In summertime the highlands of the Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas are thick with cherry trees, their branches bowed down with bright red fruit. But when autumn arrives in Traverse City, everyone’s attention turns to a different crop.
Fall, after all, is the Season of the Grape. From the middle of September until the first week of November, the water-warmed slopes above Grand Traverse Bay yield up fat dark clusters of grapes that are destined to be tomorrow’s Chardonnays, Rieslings and Pinot Grigios. And since the wine harvest takes place at the peak of northern Michigan’s fall color season, an autumn visit to the Traverse City area is a splendid way to pamper the eye and the palate at the same time.
Actually, the very features that make these two narrow peninsulas so lovely – their high, rounded ridges bathed by long fiords of clear, deep water – are why it’s possible to grow tender grapevines here. In fall, the summer-warmed water protects the vines from early frost, and in spring it prevents them from breaking dormancy too soon.
That’s one reason for the fact that the 26 wineries of Leelanau and Old Mission have gained an international reputation for the clean, elegant taste and bouquet of their wines. But it also explains why so many people love to make the annual fall pilgrimage to the two peninsulas to sample their vintages in the incomparable setting where they were made.
Autumn in Traverse Bay country is a gentler, more romantic season -- a time of crisp clear mornings, mellow golden afternoons and cool, lingering evenings. The summer crowds have vanished with summer’s heat, and by late September the hills are ablaze with color. (TripAdvisor.com calls it one of America’s Top 10 fall foliage destinations!)
Generations of “leaf-peepers” have made the Traverse City area their base of operations for annual fall color pilgrimages, and their numbers are increasing as new travelers discover that they don’t have to give up the pleasures of good food, wine and entertainment in order to enjoy the beauty of an autumn landscape.
If anything, the fall color experience is only heightened by a view from the hilltop terrace of a winery like Chateau Grand Traverse or 2 Lads, sipping from a glass of crisp Chardonnay while gazing across rows of thick grapevines at the deep blue water and the gold and scarlet hills in the distance.
The area’s wineries know all about the mystique of autumn, of course. Over the years, they’ve learned to schedule special events designed to encourage visitors to turn their fall color tours into wine-tasting pilgrimages. On Sept. 10-11, the wineries of the Leelanau Peninsula hold their annual Harvest Stompede, a run through the vineyards that involves food and wine-tasting.
But the big festivities don’t begin until November, when the last grapes are gathered in. On two separate weekends -- Nov. 5-6 and 12-13 – the wineries of the Leelanau Peninsula dress up for their major fall event, a celebration called Toast the Season where participants travel from tasting room to tasting room sampling wines and nibbling gourmet foods. Guests also receive collectible ornaments at each stop, as well as a handcrafted grapevine wreath.
On Nov. 26 it’s the turn of the neighboring Old Mission Peninsula to show off with one of the season’s quirkiest events: the annual Mac and Cheese Bake-Off. Traditionally, the Old Mission wineries have been staging this tour on the day after Thanksgiving to allow wine-lovers to ease their turkey-wearied palates with tall glasses of Pinot Grigio and platters of macaroni and cheese.
This particular mac and cheese, however, is not the homely staple of family suppers, TV dinners and church potlucks. Some of the region’s best chefs compete each year to concoct new versions of this traditional comfort food – from cheddar-ale pasta to versions with walnuts and gorgonzola, or lobster with brie.
“We call it macaroni and cheese, but it’s really gourmet pasta,” says Liz Berger of Chateau Chantal. “The idea is just such a natural, because cheese pairs so nicely with wine.”