with growing grapes and inviting folks into the tasting room, Bowers Harbor hosts ‘dinner in the vines” gatherings as well as special events with nearby restaurant The Boathouse. The tasting room is open seven days a week year-round, with plans for an outdoor stone fireplace and additional outdoor seating in months to come.
‘A lot of what we do here is what we’d like to do if we were coming here and visiting,” Spencer says. ‘It’s a labor of love.”