ESCANABA — When Leigh Schmidt retired as a Special Education teacher, he needed something new to do. He’d made wine at home for a long time, and, six years ago, he decided that a winery would be a great hobby.
“This occupies my time. I love every minute of it, it has enough variety to keep me going. Sometimes I’m up here in the tasting room dealing with all the people in front of the bar. Sometimes I’m downstairs, in the quiet, dealing with the wine, enjoying every minute of that. Or, I’m out in the vineyard, where I don’t take a cellphone with me either, and we grow the grapes out there. So, I have a chance to see the entire process from the ground all the way up to the final glass,” Leigh said.
Leigh grows his grapes in Bark River. Then they come to the winery in batches of eighty to one–hundred pounds where they’re destemmed, mashed and fermented. The entire process starts in September and wraps up in March. But, as much as Leigh loves winemaking, he says his patrons are often a little confused.
“What is a winery doing in downtown Escanaba? You can actually make good wines up here in Escanaba? Those are the first things I generally hear from tourists!” said Leigh, with a chuckle.
In fact, you can make great wine in the UP. The cold temperatures can be a setback, but Schmidt has gotten a little help from the University of Minnesota.
“They started a hybridization program for grapes for cold climates. Prior to that, Cornell had been making cool climate hybridizations, but the University of Minnesota jumped into it because of an old man, 80–years–old, named Elmer Swenson who did it in his own back yard. Then he took it over to the university to show them because he knew they had a horticultural program and they ended up putting him on their staff part–time. Since then they’ve hybridized several grapes,” said Leigh.
The house specializes in dry reds, which have even won a few awards. But, if you’re more into whites or fruity wines, Leigh makes fourteen different wines and he’s sure to have one you’ll love.