A Journey without a Destination: Interview with McKenzie Gallagher of Michigan's Rove Estates
We go to Michigan wine country and the Traverse City area a lot. It’s a magical place. When last making the rounds three years ago, Rove Estate wasn’t on our radar. But in the last few years, the drumbeat among my fellow Michigan wine enthusiasts over Rove just kept getting louder and louder. The secret is now out, and Rove can’t keep their wine in stock.
We were delighted to sit down with McKenzie Gallagher, co-owner of Rove along with her husband Creighton, to discuss her wine journey, continuing the legacy of Irish winemakers, and how she keeps everything in perspective.
As always, the interview is edited for clarity and flow.
Tell us how you came to open Rove and your wine journey.
Journey is a good word. My husband, Creighton, and I are actually the fifth-generation of a bigger farming family. Around 11 years ago, Creighton was just out of college and working at a really well-known winery on Old Mission, Brys Estates, with his really good friend (Brys winemaker) Coenraad Stassen. We were really young when all these paths started to come together. Coenraad needed help bottling, and that led to learning how to make wine. Unfortunately, my husband's parents were going through a divorce. So, in that window we were able to purchase part of the farm, which was all cherries.
For Creighton and I to create Rove, coming from such a long line of farming, just seeing what was possible in controlling the whole product cycle and having something we grew in the bottle, the fireworks were going off in our heads. We were amazed with the actual winemaking process, and we were already comfortable with the farming side of winemaking. So, when we had the opportunity to buy our own farm, we didn't even hesitate. There was probably 20 acres of cherry orchards planted by his grandfather and were over 30 years old that needed to be pulled out since they weren’t producing anymore. The question was do we plant more cherry trees and do what all the Gallaghers have been doing for generations or do we plant grapes? We obviously went with grapes and planted our first vineyards in 2012, and then opened our tasting room in 2016.
Tell us the broad strokes of Rove today. Varietals, acreage, cases produced and number of employees.
Out of the gate we planted 15 acres and we just tried nine different varietals, all vinifera. We grow Pinot Grigio, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Cab Franc, Merlot, Gewurztraminer, and we were one of the first farms in the region to try Sauvignon Blanc. We love Sauv Blanc and after doing our research we thought it would do well on our farm. Those are still the varietals we grow today. Since then, we've added 11 more acres, so 26 acres total of vines, but only 17 in full production so far. We produced 3500 cases last year, and as far as employees, 15 people, between our tasting room and our backroom.
We’re still working on full production. I call it our measured approach, because we are not independently wealthy, we really came from wine from the farming standpoint, so we have to work with our passion and the land we have. We worked with FSA (Editor’s Note: Farm Service Agency, a division of the US Department of Agriculture), and we were able to secure loans and lines of credit to help us plant our vineyard and work towards getting vines. Then we built a tasting room to sell the wine, and now we're working on full production on site. It's a little unconventional. A lot of people start with everything. But that journey is why Rove is so special. We've evolved and grown so much as farmers and what we want for our wines. How we want to express our terroir and how we would have done it 10 years ago is really different now.
You have touched on this a bit, but you're the fifth generation to farm this land, and it comes with a burden and a responsibility. Tell us more about that.
There's a weight and gift to multi-generational farms, because 130 plus years the Gallagher family has been farming, and we were one of the first farming families in this region. There's Gallagher Road, Gallagher Drive, there's beef Gallaghers, there's cherry Gallagher's and we're all the same. We are still a predominantly farming community up here. And even though we bought our farm, to be able to have this in this day and age in Traverse City is just so amazing. The popularity of Traverse City has definitely skyrocketed in the last 10 years, and with all the development, these family farms are downsizing and diminishing quickly. We want to keep the legacy going, but we have to be strategic and think what has the highest likelihood of surviving the next generation and the generation after. For us, wine really did check off all those boxes for us.
I really love the acceptance in society today embracing farm first and farm to table and all of the concepts that really do support our farmers. You're holding this torch, and we have four children. Of course, we want our children to take the torch, we want their children to take the torch. You can't commit one foot in, one foot out. You can't say I'll do this as long as we have a crop or we don't have to live in horrible circumstances. Our lifestyle is different, and it's something to be excited and proud about.
Is there a mentor who helped you on your journey who deserves a shout out?
