Mission Peninsula Focus: Interview with Marie Chantal-Dalese of Chateau Chantal
For many, wine making is a family business, and the wineries that make up Michigan’s Mission Peninsula are no exception. A fine example of the family winery is the Mission’s second oldest winery, Chateau Chantal. In 1983, Robert and Nadine Begin shifted their careers from running a construction company and teaching, respectively, to building and running the dreamed of European-style chateau winery.
After purchasing a cherry orchard, the Begins began the years long process of transitioning the land from cherries to grapes. Chateau Chantal opened their doors ten years later as a French-style B&B and vineyard estate. The Begins were not immune to zoning battles and Township control, but their determination paid off. (The Mission is no stranger to winery zoning battles, and for the current one, please read our story about the current Mission Peninsula lawsuit). Now farming 100 acres of grapes, a distinctive wine list of mostly vinifera, a small event space, and a stunning bed and breakfast, Chateau Chantal is a staple on the Mission that takes full advantage of the views of Grand Traverse Bay.
Marie Chantal-Dalese, daughter of Robert and Nadine, is no stranger to hard work. She spent her childhood watching her parents build Chateau Chantal, all while working at various businesses on the Mission. She went on to study business in Chicago, then made the leap to Australia to study wine, became a Certified Sommelier, and eventually found her way back to the Mission in 2009 where she became the Marketing Director for Chateau Chantal. As of 2016, she is the President and CEO. We were delighted to sit down with her to discuss her wine journey, Chateau Chantal, what makes the Mission Peninsula so great, and the future of Michigan wine.
While we certainly could have chosen to discuss the pending lawsuit, it is just a blip on the radar in the history of this great region and great winery and has been discussed here before, so we told Marie we wished to discuss happier topics. While the lawsuit may come up a few times by necessity in our conversation, it won’t be the focus. As always, the interview is edited for clarity and flow.
Tell us the broad strokes of Chateau Chantal. Acreage, varietals grown, case production, number of employees.
We planted our first vineyard in 1986 and opened our doors in 1993 on a much smaller scale than we are today. We now have 100 acres on Old Mission Peninsula. I frankly haven’t counted all our varietals, but we are almost all vinifera. Every vinifera that could grow here we have pretty much tried from Pinot Grigio to Lemberger to Gamay. We make around 25,000 cases annually. Our staff changes by the season, but we like to say that by the end of the year, we will issue around 100 W-2s, with 15 full-time year-round. Our tasting room is open year-round.
The line most associated with you is “it’s only natural she took over the winery, since her parents named it after her!” How old were you when your parents started the winery and what do you remember about those early years?
We moved from Detroit when I was two with my dad’s idea of having a European-style winery chateau. I have always grown up with the concept but not the actual building. We got here in 1980, and my dad founded our farm in 1983, which was then a 65-acre cherry estate. We were the first of its kind on the Old Mission combining the vineyard, the cellar, the tasting room, the bed and breakfast and residence, so the zoning had to be written for this, which took years.
When construction finally finished in 1993, I was in 9th grade. So, I actually grew up in a different house in a different part of the peninsula. We used to go camping on top of the hill where the chateau is now, and a favorite memory is my father bringing electricity from Center Road so we could play our boombox. Growing up, it was definitely an all-consuming effort for my dad. It was a unique project, nothing like it existed, and it took a long time to get it to fruition.
The zoning battles your dad had to fight-how much of that were you aware of? Were there ever moments he was ready to throw in the towel?
I didn’t really know all the trouble they were going through because I was so young. My only involvement was when he put me to work selling cherries by the side of the road (laughs). But I could see what was going on. I doubt there was a time he wanted to quit, because that isn’t his style. I do remember sensing it was tough and there was controversy. Other kids on bus would say “they are going to build a big resort on the top of that hill” which was not what was going to happen.
When we moved in, I didn’t really work here. My dad was very keen on setting an example of learning by working elsewhere. Starting at 14, I worked at the tavern down the road, then I worked at different hotels and restaurants around here. I really only spent one summer of my youth working here.
Tell us where else you worked or lived during your wine journey.
