Call of Leadership

The Call of Leadership

Sean O’Keefe is the head Wine Maker at Mari Vineyards just outside of Traverse City on the Old Mission Peninsula.  He talks to us about what goes into a great bottle of wine. We also discuss some of the history of Michigan Wine and the impact “The Curse of Oak Island” has had on their vineyard.

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Cliff Duvernois (00:00):
Today’s episode is brought to you by Pet Angel Adoption and Rescue.
Cliff Duvernois (00:10):
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the call of leadership podcast where we interview people from our Michigan community who answered the call of leadership. We will hear their powerful stories and get their advice. Today’s guest was literally born into the wine business. He’s got over 20 years of experience in wine making and he has left his indelible Mark on the old mission peninsula wine-making of Traverse City. He’s the winemaker at the old mission Mari vineyards and he’s the co owner of Chateau Grand Traverse. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to the show. Sean O’Keefe. Sean, how are you?
Sean O’Keefe, Mari Vineyards (00:48):
Great. How are you?
Cliff Duvernois (00:49):
I’m doing well. Thanks for asking. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about where you’re from, where you grew up?
Sean O’Keefe, Mari Vineyards (00:55):
So my father moved the whole family in the early seventies up to Northern Michigan to start a little project on the side of what he was, all the other projects he’s been doing to start a vineyard up, an old mission peninsula that no one had ever grown grapes before, let alone the NIF HRA. That is the European grape varieties and that part of Michigan. So I pretty much grew, I mean I was born in Detroit, although my father claims that I would probably was conceived in East Bay of grand Travers Bay. That might be a little too much information. But I’ve been there my whole life. So my parents, my father, I wouldn’t say classic entrepreneur cause that sounds like there’s a lot of them. I mean he’s one of those people that did a lot of very different things. He became fascinated by why making, when he was importing wine in the sixties and early seventies and he fell on contact.
Sean O’Keefe, Mari Vineyards (01:47):
A lot of interesting characters, you know, whether it be the, especially German winemakers for some reason, my core root product and Han’s long from the Ryan gall and people like this. And he became fascinated with winemaking. And when it came to a point he tried to buy a vineyard in a place called college in the falls and it didn’t work out. They didn’t want to sell their dinner to a crazy Irishman from America. And so he felt that we had a vacation home up in Traverse City and it looked a lot like Germany. I looked a lot like I’m Ryan, I don’t see it, but you saw it at the time and he brought experts in from the wine schools in Germany. Guys on Doctor Helmut Becker was, I consider like the Johnny Appleseed of recently around the world and they brought in the cello tough, a father and son Dimitri or an Andre and Dimitri and people from university of California, Fresno and a lot of really people that should know things and all they said was it, it might work.
Sean O’Keefe, Mari Vineyards (02:46):
And so all it took though was some of his friends at Michigan state university to say that it probably won’t work with the grapes that you’re considering. And once he heard that, it pretty gave them the impetus to basically plant 50 acres where no one had ever done it before. Up at that point. The only people that have really done anything, actually the only person was Doctor Frank and the finger lakes who was in front of my dad’s and my dad was also friends with Herman Beamer and it actually his father, the Alta bimah and so we were really, Oh my father was very cognitive that was going on in the finger lakes and he felt that between what finger lakes was doing and what he saw in Germany that it was possible where we were in Traverse City where we, the vacation home because they grew so many fruit trees, whether it be now it’s mostly known for cherries, but we have peaches and other things, you know, before the world market kind of changed how people plan things. And that indicated to him that our climate was mild enough that it could handle cool climate grape Fridays and he was a cause of this context of the Germans. Well if the recycling and he thought this would be a perfect place to do it. So you move the whole family up there. I was born up there, I grew up with it. I considered it just kind of glorified farming. I never really took much interest in it until I became older and then became very fascinating.
Cliff Duvernois (04:05):
So what was it specifically about wine making that drew you into it?
Sean O’Keefe, Mari Vineyards (04:09):
Well, if you, we talked about different people in the wine world, especially in North America where we don’t have multiple, you know, like generations going back. Usually people come from other industries or they’re usually trying to, they’re, they’re pioneering types in a world that has very little to pioneer anymore. And so the idea of my father would love wine. He loved the idea of giving a sense of place to things. And that kind of grew on me. I was a literature major when I went to the university of Michigan. I studied German Russian literature and maybe I’ve read too much Tolstoy or whatnot, but the idea of going back to my where I grew up and to be able to choose one piece of land at all, all the millions of hectares across the world and try to spend my time to make that a better place and to make some, a product or something that would speak to our region was very delicate and very interesting idea to me. I’m not a artists in the sense of drawing or painting, but I felt that this is a good way to be able to take everything I learned and take some of the, the luck and chance that my thought when my father started and turned in something really cool and be able to give our beautiful region a little bit more of a little more nuance, a little more, more of a story that it wasn’t there yet.
