It doesn’t take long to realize James Lester is creating something quite different at Wyncroft, a boutique winery tucked into the farmland and scattered woods of southwest Michigan, just 3 miles east of Lake Michigan. There are no blue highway signs along Interstate 96 or local Allegan County roads promoting Wyncroft to tourists. Wine tasting and vineyard tours are by appointment only, a practice that is an anomaly among Michigan’s 140-plus wineries.
At Wyncroft, there is no traditional tasting room. Wines are sampled in the lab area, a garage-like building behind Lester’s house, perched on a hill that crowns the 100-acre farm. Typically, following a walk through the vineyard, Lester and guests gather around a barrel for wine and locally made cheese and bread.
Lester is happy to show wine enthusiasts around his well-maintained farm. He grows the noble vinifera, wine grapes more commonly associated with well-known wine regions of France and Germany: cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, pinot noir, merlot, chardonnay and riesling. Like vintners in France, Lester has planted his carefully selected varietal clones 3 feet apart. Being closer together helps them ripen earlier, retain better acidity and exude more flavor.
At 67, with his wavy gray hair, Lester resembles a leaner, younger Kenny Rogers. He produces wines similar to classic French styles and jokingly refers to his operations as a French garagiste winery, a reference to French vintners who began making wine out of rented garages because they couldn’t afford property in Bordeaux. Some of those vintners went on to make phenomenal wines, he noted.
His Wyncroft wines (wyncroftwine.com) are sourced from single vineyards in either the Lake Michigan shore or Fennville appellations, both in southwest Michigan. About 5½ acres of his farm are planted in vines; his yields, he said, are purposely lower than other winemakers. He also maintains 8½ acres of wine grapes in Berrien County.
“We get yields like they do in France and Europe,” he said.
Lester has been pursuing winemaking since the 1980s. He strives to make quality wines, wines on par with those from the world’s best-known wine regions. He also considers himself an artist; the grapes harvested from his vineyards are his palette.
“I’m attempting to compete with the best wineries in the world …,” he explained. His small winery produces about 2,000 cases of wine a year, available for purchase by appointment, online, and from some retail stores or finer restaurants in Chicago and Detroit. “I’m driven by art, not by making money,” he said. “I don’t want to make wines just for the tourists driving by. I am interested in making wines that match the classics.”
Cortney Casey, a sommelier and owner of Michigan By The Bottle, which carries Lester’s brands at its Auburn Hills location, said Lester’s unique approach is appealing.
“When you talk to Jim, it’s clear that he’s passionate about winemaking,” she said. “He’s a firm believer in great wine starting in the vineyard and of allowing the grapes to express themselves. I love his Old-World style — especially his pinots, and his Bordeaux blend, Shou — and the fact that he produces some unique blends, like the traditional white Bordeaux blend of sauvignon blanc and semillon.”
Lester’s immersion in wine came quite by happenstance. He pursued an informal education and career in winemaking. His initial foray into Michigan wine came in the early days of the nascent industry. In the mid-1980s, he and two business partners established Madron Lake Hills Winery in neighboring Berrien County. The partners produced quality whites and reds, including an impressive 1991 pinot noir. They had bottled the first Michigan pinot noir a few years earlier. The winery also had created a Bordeaux-style blend a few years earlier, blending estate-grown cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot.
Those successes convinced Lester that Michigan could produce world-class wines and consumers would embrace the region as a formidable player in the wine industry. He didn’t realize it would be quite the sell to consumers. And, ultimately, that winery didn’t succeed, closing in 1992.
Since then, he maintained a vineyard in Berrien County and did other jobs to make ends meet. He produced his first official wine under the Wyncroft brand in 1998, a chardonnay that won a gold medal at the Michigan Wine Competition. His new brand found a home in 2014 when he purchased his Allegan County property.
Lester works the farm with his wife Daun and a small crew. He has since created another brand, Marland, to offer customers more affordable, everyday wines. Marland wines are produced with grapes from southwestern Michigan but not strictly from his vineyards. The Marland wines also are made in small batches. His blends and varietals include sauvignon blanc/semillon, chardonnay, pinot grigio, rosé, cabernet franc and a Bordeaux-style blend.
Greg Tasker is a Traverse City-based freelance writer who writes frequently about Michigan’s growing wine industry.