Tony Ciccone “Winemaking is in My DNA”
Tony Ciccone (Chick own ee), makes wines as easy to enjoy as his name is melodious. As patriarch of the Ciccone clan, Tony directs his wife and two of his children in the production of their award-winning wines.
Ciccone Vineyard and Winery, sitting atop one of the Leelanau Peninsula’s prettiest hills, is a family affair. Tony’s wife, Joan Ciccone is the landscape architect and chief cook at the winery. Mario Ciccone, Tony’s son, heads up operations.
He’s responsible for the vineyard and operations of the facility. Paula Ciccone, one of his daughters, is in charge of wine production. Together with the rest of their talented staff, they do it all, from growing the grapes, to making the wine, to marketing the grounds as a popular wedding location.
The estate’s location is a superb venue for grape growing. It’s both picturesque and practical. Comprised of 45 acres with 19 of those acres planted with vines, with Lake Michigan to the west and West Grand Traverse Bay to the east, the vineyards benefit from what’s known as “the lake effect.”
The lake effect produces a natural downdraft circulating the air over the water and then brings it back over the vines. This phenomenon benefits grapes by delaying early bud blossoming, as well as moderating frost, thus minimizing damage to the blossoms. It also makes for a very pretty picture!
Silvio a.k.a. Tony Ciccone is the kind of guy you want at your party. Funny, knowledgeable, and a treasure trove of classic stories, he’s “old school” in the best way. Tony comes from a traditional Italian — American family. Raised in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, Tony was the youngest of six boys. His father came to the United States in 1918 from Abruzzi, Italy. “I’m not sure, maybe winemaking is in my DNA”, Tony says, laughing heartily. “We always had wine on the table at home. They called it Dago red, we didn’t care. My father made wine from California grapes. Every year the same blend-15 cases of Zinfandel and 5 cases of Muscat. We just used yeast, that’s it, that’s all.”
More about this wine a bit later. After retiring as a research engineer from General Dynamics, where he worked on the M1 tank, Tony decided he wanted to open a winery. He had already grown wine grapes in Rochester Hills, Michigan, where he raised the family. So he and Joan went vineyard shopping. In 1990, they went West and looked at property in the Napa and Sonoma Valleys. While they loved the area (who doesn’t) the going rate of $50,000 per acre was a bit much for them to swallow. As he says, “we decided to look on the Leelanau Peninsula where we had camped when on family vacations for years and years. There really is no place like home.”
As they walked the property they knew it had wonderful potential. “It took a lot of work, ripping out the old diseased apple and cherry trees, contouring the land and planting vinifera vines. Back in 1996 we planted Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Noir, mostly on the west side of the property. It gets the most sun and the grapes just love it”, he shares.
For Tony, the greatest current challenge is to make great estate bottled red wine from his vineyards. “We’re currently the only vineyard to grow Malbec and the Italian varietal, Dolcetto in Michigan”, Tony says proudly. He makes the Dolcetto in only approximately three in ten vintages. The Malbec is used as a blending grape rather than as a standalone varietal. The man loves to blend!
In addition to the grapes already mentioned, they grow Pinot Grigio, Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Muscat, Marechal Foch, and DeChaunac.
Back to the Dago red. Making wine requires lots of hard work and attention to detail. As the wine is fermenting and, if required, aging, the wine maker needs to pay close attention to his products. S/he also needs to be practical. As Tony vividly remembers his father saying one evening, “Silvio, go down the basement and check the wine, we need to see how it’s coming along. Make sure it’s okay.”
As Tony recalls with unbridled laughter, I told him, “Pop, the cat is dead in the wine! What should I do? My dad replied without missing a beat, “Well, take him out of the barrel, we don’t want to drink what’s left of the cat!”
With a style of practicality and fearlessness Tony creates wines that are tailored for his customers. The 2012 Tres Donna is a 100% estate bottled blend of Moscato, Pinot Blanc and Riesling. The 2012 Lee La Tage, a word play on Leelanau and Meritage (a trademarked brand of wine) is styled after red Bordeaux.
This estate bottling is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Malbec aged in both French and American oak. Not your usual Midwest wine!
Utilizing hybrid grapes, Tony created the 2013 Tre Rossi (Three Reds) for the first time since 2009. Blending his own DeChaunac and Marechal Foch grapes as well as Baco Noir from Tabone Vineyards on Old Mission Peninsula. This is is one of their best sellers. “It’s aged in both French and American oak and yet is semi-sweet. It’s a full-bodied red wine that has some sweetness to it”, he states.
The Ciccone sense of humor is evident in the name of their port-styled dessert wine, Starboard. This unique blend of cherries, Chardonnay juice and peaches, all fortified with brandy is their homage to port. If you’re a boater, you know that port refers to the left side of the boat while starboard refers to the right side of the vessel. Another wine made from apples is named Eve. (Get it?)
Ciccone Vineyard & Winery is a small producer in the world of wine, approximately three thousand cases a year. That’s the way the Ciccone’s like it. A family winery producing estate bottled wines with big flavors. That was Tonys’ dream back in 1990. He has realized his dream and more. Here’s to living your dream!