Cliff Duvernois (05:23):
I want to go back to something that you mentioned before and that is that not all great varietals can grow in all kinds of climates. Could you expand on that a little bit?
Sean O’Keefe, Mari Vineyards (05:35):
Yeah. I mean the creatives that we know and love today, the great varieties are ones that are, have been bred for either the Mediterranean region, you know, surrounding Mediterranean or pretty core sub Alpine areas in central Europe or the river areas of France and in Germany and whatnot. And people have developed these grape varieties for their clients, their specific climate. When the settlers came over here, they, I mean this place was called violin by Leif Erickson. So I mean there was, if you walk anywhere in Michigan or, or gosh, anywhere in the United States, Texas or whatnot, going to see great finds, grown all over the place. They’re there. But these are different kinds of species done ones that we’re, that we love to make classic wine with. So they brought the European verus over here and they didn’t last long there. There were diseases that were powdery mildew, Downy mildew, a roof, a roof walls called phylloxera that were indigenous of North America that soon made their way all across the world.
Sean O’Keefe, Mari Vineyards (06:40):
And we’re dealing with that today of other things right now. You know, Dutch Elm disease and other things. But that happened back in the day in a pretty much European varieties when it survived her very well because it weren’t adapted to the pests here. And they developed ways to get around that. One of the ways was to cross breed them with the grape varieties that we’re growing here already, the North American species and create hybrids. And these were the, tended to be more, they were able to resist to the pest and diseases of this country and also of the cold temperatures and things like that. The problem is that the Europeans had developed these other varieties for tastes over hundreds, if not thousands of years. It gets specific flavors and tastes. That became part of our history and part of what the art of winemaking is.
Sean O’Keefe, Mari Vineyards (07:26):
I’m not saying that hybrids can’t make a beautiful wines, but they aren’t part of a very of a century old narrative. And they’re very different flavors than what these European values are. My father who was an importer of wine, was very adamant that he, he couldn’t plant European vinifera as opposed to the North American varieties or the the hybrids. He didn’t want to plant anything at all. And so the big question here in Traverse City and an old mission peninsula was our limiting factor on all creative regions have limiting factors. Ours was a cold winter temperatures because unlike Europe, we’re in the 45th parallel and you’ll hear a lot of wineries in our region talk about how we’re in the same parallel as, you know, when the sunlight hits on the earth as a wham, that Valley in Oregon has Bordeaux as Monte, but they forget that salsa comes from Mongolia.
Sean O’Keefe, Mari Vineyards (08:19):
And it was Pakistan, some really cold areas, right? So as I would say, Traverse City, because we’re, we’re on the, if you, if you pitch your Michigan like a hand run, the pink let’s say your faith, you’re looking at your, your right hand right in front of you. It looks like, you know, you see a good club and up on the pinky is where Traverse City is. In the 45th parallel. Now, if we were over in Europe with a nice warm Gulf stream, warms everything up, we’d be fine. But we have Canada above this big cold, you know, continental rock up there. And so we’re kind of, I’m a very unique region in the world in the sense that we have a maritime climate like that. I wouldn’t sit with the Mediterranean and joys, but any area that’s near water, but we’re also really on the edge of a very cold continental climate that has extremes of human cold.
Sean O’Keefe, Mari Vineyards (09:04):
And because we’re a narrow peninsula between two deep, glacially dug bays right next to Lake Michigan with like superior above us, that kind of buffers our region to give us enough, it takes the edges off the winter and the edges off the summer and allows us to grow grapes, but only a very limited area. Now, when my father first planted the varieties there, there were basically it was unanimous that this wouldn’t work. Not the sense that some vines wouldn’t survive, but it wasn’t a good commercial proposition because either you had to make cheap wine or and wine, you could grow a lot of ton of job or else you have to grow a charge too much and it wouldn’t, no one would buy it. And my father didn’t buy that argument and everybody seems to be in agreement now that they always knew this would work. But it was not the case for most of the seventies eighties and also up to the mid nineties where people accepted that the European benefit grapes would grow well in our region. And that was, I would say I’d lay a lot of that to my father’s persistence and stuff. And that’s honestly
Cliff Duvernois (10:03):
Now when you talk about how it’s going to take so long to, you know, be able to see if you’re right or not. Is it just because of the fact that if you are trying to grow new grapes that it just takes seasons or two in order for the grapes to really mature? Is that how long it takes for the wines to sit in the bottle before they can develop a really nice profile?
Sean O’Keefe, Mari Vineyards (10:27):
Well, I grabbed the 12 years out of there, but I’ve thought about this for a while. Let’s say I’ve already done all my research, not doing it on the spot. So I think that a new grape variety was, say I’d pick one from obscure area in Northern Italy or Switzerland. The reason I think it can grow in our area is because these great varieties grow in a cold air, like in like mountainous areas where they get really cold temperatures. So in my means, and it’ll mean that it can survive our winter, I somehow figured out how to get these grape varieties here cause not all of them are here, some are, you have to go through quarantines and you have to get them established. So if I have to do that process, that’s going to take about four to six years right there. But let’s say they’re already here in the country and I managed to find some material, you know, genetic material that can grab the vines, plant them in a vineyard.
