AS A CHILD GROWING UP in Iron Mountain, Marty Lagina, owner of Mari Vineyards, remembers the occasional trip to his grandmother’s cellar. She kept cured meats and plants there, as well as wine in production. He called it Nonna Mari’s Cellar. It was a magical place.
Today, Lagina’s son, Alex, general manager of the budding Old Mission Peninsula vineyard, says that magic, combined with the family’s Italian roots, is what guides the winery whose namesake comes from Nonna Mari herself.
“We age our wine in an area we call the ‘wine caves,’ which are covered in at least 10 feet of earth.”
— Alex Lagina
Located in Traverse City, 5175 Center Road, Mari Vineyards offers wine with a view; the winery is located atop a hill. Getting to the immaculate tasting room that resembles a castle requires driving up a winding driveway. It overlooks the sloping vineyard and Grand Traverse Bay. The interior is as castle-like as the exterior, complete with lofty ceilings, a large, wine cork mural, a tasting bar, tables and a fireplace.
The Old Mission peninsula is situated at the 45th parallel — ideal grape growing conditions for certain varietals. Because of this, the peninsula is home to nine wineries. The Laginas, who opened Mari Vineyards in May 2016, are doing unique things with their winery.
“We age our wine in an area we call the ‘wine caves,’ which are covered in at least 10 feet of earth,” said Alex Lagina, explaining that the depth allows the wine to age in the most “favorable conditions,” in 55- to 60-degree temperatures with roughly 60 to 70 percent humidity.
“We are not the first to be doing this. Aging wine underground is the traditional method going back hundreds, if not thousands of years,” he said. “Nowadays, the conditions can be achieved using air conditioning and humidity monitoring, but we believe the lengths we have gone to achieve these conditions naturally and by the traditional method are still an advantage.”
“Like the great estates of these regions, we try to focus on growing and harvesting the ripest, most flavorful grapes possible and then keeping the ‘winemaking’ to a minimum to keep the focus on the unique flavors of our region.”
— Sean O’Keefe
Mari Vineyards is unique, too, in that it uses the Nellaserra system, temporary greenhouse-like structures placed over the vineyard, to trap heat and provide a longer growing season. It allows the vineyard to grow varieties like malvasia bianca, schioppettino and refosco grapes, all hard to produce in Michigan without added protection from cold.
“This gives us four to six weeks of extra growing time for our grapes to ripen,” Lagina said. “It allows us to get the most out of our grapes and translate that into fantastic wines.”
Mari specializes in red wines, varying from big and dry, such as Flagship Row 7 to fruitier and subtler Bel Tramonto. Red wines are their forte, but their whites are not to be overlooked. The selection is smaller but all are made with the same care and quality.
Mari Winemaker Sean O’Keefe says his approach is based on inspiration from other regions in Italy, Germany and Austria that historically were on “the climatic edge.”
“Like the great estates of these regions, we try to focus on growing and harvesting the ripest, most flavorful grapes possible and then keeping the ‘winemaking’ to a minimum to keep the focus on the unique flavors of our region,” O’Keefe said.
“In difficult vintages, we rely exclusively on blending from our own grapes to achieve balance and complexity. All our wines are 100 percent estate grown.”
For more information about Mari Vineyards, visit marivineyards.com.
Megan Westers is a mid-Michigan freelance writer and editor who enjoys writing about politics, lifestyle and travel.