Initially, Coenraad Stassen, he was such a mentor in such a critical time because if he would have been negative, I think he could have easily shut our dreams down, but he was absolutely supportive, and he's a fantastic talented winemaker. And as we've gone through this journey, we've had multiple mentors as we have progressed on our path, and the more questions we have. It's been a beautiful evolution.
There seems to be such a spectrum with Leelanau and the Mission on who makes what. Do you make a cherry or other fruit wines, do you grow hybrids, these choices are carefully considered there. What informed the choice for Rove to go all vinifera?
We do some ciders and use cherries there, and it's very popular. But there is a spectrum up here as you mention. I think because we were cherry farmers, we made a distinct decision not to make cherry or fruit wine. I don't want to minimize anyone and whatever business models you use. If it's gimmicky to one person, it could be another person's very favorite thing and what they drink when they're celebrating life's best moments. But for us we wanted to do vinifera and be more traditional. But who knows? We're not a closed book, and we're here to grow. People ask every day for a cherry wine. So, I won't say never.
What makes Rove’s acreage unique on Leelanau?
We own the very highest elevation in Leelanau, so we can see Sleeping Bear Dunes and have very unique panoramic vista views. And with it we have fantastic cool air drainage, and little microclimates based on the different elevations. We have actually five different vineyards on our farm, and each is very unique. Based on the incubation of the woods behind the vineyard slopes for one, or one site that's almost completely clay, which is unique for this region. We also have a lot of sand and gravel so we have really a bit of everything in different spots.
We have had eight vintages, and the vineyards are really getting in their groove. Grapes are so different from other fruit. It takes a while to dial them in, and we've really hit that point this past year or so. It's exciting to think about the wines coming out of the newer vineyards we just planted.
What particular varietals do well on your property due to your unique geography?
Sauvignon Blanc is one of our flagships we can't keep in stock. Chardonnay does great. Pinot Noir is finicky in general up here, but the wines are great. Everything we do, the varietals I mentioned earlier, we are planting more of all of them, because they all are doing well.
Why the name Rove?
Rove means a journey without a destination. Creighton and I are both Irish if our names don't give it away, and we really wanted to think of a name that wasn't Gallaghers. There's a lot of Gallagher's around here, and we love them, but wanted to do something different. We also wanted to feel connected to our roots and to mean something transcending just a family.
There's a really cool piece of history, and it's called the Flight of the Wild Geese, or the Wild Geese of Ireland. In the 1600s-1800s, the Irish were fleeing Ireland because of famine, war, and oppression. And they would hide in a container and take a boat wherever it was going just for a chance at a new life. It was the ultimate leap of faith. And in stories beginning in the late 1800s, they mapped all these wild geese. At the time, Ireland was actually one of the biggest consumers in imported wine from Bordeaux. Most people don't think of Ireland and wine, but they really had a big appreciation for wine. So a lot of these wild geese ended up settling in Bordeaux and other well-known wine regions, such as Italy, Australia, and Napa Valley. They started calling them the Wine Geese. We also felt we were jumping in and taking this leap of faith. We were so unconventional, we were so young, we're just having our family, and we are on a journey without a destination, so Rove it is.
You're familiar with farming, but a cherry farmer is used to just selling the fruit and then is done as far as you're concerned. There are so many more steps more with a winery. Tell us about the transition.
It's definitely more complicated. We typically sold our fruit to a processor. After harvest, we didn't think about the crop again. I think what compelled us to go into wine is we would actually have the same creative output to go with our hard work. Farming is relentless. There are the longest days imaginable and there's no guarantee of anything. It's part of your heart you really have no control over so to have the creative outlet to pour our hearts into making good wine is a blessing. There’s a learning curve for sure, but I feel like every year, we learn more, we tweak, we change, we grow.
My husband and I have very different skill sets, but they work well for the winery. I always say he's the boss of outside and I’m the boss of inside. He runs the farm, I run the tasting room and other customer connections. I love making those connections. I was so excited for Rove and the thought of doing a winery, but I didn't really understand how a winery works, having never worked in one. I did enjoy wine with good food but my personal experience was a little bit limited. But when we opened and I began to actually meet and connect with guests and could see how wine just brought everyone together, it was everything to see people are appreciating what we're working so hard for.
Does Creighton make the wine or do you have another winemaker?
We just actually added a winemaker, Doug Olsen, to our team. We are all estate fruit, but until we get our production facility fully operational, we've been using custom crush contracts and the wine has been made off site. This year, we're in the process of breaking ground for it. We've been working on these plans since 2019 but the pandemic screwed it up a little bit. Doug just finished school at Bordeaux, and he's really excited to be in northern Michigan. He's very talented, but this will be his first vintage.