Sean O’Keefe, Mari Vineyards (11:16):
If I’m doing due diligence, I wanna make a great line. I need to prepare the land for at least two years. And if I was like thinking really for the future, I prepare it for four or five years, we’re tilling the grapes, the land up, planting, cover crops, everything. Because once you put the grapes in and they might be there for eight years if you’re lucky. So let’s say we even did that, we were lucky we got a perfect land, we got the grape material we planted, we wait about three years, the four years before we even get a crop from it. But vines are funny in that way where they have very shallow root systems to begin with. But to get more and more established root systems and that helps them withstand some of the drought, some of the vagaries, a climate which we have plenty and abundance in Northern Michigan.
Sean O’Keefe, Mari Vineyards (12:01):
And it’s really about somewhere between about 10 to 12 years where a great vine matures enough that it’s something that you can make some of the best wines possible out of that. I mean there’s always moments in the beginning, but, and so if I have a really good idea about, great, fine, it might take me anywhere and then then the wines have to be made in age and some of the red wines, for example, it might take, you know, six, eight years before, you know, that’s going to be a really superior wine. Now tell them a crass commercialism, all that. Yeah, there’s, there’s lot quicker ways to go into it. Like this is due, this is why it’s popular with Stu. This let’s get in the ground. Let’s buy some from over here. What’s blended in? But I’m talking about establishing a wine region for over a generational type thing and it’s about 15 years.
Sean O’Keefe, Mari Vineyards (12:47):
And this is why, why makers, I’ve heard different from beer makers. A beer maker makes a batch and like, Hey, let’s throw a cherry pie or a pig’s head in there because you know, it might make it interesting. If it messes up then I’ll make another one. No, I am sure they’re not throwing batches out. But for us we bring, we plant a piece of land ethic stream costs cause Nora Michigan’s not cheap. It’s a really wants to build the vacation homes there and we’re competing for the same land. And so we have a very high expensive crop and we, we are inherently conservative because we want to just taste the region where we’re from. We don’t want to add anything we don’t want to do in each little tricks. And we have all of the grapes come in within like usually at about a two and a half, maybe maximum five week long harvest period.
Sean O’Keefe, Mari Vineyards (13:34):
I call almost triaged. You’re all coming in at once. We’ve got to make decisions about the wine that will affect it more than anything else we do later in life. And as a result, we don’t get little like, Hey, what’s this kind of do this or that or this. We were very conservative. We want to get every little bit we can. And you know, I’m turning 50 this year and so I’ve been making wine since 1998 so I’ve had, you know, what’s that 22 years of being in charge of the wine I make. I probably have the bottle matter 15. You know, maybe that’s not that many times. It’s like you know, maybe about 30 times in your lifetime to be in charge and make these calls. And as a result we want to get it right. But we also aren’t going to throw cherry pies and ginseng and the weird things. I don’t like some of the modern beer making novelties are going on right now, but not mean that there were beer guys on the bus. I love beautiful beer, but that’s just the thing that came to my head. Right now,
Cliff Duvernois (14:32):
Most people think of wine, they think of wine that’s either from France or maybe even California. And for some reason your father zoomed in on Germany. Why, why did he pick German?
Sean O’Keefe, Mari Vineyards (14:46):
My father was in France after world war two. He was part, you know, he was an army Colonel and he was helping get all the troops back to the United States. He didn’t see any active combat or anything like that, but he fell in love with French wines, specifically wines from the war and burgundy. And then the places where you know, are very well recognized in this country as cause we always look to the French for guidance online and I understand why, but through that he also, it’s not, it’s only a short jump over into the muzzle region in Germany or across the Rhine river from Alsace in France over to the pauses and bottom Germany. And he made that jumper to easily and through that met a lot of winemakers and also fell in with a very famous wine professor, at least in my little world.
Sean O’Keefe, Mari Vineyards (15:36):
Dr Helmet Ducker, who I like to a, like I mentioned like dimension Johnny Appleseed of Reisling. I mean the reason there’s recently than the British Columbia and New Zealand and Australia and other things maybe not in Australia, but is because of Doctor Becker. And my dad just got along with these people and he liked the German wine country is very different from the beer country down by Munich or the seat of government in Berlin and other things like that. And he just, he felt a real rapport with these super educated farmers, you know we’re doing our thing. And he loved the lines, you know, in the early seventies, you know, the late sixties, early seventies, the ones that Germany, we’re at a very we’re very well seen, but they were on their decline in our country because that’s where most people first try.
