The labels of the Good Harbor Wines always take me on a mini-mind vacation. Like the Petoskey stone or a jar of cherry salsa, they are a staple sight of any “Up North” getaway. Though I have done much research on Michigan’s wine history, I have never quite delved into the story of this particular winery. When I had the chance to interview their director of sales and marketing, Taylor Simpson, it was like opening a textbook on the history of Michigan winemaking. The story begins with Taylor’s grandfather John, who ran the family farm, growing cherries like many other farmers on the Leelanau Peninsula. John had the foresight to diversify his cherry orchard by planting grapes. He sent his son Bruce out to the University of California Davis to study winemaking, and upon his arrival back home; Bruce got busy perusing his passion.
In 1980, Bruce and his wife Debbie opened the doors to the Good Harbor Winery, and since then have made epic strides to not only produce high-quality wines for a low price, but also to make Michigan wine respectable and desirable. In the early ‘80s, Bruce, along with Larry Mawby of L. Mawby Vineyards and Bernie Rink of Boskydel Winery, petitioned and won the right to call the Leelanau Peninsula an American Viticultural Area, the second in the state. Though Taylor says they will never give up planting hybrid grapes like Vignoles, Chancellor, Chamborcin, and Vidal, her father pushed to make European vinifera as well. Today, they have the largest plantings of Pinot Grigio in the state along with other vitis vinifera like Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Chardonnay.
Though Bruce passed away in 2009, his wife Debbie, son and winemaker Sam, and daughter Taylor carry on the tradition. Sam is a skillful winemaker who has studied in both South Africa and New Zealand, bringing with him a renewed spirit. Taylor and Sam are looking to expand the winery line by producing a line of small batch wines that include a dry Riesling, Gewurztraminer, and Gruner Veltliner. I was a little disappointed when she told me that these wines would only be available in the tasting room and in restaurants, but it was exciting to hear that restaurants were very interested in a Michigan-made Gruner Veltliner!
The iconically Michigan wine labels I spoke of are the foundation of Good Harbor’s success. It was Debbie who insisted that each of the labels be made by local artists. When Bruce paired his delightfully semi-sweet blend of whites with the standout label of a Michigan wild flower, Trillium was born. Fishtown White and Harbor Red came next, and to this day, the trio is bestselling in their portfolio.
Generation after generation, the Simpson family has preserved through many trials and tribulations. Without their efforts, the Michigan wine industry may have never become as lucrative or as celebrated as it is today.