All in the Family

Third-generation Leelanau Peninsula winemaker and fruit farmer diversifies
Aurora Cellars’ vineyard is full of ripened red grapes at the end of summer. Photography courtesy Aurora Cellars

In many ways, Good Harbor Vineyards and Aurora Cellars are like sisters in a close-knit family but with different outlooks on life or, in this case, wine.

Good Harbor Vineyards is the eldest of the two and has long been a stopover on the Leelanau Wine Trail. The modest tasting room stands along Route 22, not far from the sandy shores of Lake Michigan, surrounded by vineyards producing chardonnay, riesling and pinot noir, to name a few. Good Harbor’s value-driven wines — some with names that have become iconic, like Fishtown White and Harbor Red — are popular with tourists and locals alike.

Photography courtesy Aurora Cellars

Aurora Cellars became part of the family just a few years ago. Situated amid rolling hills north of Lake Leelanau (the village), Aurora possesses a more sophisticated flair. The tasting room exudes Old World charms, reflecting the styles of wine produced on the premises, with grapes from the surrounding vineyards and others on the peninsula. The reds — think pinot noir and cabernet franc — have lower alcohol levels with nice round fruit notes. The whites — riesling, pinot gris and gewürztraminer — are fruit-forward with nicely balanced acidity.

“We look at Aurora as a destination,” said Sam Simpson, the third generation of his family to farm on the Leelanau Peninsula. “All of my staff is expected to offer a five-star experience to our guests. Everyone who walks through the door should expect that.”

That’s not a slight against Good Harbor Vineyards, one of the oldest wineries in the northwest Lower Peninsula. Good Harbor traces its roots to a cherry orchard and fruit farm, begun by Sam’s grandfather. His father, Bruce Simpson, eventually took the reins after the family diversified its operations, planting vines in the 1970s. Good Harbor opened for business in 1980.

Aurora Cellars became a part of the family’s wine portfolio in 2015. The 40-acre estate was formerly Circa Estate Winery, which closed its doors in 2011. Purchasing the winery made sense for the Simpsons, who needed to expand cellar space and believed another winery offered diversification. The wineries operate under Harbor Hill Fruit Farms, which also offers custom crushing, vineyard services and mobile bottling.

Aurora Cellars wines and Good Harbor wines (right, center) are both owned by Harbor Hill, which also provides grape crushing services to other wineries. Photography courtesy Aurora Cellars

Growth and diversification have long been a mantra of the Simpson family. Last summer, Good Harbor Vineyards unveiled new, inviting labels for most of its selection of white and red wines. The new design features the Simpson family’s Scottish crest and pays homage to the family’s farming heritage.

“We are winemakers, but we are also a family of fruit farmers. We value that and its importance,” said Taylor Simpson, Sam’s sister, who serves as sales, marketing and distribution manager for both Good Harbor Vineyards and Aurora Cellars.

Photography courtesy Good Harbor Vineyard

The fresh design also pays tribute to the winery’s important proximity to Lake Michigan’s Good Harbor Bay. Its location is embossed on the clean white label. The winery is situated on prime wine-growing terroir and the vineyards benefit from the lake’s moderating waters.

“Good Harbor has always been a wonderful winery,” said Jack Keyes, a fifth-generation resident of northwestern Michigan and wine connoisseur well-versed in Northern Michigan wines. “They’ve always had good wines, but they have really improved their game in recent years. In terms of quality of wines and price, they’re one of the better-buy wines in the region …”

The Simpsons, as part of their business operations, have taken a significant role in helping Michigan’s wine industry extend its footprint.

Harbor Hill’s crushing services help other wineries produce their wines. Its new, high-tech mobile bottling line is a first in the state and allows novice wineries to bottle their juice without having to invest in expensive equipment. Harbor Hill has traveled all over Michigan helping vintners bottle their wines. Among them is Youngblood Vineyard near Detroit.

Photography courtesy Aurora Cellars

“We really relied on them for our first bottling,” said Jessica Youngblood, who owns the Macomb County winery with her husband, Dave. “I don’t know what we would have done without them. It’s hard enough to get started without having to invest in bottling equipment.”

As always, the Simpsons have their eyes on the future. Next year, the family is moving ahead with its largest planting, adding 40 to 45 acres of new vines, including some new varietals, such as auxerrois and pinot meunier, as well as more traditional grapes, pinot noir, riesling and chardonnay. The Simpsons also are looking to boost production at Aurora Cellars, with a goal of producing 15,000 cases, up from current production of about 3,000 to 4,500 cases a year.

“I think Michigan is where California was in the 1970s,” Simpson said. “There’s so much possibility. We have a lot of room to grow in this state. We want to be a part of that and help others. A rising tide, as they say, raises all ships.” ≈

Greg Tasker is a Traverse City-based writer who frequently writes about Michigan’s growing wine industry.

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