Sean O’Keefe, Mari Vineyards (16:26):
Their first ones is either like lancers from Portugal or wherever that was from. And then the Hunan and black tower and things like this. And these wines weren’t bad wines, but they were not great wines because they were made, they weren’t even made from recycling and things that Germany is really famous for. They were just basically mass production lines. I guess it’d be the equivalent of a white collar today or something, but so my father, a lot of these wines and he totally committed the recent links. He considered the most noble white variety on the planet and that wasn’t a very absurd proposition back then, but going into the seventies people started to become more sophisticated in their minds and started turning to Bordeaux and, and then the red wines of France. Then later came the wave of California where you could spend as much money on a bottle of Cabernet from a specific producer.
Sean O’Keefe, Mari Vineyards (17:16):
That was the important thing, not what are the wine was unique or came and was speaking to its land and all that. Luckily we’re at a time right now where people always try to scapegoat or get mad about millennials or hipsters or things like that. But I do have to admit that these people, whether they’re a certain age or a certain mindset, are so much more open minded, almost to a fault. But the wines of Austria, the wines of Greece, the wines of Michigan, the wines of the finger lakes, the minds of British Columbia, these are ones that weren’t, weren’t on my first got in the business here very easily. Now, people are completely intrigued. The wines of Hungary, the wants of Georgia, not the state but the country. But we know it made the state of Georgia too, you know, and it’s interesting to be in these times because people are ready to give them their fair shake.
Speaker 4 (18:05):
Did you study viniculture in college or is this something that you learned through working the, working at the family vineyard?
Sean O’Keefe, Mari Vineyards (18:13):
No, I gravitated slowly into it. I I studied German, well they don’t have a German literature degree, but I’d say my degree was in German and university of Michigan and I just kind took it. That’s what I had the most credits in the time. So that’s what I called my degree. Well, I also say a little, you know, chemistry and other things because I kind of had a, I was trying to fill in all my education. I didn’t get during high school and I want to be a well rounded person. I didn’t know what I was going to do with my degree. Where do I go to law school or do something on the next level. But I realized, I, I studied a lot German. And the funny thing about it is I United States you can study a lot of German and still not be fluent in it.
Sean O’Keefe, Mari Vineyards (18:51):
So I felt like I had to go over to Europe and look. No, because of my family’s contacts, our first winemaker one of our first wine from shut the grand Travers, Roland Flager had moved back to his family’s winery and in Germany. So I went there to apprentice and I actually went through the old fashion apprentice journeymen system in Germany. And I didn’t, at that point, I didn’t even know all the wind up a hose. I mean I was a total egghead and people were just rolling their eyes on me, but I’m fairly intelligent, so I learned pretty quickly. And then I moved on to, there’s a winemaking school in Germany. It’s a university of it’s affiliated with the university of these button isn’t town of Geisenheim and here is where you study biochemistry and you study plant physiology and crafting and things like that.
Sean O’Keefe, Mari Vineyards (19:36):
So it’s kind of like a graduate level. Me, if I would have gone for the whole program, we’ve got an engineering degree in German being that I’d already been through university of Michigan, I didn’t want to repeat all the basic courses. So I kind of cherry picked the the last couple of years and spent some time there. And what you find from these kinds of things, like a lot of people finding universities is you learn a lot from the constant exposure to the material. And of course you’re learning biochemistry and journalism. Not fun, but you’re, you learn it. But also the people that help you study and the people you go visit on the weekend at their homes, it’s also very traditional, put it on study. I mean, a lot of it’s anecdotal, you know, so when you go visit people in the moles or you visit some family that has a place in Frank and in Germany, and you talk to the parents and you look at what the son or daughter is doing, what they’re wondering, what they envision.
Sean O’Keefe, Mari Vineyards (20:25):
That’s where a lot of suppose learn too. But to be over in a classical culture of that was very appealing to me. You know, and like I mentioned before, you know, readily as German authors and tool stolen go to and things like that. And the idea of of farming and making our auto wine, it’s not such a foreign idea. And it seems to be a fairly common thing now with beer makers, wine makers. But when I was doing, when I was committing to this in the early nineties, there wasn’t such as more considered something else.
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Cliff Duvernois (21:55):
And now back to the show. You know, you studied wine making when you were over in Germany. What drew you back to doing wine in Michigan?
Sean O’Keefe, Mari Vineyards (22:06):
There’s a, I think it’s a quote from James Joyce, I believe he goes, I want on my gravestone, I went as far as turn back, maybe Ulysses is like that too. But in any case, I came back and I didn’t, I still didn’t really know what I want to do. I actually went out to California and I looked at various places out there to go work and I really had a love for work and I saw a lot of potential there. They’re not talking about the Wyoming at Valley that was already well on its way. But I saw some things happening on the quad and other unknown areas in the South. I didn’t really quite formulate what I wanted to do. So I came back to my family’s winery and I worked my dad importing wine, doing a few things and then it kind of fell into it and I kind of realize you’re not.
