Cheers to 50 Years

The Leelanau Peninsula’s MAWBY Vineyards and Winery celebrates a sparkling milestone as Michigan’s Bubble King
MAWBY committed to “all things bubbly” in the mid-1990s. Team members love to share stories about the sparkling wines with guests.
Photos courtesy of MAWBY Vineyards and Winery

For decades, Michigan-made MAWBY wines have added sparkle to special occasions, from birthdays and baby showers to holidays, graduations, and weddings.

Throughout 2023, the award-winning winery, which produces only bubblies (sparkling wines, ciders, and canned spritzers), celebrated its visionary founder, Larry Mawby, who planted his first grapevines 50 years ago on the Leelanau Peninsula near Traverse City. Fondly known as “the Bubble King,” he eased into retirement a few years ago, but continues to mentor his successors, with whom he partnered in 2009.

“Fifty years is obviously quite a milestone for this region,” says Peter Laing, who, with his brother, Michael, owns and runs the pioneering winery, one of northern Michigan’s oldest commercial vineyards. “The fact that it’s still going strong and growing is a testament to the great foundation laid by Larry Mawby (and others involved in its development, including Stu Laing). It’s an honor for us to carry on the traditions and build on that foundation.” 

Cited many times for his wine-making achievements since 1973, MAWBY committed to “all things bubbly” in the mid-1990s after determining that Leelanau County’s shorter, cooler growing season — with moderating lake effect — was ideal for the grape varietals used to make sparkling Champagne-style wines.

Today, the winery produces more than 25,000 cases annually. MAWBY’s portfolio of more than 20 beverages includes bottle-fermented sparkling wines such as Blanc, Grace, and Talismon, plus a handful of sparkling ciders, canned spritzers, limited-production wine sparklers, and seasonal releases.

The fruit-forward sparklers are a tasteful addition to any gathering.

MAWBY prides itself on making its sparkling wines two ways: in the Methode Champenoise, or traditional bottle-fermented style, for its high-end wines, which are aged from two to seven years; and tank-fermented sparklers for more immediate consumption. The bubbles, twice-fermented, are naturally occurring, not carbonated, in both methods.

MAWBY’s moderately-priced ($13-$19) tank-produced sparkling wines include Detroit, Sandpiper, Us, Green, Redd, and the provocatively-named Sex, a best-selling brut rose. “They’re fresh, fruit-forward sparklers that are meant to be enjoyed now,” says Claire Lepine, MAWBY’s marketing manager.

To mark MAWBY’s half-century milestone, the Laings hosted a series of anniversary dinners and other events in 2023 and, fittingly, produced a 50th Anniversary Cuveé, a brut blanc de blanc sparkling wine made from Leelanau Peninsula-grown chardonnay and riesling grapes. It’s finished with a dosage of 20-year-old, French oak-aged grape spirits, or brandy.

The limited, multi-vintage anniversary blend “is basically made from our most popular sparkling wine, Blanc, but with a special dosage,” Peter Laing says, noting that the unique wine with just 1,000 cases produced will never be replicated. That’s because the dosage (added at the end to replace spent yeast) “was a small, five-gallon barrel of some grape spirits we found just sitting under the stairs,” he says.

Actually, MAWBY’s wine-making team was aware of that lone barrel for some time, Laing says, and determined that the anniversary year would be the right time to use it. “People love it,” he says of the anniversary sparkler, which tastes of caramel apples, brioche, and delicate fruit, and is described as rich and lively on the palate, with an elegant finish.

The winery produces more than 25,000 cases annually and has a portfolio of more than 20 beverages.

The 50th Anniversary Cuveé, priced at $35, pairs well with poached scallops, fried chicken, and wild mushroom pasta, and has been popular with MAWBY Fizz Club members, affectionately known as “Bubbleheads,” Michael Laing says. It’s also a hit in the winery’s tasting room, which offers beautiful views of the vineyards and is open year-round (it’s closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays during the winter season, through April 30).

