Nomadic Michigan couple pushes limits to see what grapes can grow on Beaver Island

Greg Tasker
Special to The Detroit News

Editor's note: Adam Kendall and Kate Leese were killed in a plane crash seven days after the publication of this story. Here is our report.

St. James, Beaver Island — Not far from the village of wood-frame buildings that hug the natural harbor of this remote, mostly forested island, Adam Kendall and Kate Leese have planted a couple of acres of red and white wine grapes, with the dream of eventually opening a winery and tasting room here.

After traveling around the country for years in an Airstream, Kate Leese and Adam Kendall have set down roots (and vines) to develop Antho Vineyards, a new venture on an old farm on Beaver Island.

On the surface, their dream might seem as far-flung as this island in the northern waters of Lake Michigan, but the couple has planted roots on a 120-acre tract deep in the woods of the island, the third-largest in the state. Their planting of 2,100 vines on a fallow field this past spring came after their own extensive research and consultations with others in Michigan’s flourishing wine industry.

“It feels like a place somewhere along the road where you could stop and have a glass of wine with new friends,” said Kate Leese, 35, who grew up in Charlevoix, a resort town across the lake, about 30 miles away. “Our goal is to have that kind of place that brings people together.” 

Wine grapes have been cultivated by others on the island in the past but not for commercial use, the couple says. They'll be the first to bottle and sell their wine on the island as well as the mainland.   

This is the view of Beaver Island from an Island Airways flight, one of two airlines serving island residents and visitors.

It’s not hard to imagine that kind of operation happening here, on the open lawn behind a turn-of-the-century farmhouse the couple is restoring. Beyond the clearing, where the young vines are sprouting from grow tubes, hardwoods frame the horizon. Apple trees, remnants of another farming era, and sugar maples, exploding in fiery colors, dot the bucolic landscape.

“We have wanted to plant a vineyard, but it was something that we thought about doing 20 years from now, in the future,” said Leese, who has a background in biochemistry and who, like her husband, is passionate about wine. “So many things came together for us in the last year."

Those things included finding a property on Beaver Island after a random stop in fall 2019, in the wake of a boat trip up the northwestern Michigan coastline. They were ready for a more stationary existence after spending three years on the road, pulling a renovated Airstream around the continental United States, working remotely. 

“Almost immediately after we pulled into the marina here, we knew this was the level of quiet we were looking for,” said Kendall, 37, a Jackson native who has a background as an attorney. “At night, there’s almost complete silence here. There’s no light pollution. You can hear every car (if one goes by). It’s the kind of place we had been looking for as our next spot.”

Their transient life has included picking up and moving every three or four days, seeking out less-traveled parks and locales. During that time on the road, they left their former jobs and created their own company, the Kinetics Company, an emergency management consulting firm. They have lived in more than 220 places and continued to travel even after finding their niche on Beaver Island. It took them another year to secure the former farm property.

The first vines to bud break were Pinot Meunier, best known for being one of the three classic champagne grapes. Adam Kendall and Kate Leese hope to make some sparkling wines during the short growing season.

Part of an archipelago, Beaver Island is home to about 600 year-round residents. It’s the kind of place where everybody knows everybody, where everybody waves as they pass one another, where neighbors pitch in to help one another and where everyone does what they can to help the community.

Although thousands of visitors arrive by plane and ferry each year, the 56-square-mile island — about twice the size of Manhattan — retains a sense of remoteness. Most businesses cater to the locals and tourists who want a slower-paced vacation. There are small inns and other types of lodging, as well as restaurants, a brewery and small shops. Paved roads are few and so are the amenities most tourists would find on a destination like Mackinac Island — there’s not a single fudge shop. 

“You come to the island to unplug and disconnect,” Leese said.

Unique challenges

Establishing a winery on an island in Michigan, especially one so far north, is an anomaly in the Great Lakes State. Michigan is home to about 170 wineries, most of them clustered on the peninsulas outside Traverse City or in the southwest corner of the state. The closest designated wine-growing region — Tip of the Mitt — lies across Lake Michigan on the mainland, stretching from just south of Charlevoix to the Straits.

Farther north than other Michigan wine regions, the Tip of the Mitt faces unique challenges, including colder and windier winters. The grape varietals found in other parts of the state — chardonnay, riesling and pinot noir, for example — are generally not grown in the region. More common are cold-hardy grapes like Marquette, Traminette and Frontenac. 