Sean O’Keefe, Mari Vineyards (22:54):
And that kind of is from the very beginning is when you want Americans go over to Europe or overseas lot of times, or at least for the first initial period, they’re like, Oh, this is so beautiful. And so cool because in most cases the architecture is better or the sense of place because it’s been winnowed over, you know, it’s been thought over, you know, millennia. But then, then you spend a lot more time to realize how much, you know, people really do treasure, especially over there. But they always ask you about your home cause it’s important where you come from. And I realized from all these conversations I have with various Europeans is that I come from a really beautifully, a beautiful and unique place. It’s not absolutely, it’s not really the worst place to go back to peninsula on Lake Michigan where there’s a lot of potential where they’ll, the cost of entry and starting a business and doing things is not so bad. And it kind of grew on me. So I always had in the back of my mind and I did, you know, I did scout around California and Oregon looking at some other possibilities, but it wasn’t my home. There’s a strong attraction to that to make your home a better place. And our area, Traverse City people are very sometimes inordinately proud of of what we’re doing there. And it was a good place to go back to.
Cliff Duvernois (24:08):
Yeah, I agree. Because Traverse City is definitely one of my favorite spots in Michigan to go and visit. We’re, we’re up there typically once every three or four months. So
Sean O’Keefe, Mari Vineyards (24:19):
Think about too though is, so I moved back in the late nineties, like in 1990 he 96, 97 around there, I kind of didn’t, I was kind of and around looking at Oregon and California, but some of the new wineries started around them. So we started seeing peninsula sellers and black star farms and then a lot of the things that we own all because nothing had happened for a long time and then came to beer makers and then came some of the first good restaurants I remember very well. When my you know, with your friends, the Danielson’s started trying to re a Stella film festival starting and looking, you know, decade after that. And then there seemed to be a real, Traverse City really started to become not just a point on the map, but someplace where it was a really special place.
Sean O’Keefe, Mari Vineyards (25:03):
When you see all that happening, especially, you know, going through your late twenties and your thirties it wasn’t the best in the sense that you felt you were kind of missing out from all the people that are living in New York or San Francisco or interesting places like that. But there wasn’t like there was a complete lack of cool stuff happening. There was a real sense of like people inventing and then creating a modern version of charter City. And I really, that kept me there and that was part of that. And I really think that the wine industry was absolutely key in the very beginning of the hub of starting all that, the sense of place that could stand up to anywhere else in the world. And not saying that this wine is better than your wine from there, but these wines are worth there. They speak of this area, this area is beautiful. These wines are beautiful and they have worth.
Cliff Duvernois (25:50):
Yeah, I agree. Cause it seems like whenever you start to see like in an area when you start seeing really good crafted wines start to appear, food is always right behind it because everybody wants to have a great glass of wine with a great meal.
Sean O’Keefe, Mari Vineyards (26:08):
Absolutely. And I mean to me like when I look at wine lists down in it’s been a key thing with me is, you know, I’m the one that got Mari vineyards right now and honestly we could sell almost all our wine out of our tasting room. And the way the wine business is and the legal system, the United States is that we can make much, much more money by selling it directly out of the winery. But it’s always been key for me to have our wines, whether it be shutter grand Travers or Mari or even my, my friend’s wines from other wineries. I’ll promote anybody cause I want to see our local wines on the list of Chicago and Indianapolis and Detroit and Minneapolis and Milwaukee and places like that that are nearby because we are the local pros. When people can look, let’s say you have a wine from 2015 and we’ll say we’ll say 2010 beautifully warm year, even when it’s over hot warm year.
Sean O’Keefe, Mari Vineyards (26:59):
People in Chicago know that people in Milwaukee know it and the wines are full and rich and maybe a little soft where you have a cool year, 2000 let’s say, I don’t know, 2000 well 2009 where summer never came or 2019 where summer came away. The wines are a little more edgy but they have a certain more really kind of prettiness that people were struggling with a tough year and did something really cool cause they know how to deal with it. Those are fun things. When the food becomes less than just showing things in your mouth or pouring things on your goal were to have stories that come along with them and you can actually add your own stories to them. I think that’s great. Part of it too though, is if you want to be known, you gotta be out. You have to be in New York, you gotta be where Michigan people go, or people from Michigan, the people that come here, like we’re Texas, Arizona and these are important to have. I wouldn’t say sell a lot of wine there, but have some key places there where your wines are to be found and people trying for the first time and that might lead them here. Traverse City, that come doesn’t mean in person
Cliff Duvernois (27:58):
Because I know you mentioned this before about a Mari. What attracted you to start working at Mari vineyards?