Australia and Chicago. I went to college in Chicago at Depaul, majoring in marketing and management. I didn’t really enjoy the corporate life, so then I got serious about wine. I then did the graduate program in wine business at the University of Adelaide. That gave me a great foundation and additional credibility in the business, and I then went back to Chicago and worked at a big retailer, Binny’s Beverage Depot, then for around five years at a fine wine distributor called Connoisseur Wines. Having done all of that, it was finally time to go home. I personally wanted to have a robust experience before I went back.
From your time in Australia, if you could magically transport anything back from there to the Mission and grow it well, what would it be?
I love a big Shiraz, and we sure can’t do that here. Adelaide was next to the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale, which is where some of the best wines there are. But of course, doing something like that here would totally take away what makes us unique.
Did you seriously consider any other career or did you always know you were going to come home?
I guess I always kept my options open, but always knew deep down I would try and come home. I gave myself that chance eleven years ago and I am still here.
There’s a natural transition period when a new generation takes over any business. Tell us about that.
It was a bit unique because my dad had basically retired as CEO for a ten-year period when I came back in 2009. We had a CEO, Jim Krupka (Editor’s note: Jim Krupka is now Chairman of the Board for Chateau Chantal), and he took us from a small family farm business into what we are today. I worked with Jim for five years as the director of marketing prior to becoming CEO.
Although it happened ten years removed from my dad, there were obviously challenges. I was going to become the leader of people who have known me since I was ten. These were people I have known for decades as an older sister-type or fatherly figures or such, and earning their respect was important for me. I strive to be a good leader in the way of example, and take seriously the servant leadership model. It takes time to do that, and I feel pretty confident in those relationships and I am glad I took the time to build them.
What percentage of your sales are from the tasting room/wholesale/shipping?
Almost 50/50 split between retail and distribution. We include shipping and wine club in retail. Distribution is wholesale and restaurants, and we also do quite a bit of private label for other brewery or small winery businesses.
You’re in a wine region that has gotten a lot of positive attention lately. Tell us about that.
We have gotten a lot of attention, but demand has certainly not yet outpaced our supply. More vineyards are being planted and we continue to grow. Despite all that great attention, I still face plenty of pushback from people who don’t think Michigan can make great wine. Particularly when you are trying to sell wine in a crowded market like Chicago, it can be a challenge. Michigan beer has no problem crossing the state line, but wine does. It takes a lot of effort to prove people wrong.
I would like to expand a bit more on the Chicago market for Michigan wine. Traverse City is a well-known vacation area for those in Chicago, but there does seem to be a natural resistance to large urban centers drinking local wine.
It is certainly growing as the people are becoming educated about us. The locavore movement that started around fifteen years ago was the first step. People were used to wanting their salad and veggies to be local, but wine took a while longer. From my perspective, Michigan is the best bet for local wine in the Midwest. Illinois is growing some great hybrids, and so are some other places, but when it comes to vinifera, you really need to look to Michigan. Some restaurants in the area are now featuring us. A huge step forward for us was the huge foodie scene we developed in Traverse City, and that scene is becoming a big a draw as our cherries and water.
(Ed:: For another example of this, look to our interview with Jim Trezise where he discusses the resistance of New York City drinkers to New York wine).
What are some misconceptions about Michigan wine?
They are all sweet. They are all Riesling. No red wines. Those are easy to dispel if you visit any tasting room. You will quickly see we are much more diverse than the perception.
I would add “it’s too darn cold to grow grapes up there!”
Yes. And when people bring that up, it gives us a great opportunity to talk about the unique geography of the Old Mission Peninsula. Without us being surrounded by water in this little microclimate, we wouldn’t be here.
Your lineup is almost all vinifera with just a few local fruit wines. Was that always the case?
Yes. By design, the European varieties are what my dad and our founding winemaker, Mark Johnson wanted to focus on. They knew it could be done because of Chateau Grand Traverse when Big Ed brought vinifera to the Mission. (Ed.: Marie is referring to Ed O’Keefe, Jr., founder of Chateau Grand Traverse, the oldest winery on the Mission). I always joke my dad was “Crazy Guy #2” in bringing vinifera out here. It has widely developed since then and become even more experimental with some Italian varietals, some growing Sauvignon Blanc. The freedom to do that is great.
