William Schopf is a storyteller, though not in the traditional sense of taking pen to paper or tapping away on a keyboard to craft novels, short stories or screenplays (though he majored in English literature at Princeton University).
His storytelling is expressed in other forms. His first canvas was the courtroom. As a lawyer trying legal cases, he crafted intellectually and emotionally persuasive stories presenting the truth to the jury. He later turned to movie screens and audiences. He became the owner of Chicago’s historic Music Box Theatre and a distributor of foreign and specialty movies.
More recently, he has turned to the land. About a decade ago, Schopf began planting wine grapes on the hills of a former crop-and-fruit farm in southwestern Michigan, not far from the tempering waters of Lake Michigan.
With Dablon Winery and Vineyards, Schopf is telling the story of Michigan’s potential as a world-class wine producer. In the terraced vineyards surrounding his contemporary tasting room, he grows European vinifera, red and white varietals most consumers are familiar with: chardonnay, riesling, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, malbec and cabernet franc.
“Everyone wants to hear a story,” he said. “In this business, the story is about grapes and wine. You go to a dinner party and bring a bottle of wine, people will ask you where it came from, what is the story behind the wine? They’ll talk about it.”
Dablon’s wines have surprised tourists who stop by for tastings at Purely Michigan, a Michigan-themed gift store in downtown St. Joseph. “There’s a perception that Michigan wine is sweet and fruity. It’s what Michigan became known for,” said Erik Youngquist, who owns the store with his wife Demrhy and carries other Michigan wines, as well. “It’s nice to have a different option for people — to have a real quality wine. Dablon is making great wines. The cabernet sauvignon is amazing.”
Modeled after vineyards in Burgundy and Bordeaux, some of the vines are terraced as much for the grapes as the aesthetics. “It gives people the sense they are somewhere different, someplace they have never been before,” said Schopf, who grew up in western Michigan but now splits his time between Union Pier and Chicago.
His efforts have not gone unnoticed. Dablon’s 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon earned a 90 (out of a possible 100) from Wine Enthusiast magazine, one of the country’s leading wine publications. It was the highest rating ever given to a Michigan cabernet sauvignon.
“That had an impact right away,” Schopf said. “In wholesale, retail markets, restaurants and wine and liquor stores, they like those ratings. That got us more shelf space, more by-the-glass pours in restaurants. But, more importantly, what we’re dealing with here in Michigan, especially here in the southwest, is that historically, much of Michigan wine has been sweet and cheap. Our biggest challenge is overcoming that reputation.”
His wines are helping. Dablon wines are served at restaurants in Michigan, Indiana and Illinois. He again scored high ratings with Wine Enthusiast last summer. The winery won accolades for its 2017 Riesling and its 2016 Cabernet Franc, among others.
“Dablon is doing an admirable job of producing varietally correct vinifera, wines that are pretty challenging to make in Michigan,” said Michael Schafer, a wine and spirits speaker and “edutainer” from the Detroit area. “Most people aren’t producing merlot and cabernet sauvignon.”
Schafer, an advocate of Michigan wines, adds that Dablon, with its quality wines and attractive packaging, is helping raise the bar on wines from Michigan and the Midwest.
Schopf is pursuing a less-traveled path among Michigan wineries, borrowing from the best of European practices. Dablon’s vines are planted 36 inches apart along long rows of trellises; rows are planted 8 feet apart. The intent is to produce lower yields, resulting in higher-quality fruit.
“Michigan is a wonderful place to grow grapes, but you can’t overdo,” Schopf said, noting a typical yield is about 3 tons an acre.
Inside Dablon’s 2,400-square-foot tasting room, with window views of the vineyards, guests can sample from two dozen wines. Most varietals are red and include the not-so-familiar French varietals — tannat, carménère and petit verdot. This past fall, Dablon harvested its first crop of tempranillo, a grape made famous by Rioja and Spain.
“It’s a wine I like, and I thought our customers would find interesting,” Schopf
explained. The future of that tempranillo is in the works. Schopf would like to leave some of the wine in stainless steel tanks and see how it turns out. The rest he plans to age in French oak for another year with a possible tasting room release in summer 2021. ≈
Greg Tasker lives in Traverse City where he enjoys writing about Michigan wines and wineries.
*Photography courtesy Southwest Michigan Tourist Council