Sean O’Keefe, Mari Vineyards (28:04):
Family businesses are interesting. Ours is very, it started the first winery up in Northern Michigan and my father, especially my brother had a very clear idea of what they wanted to do. I felt from my experiences in Germany and other places, I had a really definite idea of what I want to do. And for you know, about 15 years we were able to coexist with our different visions. But at some point there’s only so much life you have. And I realized I was getting older and I wanted to make the wines I wanted to make and I was offered an opportunity from a family friend in front of my dad’s, Marla Ghana, to be the winemaker of her at first, you know, the kind of side project with some of his wines, even selling most of the grapes in my family. But we always knew that he was going to open his own winery.
Sean O’Keefe, Mari Vineyards (28:51):
I was always there to help and consult and then, you know, hire the next winemaker. And when it came to it came down to who they should hire. I go, they should hire me because I think a lot of our interests align. Marty, his family, you know, it comes from the, he’s, he was born and raised up in iron mountain with an upper peninsula and, but he is a strong tallying and Croatian extraction. And what’s funny is grandmother, I mean named Mari used to make hooch and wine stuff in the basement during prohibition and a hundred times and all that only for Sacramento purposes I assume. But when you look at these older Italian families, would it be a Michigan or California or Oregon or other places is when several generations down when some, but he does really well and makes money and other things.
Sean O’Keefe, Mari Vineyards (29:39):
They remember the good times and it was making wine and making food and other things. And so I thought, you know, he wanted to establish this beautiful winery and if you ever see our place, it’s a place that’s going to be there for very, very long time. This was not like a thing that was built on the cheap. And we’ve done everything that are possible, not just in the building, but you know, our cultural practices with organics. And there are things we’re doing to try to really raise Michigan to another level and to make the absolute best wines that we’re able to do in our region with the most personality. And that’s very attractive to me. And that’s what drew me over. And it’s tough to leave a family business, but you know, it’s, it’s one of those things that needed to be done and I think everybody’s better for it.
Cliff Duvernois (30:23):
Now, when you started your work at Marie, and you’ll have to correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like with Marie, they do a lot of work with [inaudible] varietals that are there. So what was, what was the attraction with the working with Italian grapes?
Sean O’Keefe, Mari Vineyards (30:43):
I would have had before, you know, Marty’s family opened an iron mountain. I mean, they look back to their, their ancestors from Northeastern Italy, I think from the Marshay region of Italy and then from Croatia. So to me, maybe because I studied the literature or studied other things. First of all, I love Italian wines, but Sandoval of Italian wines is like saying I like Europe or I like South America. There’s so many Italy, it’s almost like the Amazon of wine varieties. I mean they’ve been growing grapes there since the time out of mine. So I was very lucky. I love Northern Italian grapes and their climates and some of the places do overlap are just enough that we can grow these here. And I liked the challenge and I wanted to do something. I knew that Marty and Olivia and Alex is his son, they wanted to say something about their heritage.
Sean O’Keefe, Mari Vineyards (31:37):
So I’m glad. I’m grateful that a big part of the family came from Northeast Italy where we can actually grow the grapes. Cause like I had mentioned, sometimes if they would have come from Sicily or Sardinia, there’s nothing we can do because I can’t grow grapes that grow up in the Mediterranean. They would tie in our climate. But luckily our region overlaps enough with some of the sabelle pioneers in Northeast Italy that we can grow some of these things. And it’s fun to learn new things and it’s fun to adapt some things. And honestly, there’s some beautiful that area of Northeast area. Would it be an open Trentino Alto DJs and we’ll call it [inaudible] even though we’re freely at one point, this is all part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and there’s a strong dramatic influence. So it’s not like I’m going to a whole nother region. There’s a lot of the same winemaking styles and other things are common with what I learned in Germany. So it wasn’t like I was making a big leap to something completely new. But yeah, it’s, it’s fascinating, you know, and then on being able to do something new that no one’s done before the, I shared that with Marty’s idea and that I think it’s great and I’m glad to be able to do that.
Cliff Duvernois (32:41):
Okay. So, so let me get this straight. So your last name, you’re an Irish man, you’re fluent in German making Italian wines. It sounds kind of like, I guess that’s what I am. God bless America. I’ve got a question for you now for people that are thinking that, you know, they want to get in, why they, they maybe want to try, you know, some wines. What would be like maybe one or two key things that you would tell them to, to maybe look for in a wine if they’re, if they’re, if they want to get their feet wet. Start getting into wine a little bit. Why
Sean O’Keefe, Mari Vineyards (33:21):
Is something that you like like cheeses or other fermented things? Is that something that you have to acquire a taste? So some of your initial impressions were, I like this, I don’t like, this shouldn’t be most important, the beginning because wine deals with flavors and tastes that are a little more, are much more intense than the American cuisine of the last 40 or 50 years. So, and what I mean by that is sense of sour sense of the stringency. These kinds of things get really, can be really intense and certain wines and the wines that don’t taste like anything in the wines, it just tastes like cantaloupe juice or grapefruit might be easy to drink and there’s nothing wrong with them. There’s a reason why that’s an $8 bottle of wine from New Zealand. They’re dirt, they’re not interesting. The other thing, the reason why these flavors and people have learned to like these kinds of things just like they do, I wouldn’t say stinky cheese.
