Jaunts: Winter in wine country

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The rows of tangled vines have created a labyrinth of sorts for our sunny winter hike. Our snowshoes add a squeaky, meditative crunch as we plod between the neat rows, up a slight incline and back toward the blues of a distant bay.

The tasting room staff here at Bowers Harbor Vineyards on Michigan’s Old Mission Peninsula has not just allowed this exploration but encouraged it. And while it’s peaceful, it’s not exactly solemn. We’ve got a bottle of Bowers Harbor Red in a backpack for some mitten-clad sipping, and the staff has a bonfire lit and crackling for an after-hike warmup. 

Another local winemaker, Chateau Chantal’s Mark Johnson, calls winter “advent for the vines,” a time of expectant waiting for a new vintage’s blooms. But for wine travelers to Michigan’s north, winter has become such a seasonal draw of its own that even a 24-hour getaway can become a leisurely vacation focused around uncrowded tasting room visits, creative trail events and romantic stays at one of Traverse City’s three winery inns.

Day 1: Afternoon

Eight of the nine wineries that form the Wineries of Old Mission Peninsula (all but Hawthorne) have jointly opted to stay open seven days a week all winter, so conduct a wine scavenger hunt en route to your inn stay at Chateau Chantal near peninsula’s end. Take Center Road from Traverse City and cut through the middle of a scenic highway that hugs the shoreline for a bit, then offers hilltop bay views so good you’ll want to follow every sign marked “scenic turnoff.”

Hunt for bold reds at Mari, where owner Marty Lagina and son Alex, known for their roles in the TV show “Curse of Oak Island,” have dramatically extended the grape growing season by installing the area’s first greenhouses in their castle-style winery estate. Rieslings are your hunt’s treasure at newly renovated Chateau Grand Traverse, the first to plant the region’s signature grape, but make newcomer Bonobo your lunch stop. Celebrity chef Mario Batali curated the wine pairings with menu items like pulled beef sliders with pinot noir-soaked raisin ketchup, poached shrimp and more. These are best eaten in a cozy fireplace nook in the tasting room designed to evoke the feel of a comfortable but stylish Old Mission farmhouse.

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Check in before dark to your room at Chateau Chantal (currently offering a “buy one night, get the second free” deal) so you know where you are and what you should be seeing: a Tuscan-style hilltop view of classic red barns and distant islands.

Special occasion Boathouse restaurant is nearby, as is tasty Peninsula Grill. Or stay in, making a light dinner of the “Mulled Wine package,” a warming pot of spicy wine delivered with cheese plate and fresh baguette to your room.

Unexpected fun comes after hours. Head behind the tasting room bar for a sample from every open bottle and a full glass of your favorite. Light the nearby fireplace — they leave wood stacked and ready — then take out a trivia game like Winerd, and you’re sure to forge easy friendships with other guests.

Day 2: Morning

Breakfast might be eggs Benedict and candied bacon prepared by full-time chef Reuben Rosales, as inn owner Robert Begin refills your orange juice glass. Follow that with a private cellar tour. Just have snowshoes or boots packed to catch the every-Sunday shuttle that runs from nearby Jolly Pumpkin restaurant, brewery and distillery. The weekly, $20 a person “Snowshoe, Wine and Brew” event starts at 10:40 a.m., then every 20 minutes after, for a five-pour tasting at each of three stops (Brys Estate, Bowers Harbor and Jolly Pumpkin), snowshoe hike at your own pace between. Check in on Facebook and you can take home the snowshoe souvenir wine glass, a great memory of a most unusual wine-centered getaway.

For more, visit wineriesofoldmission.com.

Kim Schneider

The author, Kim Schneider, was named Mark Twain Travel Writer of the Year by the Midwest Travel Writers Association. A University of Michigan graduate, she writes from a home base in Traverse City.