Will Riesling continue to be the white grapes that gets the most notice on the Mission?
I think so. It’s the most widely planted, probably the best-tempered to our climate, especially when compared to Pinot Noir, which is more finicky and won’t ripen in some years. Riesling, Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio will be the big three. There is comfort for people in Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio, but they aren’t as familiar with Riesling, so we do a lot of education.
What reds are you excited about? Cabernet Franc is certainly the Mission’s leading red. Will that continue?
I think people are really enjoying playing around with Cab Franc. In warm years, it can be spectacular. It is not high-yielding, but it gives us a deeper red wine those who enjoy dry reds will enjoy.
A red wine we grow that doesn’t get thought of a lot is Gamay. You don’t see it much on its own. Ours ends up in our Naughty Red blend. But that is one we can see as a stable producer year after year and gives us a medium bodied red with a peppery note to it.
Ed.: The Naughty Red is an exceptional wine, and at around $15, an exceptional value.
Do you think the lineup is pretty much set for what the Mission will be growing as far as varietals?
I think the desire to experiment is still there. Not sure how wide of an impact it will have, but Teroldego is showing some early promise. Black Star has planted some and we have a few rows now as well. I really love that it is from Italy, and am interested to see what it does here.
Our founding winemaker, Mark Johnson, passed away in 2017, but he was such a foundation for our company. He was trained in Germany, and kept those connections. Year after year, various professors from Germany would come visit us. They started talking about certain varietals called “Pi-Wi” which is short for a very long German word that I cannot pronounce. But what it means are vinifera-like varietals that are disease resistant and hardier. If you could plant this in Michigan, having it taste like vinifera, but being more disease resistant and hardy, maybe we can successfully grow that with a bigger yield. New York has cultivated them, and they are just now coming out commercially, and our first test vines will be planted this year in a very low area we wouldn’t normally plant grapes. If they end up tasting good and work out, then that is a game changer for the whole state.
Ed.: Marie is speaking of pilzwiderstandfähig wines, which are showing promise in a lot of countries normally inhospitable to wine grapes. Don’t ask us how to say it either.
Tell how COVID affected CC? You really took a double hit since your other main business, the bed and breakfast, suffered greatly.
The bed and breakfast really took a hit, but that was really the only aspect that was 100% shut during that first quarantine period. The rest of the business, we could pivot, whether that was shipping or virtual tastings. We were able to find some new avenues that made the business as a whole not so bad. We certainly weren’t breaking any records in 2020, but we survived just fine with the other venues. We also had a brisk business all summer and fall. We were at our capacity. We had to change pretty much everything we did, but were able to keep people coming in and provide the friendly hospitable service we are known for despite there being masks and curtains everywhere. But we really missed the interaction with the guests and to educate them about us and the Mission, and are anxious to return to normal.
Tell us about the collegiality among your fellow Mission wineries.
From the start, there has been a friendly competition as we put it. Sure, we are competing for the same guests and the same dollars, but we have always worked together in a lot of ways. From the winemakers getting together to taste and talk about the wine and raise the bar quality wise to owners getting together to deal with issues like the one we are in now with the Township. We know the more successful the region is, the bigger draw we will all be. We have gone from just us and Chateau Grand Traverse to 10-11 wineries and there a few more in the works.
I have been trying in my mind to think of another region like the Mission where you take your time, meander at a nice pace, go up one basic road, and in two days you have seen every winery in the AVA, having not exhausted yourself and paced yourself perfectly. No other region besides the Mission seems to have that.
Absolutely. We are all-encompassing. It is one of the advantages of being on a peninsula. There’s one road going up and you can take another road on the way back if you want a different view. But also, the fact that each of the wineries are so different. Sure, we grow a lot of the same varietals, but our styles and the way we tailor our lists to what fits our different microclimates, it gives every one a different brand. We are all really first-rate wineries.
I would like to talk about the neighboring AVA to the Mission, Leelanau. It is so close yet so different in style and vibe.
For me, it doesn’t feel that different. What I hear from people, it is far more dispersed, and there are many that will give you an experience different than you will get from the Mission. Stylistically, it is all in the same boat and not that radically different.