Sean O’Keefe, Mari Vineyards (34:18):
Let’s say a pungent cheese is they do a, well for example, wine. They are meant to be paired with food and in some way or another. Of course there’s drinking wines. You know, I have no problem drinking a glass of illusionary or a dry recently on its own, but they’re, when they’re paired with food, some of those like tart flavors from a dry style recently and are me on bronc or Pino Grigio will cut through cream sauce as it will refresh your mouth and create a liveliness like biting into a fresh Apple or a lemon. Why? The reason why white wine pair so well at fish as a, it’s almost like high access to the lemon. It creates a citric sensation, red wines, what their astringency and their, their ability to create texture in the mouth. Well those can be sometimes too extreme for people who are not used to them.
Sean O’Keefe, Mari Vineyards (35:06):
But when you eat proteins, like with meat or fats from cheeses or even like mushrooms and other savory things for vegetarians is that red wine and it interacts and you get different flavors in your mouth and what just drinking on song. And that’s something that takes a long time to develop a flavor for. But it’s fun. It’s fun to learn that stuff, you know? Travel helps a lot. So whenever you travel somewhere, drink the wine from that area. I’m not saying that drinking Algeria, going to North Dakota, that’s drinking North wine kind of thing. But if you are in Italy or New Zealand or Australia or Germany or, or Southern England with their beautiful sparkling wines or things like that, make an effort to try the wines from that area. And then after time, it’s just like reading books. You kinda know the authors and you kind of know where they’re coming from. And before you know it, you’re, you’re, you know, more than somebody else or we see know enough to guide your own tastes and things. It’s fun. It’s fun to learn new things.
Cliff Duvernois (36:05):
Yeah, I think you hit on a good point there because some of the best wines that I’ve ever discovered in my life is when I actually took the time and went to the vineyard to a tasted room and just try them. I mean, it’s always relaxed and you get a bunch of different ones that you can try. And, and from there I’ve discovered some really beautiful, some really beautiful wines up you know, traverse City way. You know, that’s how we found a Mari vineyards and a couple of others that are up there. So I think there’s actually something to just going to the vineyard and actually trying it and talk to the people there.
Sean O’Keefe, Mari Vineyards (36:39):
Well part of that would be though is, yeah, Traverse City is a tourist area, so try if you’re expecting, you know, I’m an hour tasting on July 4th weekend, be aware that it’s gonna be very busy to me. And so it’s kind of off seasons like right after the kids go back to school in September, there’s a time in Melissa timbre, Oh, we have to really have Tobar, which I think is the best time to come try wines because the people in the tasting room at that point will, they’ll have less people that won’t be a big throngs and they won’t be able to talk to you about the wines. And we, I can’t speak for every wine region, but I do know if we’re going to all the tasting rooms in our area that most of the people work in there are very passionate about what they’re doing there.
Sean O’Keefe, Mari Vineyards (37:25):
And they learn and they’re there to work because they want to learn about wine. And a lot of them are going off to other careers and doing other things. But for that time mean what other opera singers or future business owners or future winemakers are. These are people, at least I’m thinking of in our our tasting room know their stuff and our care or also people that have traveled the world and now are settling down and they love the chat about wine and the all the nuances and intricacies that come with it. So if you can find, if you can schedule it the right time, it’s great now. Otherwise wine restaurants, not all of them are the old like you know the, the cliche of the, the major D, you know, speaking fake French accent and you know, and and making the wine experience horrible.
Sean O’Keefe, Mari Vineyards (38:08):
That doesn’t really exist anymore. Most of the cool fun places that have great food have usually people that are young in age or young in mind that are very enthusiastic, but they’ve done there. There’s a whole sommelier culture of people just love the story of wine. They would love to share their information with you. And then I would say be little it live a little dangerously. Try some wines that might be a little bit off the beaten path. You go, I don’t dry wines, then try at least a little dryer. If you say you only I don’t like reds or don’t like whites, we’ll try to denify what it is you like or don’t like about the ones you like and maybe my find some things in those categories. It’s fun because wine makes dinners and foods and things so much more pleasurable and I mean you can cheat that with beer and mixed drinks to a certain extent, but I just don’t think it’s the same thing. Of course I’d say as a winemaker, but I think it’s one of those great pleasures of life, like reading a good book or I’m enjoying a nice cheese or, or, or other things that you know, people should cultivate more and more about.
Cliff Duvernois (39:10):
Yeah, I agree with that and I cannot argue with you on that. I wanted to ask you, because you talked before about how, especially over 4th of July weekend a place like your Mari vineyards is absolutely packed. And I know you’ve referenced him before a couple of times in this interview, the owner of Mari vineyards is Marty [inaudible] from the history channel and they have that show, the curse of Oak Island. What impact has his appearance on that show had on the vineyard?