Kate Leese and Adam Kendall install grow tubes, secured by a bamboo stake, around each of the 2,100 vines to encourage them to grow tall and straight and protect them from damage from deer and other animals.

Beaver Island — 30 miles from the mainland — sits in a microclimate, presenting its own set of challenges and advantages. Winter, of course, is long and cold. The hope is the lingering ice around the island in the early spring will keep the vines dormant. The warmer and longer-than-usual fall because of the surrounding warmer water will help grapes ripen. A breeze blows constantly, helping keep mildew and mold at bay. Cloud cover is minimal, offering lots of sunny days throughout the growing season.

“I don’t think Beaver Island would be colder than Petoskey or Minnesota,” said Paolo Sabbatini, an associate professor of horticulture at Michigan State University, referencing the planting of cold-hardy grapes that have fared well in those regions. “If they use super hardy hybrid grapes, I think they will have a good chance to produce grapes on the island.”

Instead, cultivating cold tender vinifera could be problematic because of the bitter winter, he says, noting, however, that there are techniques to protect the vines in the winter, including burying vine canes underground to provide insulation. Extreme and persistent freezes during winter months can damage or destroy vines. In moderate winters, the lake effect snow blankets the vines, protecting them, or they need to be protected by the soil.

“It’s like a blanket to protect the vines. It’s a technique used in a lot of places around the world and also in Michigan, especially in the southwest,” he says. “I wish them the best of luck. It’s a very cool idea in a very beautiful place.”

Experimenting with different root stock and clones, the couple has planted cabernet franc, pinot noir, riesling, Traminette and Noiret, as well as zweigelt, an Austrian grape, and pinotage, a grape from South Africa, to name a few. Their hopes for pinotage — a grape not common in Michigan — are buoyed by an Ohio State University study that showed the grape to have a higher annual freezing tolerance.

There are other elements in their favor. The top of their soil was laden with high levels of organic matter. The property is a mix of clay, sand and limestone. Nitrogen and pH levels are perfect for grape growing, the couple says.

“We are trying to push the boundaries of what might grow here,” said Kendall, who has experimented with making wine and ginger beer, even while on the road.

'The devil is in the details'

Harvesting, of course, is a few years away. It takes three to four years for vines to mature. The couple clipped the vine flowers in the spring and will continue to do so over the next few years to strengthen the plants' roots. An unexpected late spring frost did cause some vine damage, but most of the plants are showing promise. 

“The devil is in the details when it comes to wine,” said Douglas Olson, a winemaker and viticulturist who works with wineries on the Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas outside Traverse City. “When you taste a great wine, that is a very well calculated process. All the details were covered to their greatest extent.”

An aerial view of Antho Vineyards on Beaver Island, which has 2,100 vines in the first field.

He’s referring to such details as soil makeup, weather patterns, historical data and planting the right grapes, “really matching what is best for your site.”

“Cover those details in the beginning stages of a vineyard, and you’ll be able to reap the reward of that,” he said.

Adam Kendall and Baker, the farm dog, enjoy a peaceful moment after completing preparations for 43 rows for vines on Beaver Island.

“The story behind this is fascinating. If you were to jump forward, if you could get a product out there and have someone in New York or Chicago taste a pinot noir grown on an island in Lake Michigan, that’s got to be the coolest bottle of wine you could have in your cellar ... a lot of people would geek out about that, but it’s got to be a good wine to begin with.”

Kendall and Leese will trellis the vines in the spring and evaluate their success with their initial planting. More vines will be planted — their goal is to cultivate six acres. Production buildings and a tasting room will be built eventually. They already have a name: Antho Vineyards, a reference to the first sign of color change in red varietals.

 “We’re not going to be a big winery. That’s not our goal,” said Kendall, who hopes to produce about 1,200 cases of wine per year and export to the mainland. “We’re focused on quality from this particular piece of land, even if that means lower volume.”

The road ahead is long, but the once-nomadic couple is committed. Their Airstream, transported by barge to the island and equipped with a wood-burning stove, rests not far from the vineyard. It’s their home as they renovate the farmhouse. 

“We’ve been addicted to change for a good part of our lives,” Leese said. “During the pandemic, all our work travel stopped. For the most part, our travels these days are to the outer islands. It means we can be in the vineyards morning and night. It’ll be nice to see the vines change and to watch them grow.”