What is Rove's winemaking philosophy?
Good wine is made in the vineyard. We want to do minimal intervention, and just want our land to come through in the wines. We think our land is unique and don't want to manipulate it, just let the seasons speak and let every vintage show itself. We're not trying to make recipes wines.
I typically talk to winemakers who've been around a little bit longer. The opening process is very fresh in your memory. Tell us the ups and downs of opening.
Oh, it was overwhelming. There's so much just from the legal standpoint. And then we built our tasting room new. It was a lot of moving pieces and then hiring the right staff and thinking about what kind of experience we want to give our guests; all the little details are so important. How your customers see you when they leave, how you set up your wine club, it all adds up. But how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. We just kept on chipping away at it. You can't look at every day.
And how supportive was the state and the township in opening up the winery?
We had a great experience. We're in a very pro-agritourism township, which isn't true for all the townships around here, as you well know. We felt supported by our community and still do. Because we are so entrenched in our community, we became a local’s winery, and our neighbors brings their friends and their guests to Rove.
Was there something crazy in those early years that just made you think, “what have I gotten myself into?”
So many times. First is May 22, 2015. We're scheduled to break ground and we lose the entire crop of what would have been our first vintage to sell. But all these wheels are in motion and it's not like you can hit the brakes because you don’t have a crop. You go into this knowing it may happen and it is part of farming, but the timing was terrible. But we talked to other growers, and we figured it out. And when we opened with just six wines, we could have honest conversations to show this is part of farming and winemaking.
The next moment was a year and a half after opening, when I was diagnosed with an aggressive breast cancer. It was another moment of thinking we got these small kids and this staff depending on us, what are we going to do? When you are a farmer, there's really no separation, there's no sick days. It was hard. But again, we just clicked through it. I think since then, even with the pandemic, everything feels easier. After you hit those forks in the road, and you're just, “nope, I'm still going.”
You take pride in being entirely estate grown, but you're expanding rapidly. How long can you keep this up?
I would say up to this past year and a half, we were growing, but slowly. A lot of people were telling us the fifth year is when you get really busy. It was true. And I don't know if it was the pandemic or the shift of consumers, or we just have a huge outdoor space and people felt safe being outdoors. Maybe it was a combination of all those things, but we sold out of 15 different wines. In the wintertime we just had a Chardonnay and two reds, and we used to have around 20 wines with the different vintages and blends.
But as you know, you're looking at four or five years before you're really able to get a crop for wine. We will definitely have to source in the near future locally, and probably differentiate our estate fruit in a way. It's a conversation to have and it's really a reflection of how popular and how much people are appreciating and buying our wines. It's a good problem to have and we're trying to plan as fast as we can for the future. We'd like to be 10,000 cases a year eventually. That's our goal.
Tell me some misconceptions about Michigan wine.
We're doing some incredible things. I think it’s a matter of time before Northern Michigan, the Traverse Wine Coast, which is Old Mission Peninsula and Leelanau Peninsula, are recognized on the world stage because of the quality. In the last 10-15 years there’s been a complete shift in winemaking styles and we’ve stopped hiding behind the bulkiness of Traverse City as a destination. We've always attracted people here. They were going to the Dunes, or to golf, and maybe they stopped at a couple wineries, but it was a lot of sweet wines that were just easy down. There’s a movement now and we’re pushing those limits. We're working together and collaborating as more of a unit, sending our wines to certain competitions to really get our names and our region out there.
Are you shipping or doing wholesale yet?
We are not able to do wholesale because we don't have the quantity. I think we will eventually do some, but it's definitely not our focus. We're really focused on our wine club, and then direct to consumer. We do ship to 34 different states.
What percentage of your business is shipping right now?
This time of year, people are visiting us. In the winter, including our wine club, maybe 20%. Most of our traffic is at our tasting room in Traverse City. But in the winter time and since the pandemic happened, we've focused more on shipping and there's more than we've ever had.
The Mission gets most of the attention when it comes to Michigan wine. But Leelanau is really coming on strong. Tell us about that.
Rove is in the crux of both. We're on the base of Leelanau, around five miles from downtown Traverse City, and probably just as close to the Old Mission as Leelanau. We will literally get groups or transportation companies either stopping or ending at Rove who were going to Mission or Leelanau. They're very different, but I think there's a lot of beauty and charm with each, and every winery is doing their own unique thing.