Sean O’Keefe, Mari Vineyards (39:42):
I haven’t watched the show. I mean cause I work with them. I, I, I just, I just kind of keep a distance from it. But there’s a tremendous interest in that series and we have many, many people coming through and people asking questions and things. And for that I would say if you come to the winery, we have this beautiful stone building and I’m not talking about just like some fake brick place. I mean these are big Holden’s stones and I mean you’ll see that for people who like that show and like some of the, I would say the quirkiness of Martinez brothers. I mean it’s pretty much infused into the construction of the building and the idea of things, all the, the timbers and the all that and then, then you just have to see it there. I mean he collects odd things. He’s always been interested in esoterica which considered Oh Island is one of those things.
Sean O’Keefe, Mari Vineyards (40:36):
And so you’ll see it through the winery. Now if you really want to get the whole experience, I book a tour and actually come down to the wine caves that are down below. And that’s not generally open to the public near, you’ll have the time to speak calmly and long and hidden thoughtfully about one, but then you’ll be down and why he built this place. Cause there are parts of the tunnels that in our caves are deep underground that helps keep all the temperature constant for the barrels, the very contemplate of place. But he might up some of these cave tunnels so that they line up with the summer solstice. So every June 21st through 23rd, depending on the falls and the sun is rising up on that morning. And that’s the longest day of the year on our and where we are on the sunrise is riff, the middle almost Indiana Jones style.
Sean O’Keefe, Mari Vineyards (41:27):
We have a big party of five, 12 in the morning or whatever, this time or another, you can kind of see where some of that fascination he has with some of the mysteries, both probable and improbable Guyland have worked her way into the winery and the construction and how we do things there. I think that’s really cool because they have that sense of zeal and imagination and keep that into your adulthood is important. And we try to keep that joy of learning new things and doing new things. And at the same time appealing to always our conceptions. Well, older traditions are and trying to establish them up in Northern Michigan, you’ll see it somewhere. Labels and things too. I kind of play off it a little bit and I’m, you know, I, I love Oak Island and other things, but you know, but I’m not a big DaVinci code fan, but I am a fan of the name of the Rose, you know, a little more high-brow, you know, wink, wink, some of our labels and things.
Sean O’Keefe, Mari Vineyards (42:21):
There’s always little subtle nods and things to some of the things of history and these, you know, these, these grand ideas that O’Connell and sometimes encompasses. So when it comes down to it, just like my dad who was such a personality Marty has one too. And it would take somebody like that to build the winery and then commit the resources and things that build something that’s going to last. I mean, if you look at the building and look at what we’re doing in the vineyards, this is not some flash in the pan. Things will be around in one form or another for, for a long, long time. It is great to be part of that and appreciate his zeal.
Cliff Duvernois (42:53):
Yeah, he’s a, he definitely seems like they got a bunch of characters on that show. But you know, it seems to be pretty popular cause they always say on TV that it’s the number one rated nonfiction show I think on cable television or something. So I would argue
Sean O’Keefe, Mari Vineyards (43:09):
Nonfiction part, but that’s just me. But little kids and Texans are the number one markets for it. And, but no, there’s a seriously, there’s a lot of interest in people. Marty is, I can’t ever guarantee is going to be there. He pops in and he pops out. I don’t even know he’s going to be there. His son, Alex is a general manager. He peers in the show too and he has, you know, captain of the ship at our winery, Rick and other people I’ve really seen, I know they’ve been there. Well we can’t guarantee anybody’s going to be there, but you can totally tell that that person designed the place.
Cliff Duvernois (43:48):
That’s awesome. If people want to connect with you or follow you online, what’s, what’s the best way for them to do that? Well we have all the social media,
Sean O’Keefe, Mari Vineyards (43:56):
You just have to Google Mark vineyards. They’re interested in hearing my long answers. Short questions. You know, I have my own handle. It’s called [inaudible] one 55 Instagram and it’s H a U P T S T R a S S E one 55 and Instagram. But the main thing is Mari vineyards. And there you go on our main website, they’ll have the links to the or our other social media where I’ll chime in and other people in our winemaking family will occasionally Marty and his family and there’s more information and, and I don’t or just go visit our region and all the wineries in our region are interlinked in one way or another. People have worked for each other, are friends with each other, some cases married to each other or this and that. And it’s a very, for however much bigger it’s gotten or become in the last couple decades, it’s still pretty small family. And so that’s a good way to get a sense of the whole place too. And you get a little bit of every winery, every, I don’t want to revisit it in a way, if that makes any sense. Okay. Thank you. And for our audience, we will have those links in the show notes down below. Sean, it’s been an absolute pleasure having you on the podcast today. Thank you.