Well worth a trip north, MAWBY Vineyards and Winery is situated in the rolling, coastal dunes of the Leelanau Peninsula, near Lake Michigan and between Traverse City and Suttons Bay — both popular destinations for food and wine buffs. It’s among more than three dozen wineries in the region, which includes the adjacent Old Mission Peninsula.

For those wondering what sets Michigan sparkling wines apart, Larry Mawby explains: “We’re sort of between (the wines of) Champagne and the northern coastal areas of California in terms of climate and varietal expression. We’re not as lean as Champagne and not as fat as California.”

That means northern Michigan sparklers aren’t quite as crisp or tart as Champagne, he says, “but that doesn’t mean they’re sweet!” He adds they’re typically not as high in alcohol as many California sparkling wines.

The MAWBY tasting room and outdoor deck overlook the rolling Suttons Bay-area vineyards.

“Alcohol provides body and roundness, or fatness. California has fatness with its slightly higher alcohol (content),” Mawby says. However, the difference between the alcohol levels is just .5 to 1 percent, he explains. “It’s not a huge difference, but enough to make significant perception and flavor differences.”

Considering MAWBY’s success, why haven’t more Michigan wineries gone the bubbly route? “It’s difficult,” Mawby says, since sparkling wine is a small segment — only 5 or 6 percent — of the wine market. Plus, “You have to basically make wine and then make it again (double fermentation). It’s time-consuming and costly.”

At 73, the Michigan State University English major, whose parents and grandparents were fruit farmers, reflects on his wine-making career: “I’m gratified that consumers have appreciated what we’re doing enough that we’re still going,” he says. “When I started, I just wanted to see if we could do it.” 

The award-winning winery prides itself on producing only sparkling wines (which are costly and time-consuming to prepare), ciders, and canned spritzers.

Celebrate with MAWBY

Guests and staff helped to celebrate the 50th anniversary of MAWBY during a series of special events.

Any time of year is the perfect season to break out the MAWBY bubblies, according to Peter and Michael Laing, who say there’s no need to serve pricey French or California champagnes when Michigan’s MAWBY Vineyards and Winery offers high-quality, affordable sparkling wines so close to home. Here are their pairing suggestions for five popular MAWBY sparkling wines:

Pair with: Sparkling cocktails, appetizers
Touted as an affordable alternative to pricier champagnes, Us is a blend of pinot noir, chardonnay, and chambourcin wine grapes. It’s a brut classic with a soft finish and pear and apricot aromas. At $17, it’s among MAWBY’s moderately priced sparklers that are naturally fermented twice in stainless steel tanks in the closed tank, or cuve close, method.

50th Anniversary Cuveé
Pair with: Roasted chestnuts, poached scallops
Made from Leelanau Peninsula-grown chardonnay and riesling grapes, this $35 multi-vintage blend is elegantly finished with a grape brandy dosage aged in French oak barrels. With flavors of caramel apples, brioche, and delicate fruit, it’s lively on the palate, with a rich flavor from the cognac-like dosage.

Pair with: Shrimp cocktail, cheese plates
Stylish and refined, the $27 Blanc de Blanc is made from Leelanau Peninsula chardonnay, pinot gris, and riesling grapes, and features aromas of baked apples and zesty citrus fruits, layered with yeast flavors.

Pair with: Smoked salmon, bouillabaisse
This pretty, $29 pale brut rose is made from Leelanau Peninsula pinot noir, chardonnay, and pinot gris grapes, with a touch of regent grapes added for color and aroma. Expect ripe pinot and berry-cherry fruit flavors, with a yeasty bouquet. The finish is clean and crisp.

Pair with: Turkey dinner
Featuring a solera of reserve wines dating back to 1993, this is a complex $39 Blanc de Blanc produced from estate-grown pinot noir, chardonnay, vignoles, and pinot gris grapes, supported by subtle oak and crisp acidity. Finished with a brut dosage, it has baked pear fruit aromas, with a toasty brioche accent and a fine, lingering finish. — SRP

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