Old Mission, they're bigger, they're more able to accommodate larger tasting groups. I think the closeness of downtown Traverse City has benefited them. It's just very easy going and you can hit winery after winery bam, bam, bam. So logistically it makes a lot of sense.
Leelanau, we have 24 wineries on our trail. And it's more of a weekend, it's definitely not a day. Five wineries a day is a really nice sweet spot when you're traveling and doing a wine tour. But we're doing very cool things also. We're getting the same elements off of Lake Michigan that Old Mission does, it's just a little bit more spread out.
I will say, looking over everything, you're on Leelanau, but if I didn't know any better, I would think you were a Mission winery. You’re sticking to vinifera and you want to focus on being estate grown as much as possible. A lot of the things you see in Leelanau, it's not really your mindset.
I think it’s because we were mentored by an Old Mission winemaker. And I think a lot of it is in line with our farming practices and philosophies. I never get on the wagon of condemning or being negative towards any other business. I feel there's a place for us all but I do think we're probably closer to their perspective. We have a really unique experience here, and our building looks out on all our vineyards. There's definitely a feeling of being at an estate. That's not necessarily true with all the other wineries because their tasting room and vineyards are in separate spots.
Can you tell us some varietals you think Leelanau now is really going to be known for in the next several years?
Pinot Blanc has really taken off here and it's such a great food wine. I think the millennial wine drinkers are looking for something newer, and Pinot Blanc really checks off all those boxes. Riesling for sure. For red, Pinot Noir consistently does well. Chardonnay does great, and is very cold hardy for us.
We've had discussions as a region about what we want to be known for. We look at other more established New World regions like Oregon and Virginia. Do we want to just stick to one varietal? There's a lot of uniqueness to multiple varietals we can grow, so instead maybe we should highlight how balanced our wines are, how bright they are with natural acidity, and how great they are with foods.
I think the Finger Lakes is seeing the downside of that pigeonholing now. They're trying to break out of the Riesling corner they seemed to have painted themselves into. Riesling is my favorite, but there's only so much you can drink.
We talk a lot about them a lot. They are a fantastic example of multiple trails and are more established than northern Michigan. But we can see those challenges, and we've had the same conversations. There's been a lot of movement for Riesling as our focus, but going back to what you just said, is it a long-term goal? We don’t want to limit ourselves; we're just getting started. In the world of wine, we're babies.
Where do you see Rove in 10 years?
I really believe fundamentally, the sky's the limit, but things take time, and I'm realistic with the timeline for things to unfold. But in 10 years, I'd like to have at least 50 acres of vineyard. And obviously, production being on site will be done in the near future. I want to keep trying new things, the more creative wine making, having a couple special barrels and library vintages we can’t right now with this supply bottleneck we're experiencing now. It would be great to be able to put some wines in a cellar for three years and then release it.
I won't ask you which kids you got your eye on for which winery roles.
(Laughs). We tell the kids there's a place for every one and for every skill set. Front of the house, marketing, business, accounting, you name it, all the way to production and farming. Maybe I'm naive, but I'm confident because we include our children now, they will grow to love the passion of wine, but also appreciate the Gallagher’s farming legacy. They already ask their teachers if they prefer white or red! So, we have that going for us.
And where do you see Leelanau in ten years?
We should see a lot more vineyards. We are seeing extremes shift in farming practices. Sadly, the cherry market in general is challenging, and prices are terrible. It makes very little financial sense to stay in cherries. So, I see more vineyard production, more wineries. I think we're really just getting started as a region and as a peninsula. And now we're attracting more outside talent. I'm excited to see the melting pot of new and old ideas which will make us unique.
So, imagine that Creighton comes home and says he has an idea to start a winery. Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give your younger self?
I don't think I would do anything different. I think to know how hard something is, it’s a deterrent, and I wouldn't have wanted to deter my younger self, because my life is exactly what I want. For better or for worse, it's full of so much love and abundance and passion. I worked in a corporate environment, in healthcare management, I have an MBA, and I never felt fulfilled. But I am here. I think feeling fulfilled with what you're doing day in and day out and having your children part of it beats any path. I think that naivety and young bold spirit is how we took our leap of faith. I don't know if I would do it at 38. I think there's a resistance the older you get. I would let myself jump.