Oldest winery on the Leelanau Peninsula closes down

Greg Tasker
Special to The Detroit News

Lake Leelanau, Michigan – One of the oldest commercial wineries in northern Michigan, a small family operation known for its unusual varietals and quirky owner, closed this week, slipping into winter as quietly as the snow falling amid the rolling hills of vineyards and orchards on the Leelanau Peninsula.

The tasting room at Boskydel Vineyard was housed in a barn, which also contained storage and a bottling area.

Around Christmas, the weathered Boskydel Vineyard sign was simply removed from its long-standing post at the corner of Otto and Lake Leelanau roads; the embers doused in the wood-burning stove that heated the barn tasting room for years; and the sloping driveway left unplowed.

“This winery has served its purpose,” said Bernie Rink, whose vineyards of French-American hybrids began with experiments on the farm he purchased in the 1950s. “I wanted to figure out which grapes would grow well in this climate and to make good, affordable wines. And I wanted to keep my boys busy.”

He did that and then some.

Bernie Rink, 91, is the founder and owner of Boskydel Vineyard.

Forty-two years after Boskydel Vineyard became the first bonded winery on Leelanau County, Rink is regarded as a pioneer, a man who paved the way for other aspiring winemakers and who helped create a flourishing industry that draws tens of thousands of tourists a year to the Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas framing Traverse City.

His modest operations — producing about 3,000 to 4,000 cases a year — remained unchanged over the years. The tasting room was homespun, a simple wooden bar supported by a handful of wine barrels, and quotes and signs, many of them hand-written, hung on the walls. There were no T-shirts, gifts or souvenirs.

And only recently — at the behest of his sons — were credit card transactions available. But, as always, if customers came without cash or check, Rink would tell them to pick out what they wanted and send him a check.

The 91-year-old former librarian also became a well-known character in these parts.

“I can’t tell you how many people have come in here saying they just got chased out of a winery,” recalled Dan Matthies, owner of Chateau Fontaine, a 30-acre winery and vineyard west of South Lake Leelanau. “I would ask ‘Boskydel?’ And they’d say, ‘How’d you know?’ When I asked if they’d go back, they’d always say yes. Bernie is a character, a brilliant character. He has lot of followers.”

The tasting room bar can accommodate just eight customers.

He had no trouble turning customers away from his small tasting room, which could accommodate just eight people at the bar. He barred tour buses and caravans, which sometimes bring dozens of people at a time into tasting rooms for bachelorette parties and other special events. His dirt parking lot was too small. Eating and drinking in the parking lot also were not allowed, and Rink chased away customers who violated that rule, even if they had just purchased wine from him.

“We became enamored of Bernie’s stories and curmudgeon ways,” said Toni Flynn, who, along with husband, Tim, have been customers for decades, visiting the winery frequently from their home in Benzonia. “He became like an extended grandfather to us and it’s been a pleasure to get to know the family ... They’ll be sadly missed.”

Until Rink began growing grapes commercially, wine making was mostly a family-farm affair on the peninsula and northern Michigan. The European immigrants who settled in the region to farm often grew plots of grapes, to make their own wines.

With his success in growing hybrids, Rink paved the way for other aspiring winemakers. Mawby, Good Harbor Vineyards and Leelanau Cellars followed, all still are in operation. And today, the peninsula is home to more than two dozen wineries.

“I’m not sure we would have any grape growing and winemaking in the area if not for Bernie,” said Larry Mawby, owner and founder of Mawby, near Suttons Bay. “He played a pivotal role by deciding to plant some grapes in his backyard and getting very serious about identifying grapes that work here.”

About a decade after Rink began growing grapes, Mawby planted some of the same French-American hybrids in his vineyards to create the sparkling wines he has become known for.

“It was clear from Bernie’s efforts that there was some varieties that would work, would survive the winter, ripen and make really good wine,” Mawby said. “Without that example, I think it would have been difficult for people to say, ‘Let’s try this.’ It certainly would have taken a couple other decades of trial and error.”

Boskydel Vineyard’s tasting room on opening day in 1976.

More than they could handle

Boskydel Vineyard was inspired by an interest in wine and family practicality.

Rink, who grew up on a vineyard and vegetable farm in northern Ohio, had moved north in the 1950s as part of a rural library project and would eventually become the full-time librarian at Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City.

With a brood of growing boys, five in all, he wanted to keep them busy and out of trouble.

After experimenting with 34 varieties, Rink chose six and his commercial operations began on the hills above South Lake Leelanau. His operations have remained there since; he bought more acreage (part of the original farm), built a barn to house the small tasting room, bottling operations and storage.

Over the next four decades, things largely remained the same. His sons helped in the vineyard, pruning and harvesting, and helping with everything from bottling to pouring wine in the tasting room.

“On Christmas break like this week, kids would be out sledding, but we’d be in the vineyard pruning the vines,” said Andy Rink, the youngest son. “I’m sure then I was a disgruntled kid, working outdoors on 90-degree days. But it became a labor of love.”

The last few years Andy and his oldest brother Jim Rink, a writer and editor, have been helping their father manage the winery. The other boys have left the area — David lives in Sault Ste. Marie, Chris is in Milwaukee and Tom is in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

“I turned it over to the boys a couple of years ago,” Bernie Rink said. “I left the decision up to them (about its future). They tried for a couple of years, but it’s too much with two careers.”

“It got to be more than we could handle as a hobby business,” said Andy Rink, an architect.

Andy conceded, too, that times have changed. The family’s humble operations were not meant to handle the growing number of tourists descending on the region, often on tour buses and caravans. Millennials, he added, are not interested in buying wines by the case, something many customers have done for decades, many of whom have also passed away.

“We’re small and antiquated,” Andy Rink said. “We’re a hole in the wall. People want to be entertained. We have no gift shop, no food and it’s hard to compete against that.”

Bernie Rink made known his intentions to close the winery last summer, creating a wave of headlines in local newspapers and other publications across the state. He said the winery would close by Jan. 1.

The family decided to close two days before Christmas.

“We went out without a bang,” Andy Rink said. “We didn’t want to have too many people in here over the holidays and have to say goodbye. We’ve done a lot of that. It just seemed like a good time to close.”

The future

The Rinks didn’t harvest grapes in the fall, but let Good Harbor Vineyards take care of the job. Some wine from 2015 remains in storage and will be used to make a brandy by Northern Latitudes Distillery, also on the Leelanau Peninsula.

Bernie Rink is working to sell the development rights of his 64-acre farm to the Leelanau Conservancy, preserving its rural characteristics.

While his legacy is assured among the vintners, a more tangible tribute is in the works.

Three local wineries, Mawby, Good Harbor Vineyards and Bel Lago Vineyards & Winery, plan to release tribute bottles to Boskydel in 2018. Each winery has used a particular grape from Rink’s vineyards.

Mawby’s tribute will feature one of Boskydel’s most prominent grapes, De Chaunac, its best-selling wine. Mawby, of course, will make a sparkling De Chaunac.

“We thought it was a fitting tribute to Boskydel and Bernie to have other winemakers make wine from the grapes from that vineyard,” Mawby said. “It makes sense. It’s a nice way to say thank you.”

Greg Tasker is a Michigan-based freelance writer.