Let me expand on that further. Whenever I speak to someone from the Midwest who is soon visiting the Traverse City area, I tell them there are some generalities, and these are indeed generalities. On the Mission, expect mostly vinifera. On Leelanau, you will still find many who are growing hybrids and the experience is similar to what you can expect from many Midwest wineries. But there are some branching out to vinifera, and some who are moving completely to vinifera. It is similar to the Finger Lakes, with the two camps and the bridge in between. But Leelanau certainly seems to be in flux right now.
On both peninsulas, you have these old farm families who are pivoting into something different. Rove on Leelanau is an example. Like here on the Mission, the Kroupas with Peninsula Cellars. They were fifth generation at least of cherry growers who started planting grapes in the 1990s and now operate the winery in addition to their other crops. To have established members of our community making wine and for visitors to just be able to pull their car up and meet them, it is a special thing.
A lot of Michigan wine regions are rising right now. What does the Mission need to do to stay unique?
There are a lot of unique great regions. What we do offer is the natural beauty so many wine regions don’t have. It is hard to find a wine region surrounded by water. If we are to continue to have a good reputation, we have to continue to focus on the grapes we are growing and continue to choose the best.
Climate change is also a huge concern for us on the Mission. It could possibly curtail our ability to grow vinifera with continued late freezes. In my mind, we need to think about how much this region can sustain these changes. If it was simply getting warmer, that is one thing, but that is not what is happening.
Besides those late spring freezes, what are some other climate changes you have noticed?
2014 and 2015 were the two polar vortexes back-to-back that not only wiped out the crop those years, but we experienced 10% vine mortality. We ended up replacing 10,000 vines across 100 acres. That takes another four years to come back to production.
Hail, which was never a problem here, but we have had a handful of that come with severe summer storms. That will demolish your vineyard really quick. Spring frosts, ideally the Bay will save us, but now it just depends. Lots of variables, but for me, it is the extremes that worry me, the extreme cold and storms that really ruin things.
Do you have a supportive university system?
Yes, Michigan State is the land grant college that provides extension services to our farmers. They have a station on Leelanau and provide a lot of training and courses for us. We actually used to have a test vineyard for them on our property. Our winemaker is a graduate of MSU, and we cooperate with them a great deal. If they need a stretch of crop to experiment with a cover crop or something like that, we provide that, with the goal of improving our industry.
Where do you see Chateau Chantal in ten years?
Wow, 2031. We have spent the last 27 years getting to the point we are now, with the max capacity of our expanded 10,000 square foot cellar we built in 2010. We have been making some very significant investments with that cellar, cross-flow filters, lees filters, and we just received a brand-new bottling line which brings sparkling capacity with it.
I think we are at a place where I want to stop growing the building. Our grounds and capacity are at their sweet spot. We aren’t going to be a 100,000-case winery. Maybe we get to 35,000, maybe 40,000. The focus instead becomes improving what we do. Improving this aging facility we have and making better wine should be our focus. We also have to pay attention to what our guests want to do when they come and deliver that. Wine and food pairing dinners, interesting events, more of that.
Where do you see Mission and Michigan wine in ten years?
I think we will continue to get recognition, but we have to continue to educate and show people. Every few months we see an article about the Mission in the national wine press. People will continue to become more accepting of the European model of “what grows together, goes together.” We will get those wine lists up and running that really feature Michigan wine.
Let’s go back in time to when you decided it was time to go home. Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give your younger self?
I think I would tell myself to be more patient. I am one of those people who is always saying “let’s get it done, let’s move!” But that is not wine, and that is not a lot of people. I would tell myself to take more time with learning things, teaching others, and realizing you just need patience in this industry.
What do you drink when you go home at night? You can’t say one of your wines!
I love wine from all over the world, and it is my true passion. But I love Shawn Smith M3 Reserve Chardonnay from the Adelaide Hills, which is not that far off from our Reserve Chardonnay in that they also call it a cool climate since they are in the hills. It doesn’t snow there, so it’s not really cool climate in my book (laughs). But it just has that crisp fruitiness and oak to it that is just so balanced and rich which reminds me of ours, which just so happens to be my favorite of our wines as well.