Diana Hawkins sent in a competition entry titled, 'Namesakes, Talismøns, and Mysteries: The Old Vines of Elm Valley'. Her bio reads: 'Diana Hawkins is a Certified Sommelier with a Bachelor of Science in Engineering from Harvey Mudd College; a Publishing Arts Certificate from Antioch University; and a Master of Science in Wine Science with First Class Honours from the University of Auckland where she studied microbial terroir. In 2012, she quit her technical sales job to pursue a career in the wine industry and has never looked back. During her time as a sommelier in Chicago, she developed wine and beverage programs for James Beard award winning and Michelin star restaurants and worked the floor at the only three Michelin star establishment in the city. In 2017, she traded in her wine key for a pair of work boots and moved to Aotearoa New Zealand to pursue a winemaking career. She currently works as the New Zealand assistant winemaker for McBride Sisters and is also in the process of developing her own wine brand, Responsible Hedonist.' See our WWC21 guide for more old-vine competition entries.
The World’s Forgotten AVA
Elm Valley vineyard was planted in 1976 by Lawrence Mawby. His family had orchards in the region, but after a formative trip to Burgundy1, he set his sights on something else entirely…
…I think this is the part where I’m supposed to talk about Larry’s influences, the AVA in question, and wax poetic about terroir. However, to be honest, I’ve always found that a bit tedious. Elm Valley and Larry, with his wild white hair and infectious laugh, are anything but.
So, let’s do something a bit different, shall we?
Vineyards are a common sight here, but this region struggles to gain mindshare with wine professionals. The Wine Bible reserves half a page to the US state, but this AVA is absent. The World Atlas of Wine 8th Edition calls out both by name but doesn’t dwell, covering them in two succinct sentences. So, unsurprisingly, when this region is mentioned, sommeliers and wine critics often arch their brow and say, “wait, where is that exactly?”
This region has been omitted and glossed over in wine texts for decades, and, for now, this article will follow that precedent. For those who enjoy a puzzle, clues will be revealed as we go along. For those who don’t, sit back, relax, and enjoy the read.
The AVA and state in question will be revealed at the end.
Still Waters Run Deep
Elm Valley wouldn’t exist without the lake. Carved by glaciers and big enough to produce its own tides2, the lake moderates temperatures in this cool-climate region. Its great size benefits vineyards along its coastline, keeping them warmer than those further inland. As they sculpted the landscape, glaciers deposited clay, loam, and moraine made of sand and gravel. The region owes its wide variety of soil types to these glacial contributions and the limestone and granite bedrock beneath them3.
A Little Light Under the Sun
The old vines in question are planted on a narrow peninsula jutting out into the lake, protecting them from temperature extremes present elsewhere. Like most cool grape-growing regions, aspect and sun exposure are critically important here. With the wrong positioning, grapes won’t ripen and frost will nip them in the bud. Ever present, the lake also plays a part here. Sunlight reflects off its surface and back onto the vines, encouraging their development4. Because of Larry’s thoughtful positioning, the vines at Elm Valley bask in sunshine all throughout the 145-day growing season5.
Larry purchased the land for Elm Valley in 1975. At the time, the region was better known for its crumbling psychiatric hospital than its vineyards6. It was a popular area for orchards, but Larry had other horticultural aspirations. “[While hitchhiking in Europe, I found that I enjoyed wine with meals, as it was the cheapest liquid you could buy,” he says. “[So,] when I got out of college, I decided that I wanted to produce something that could bring pleasure to people. Wine growing fit the bill.”
Unburdened by regional conventions or historical plantings, Larry had a very open mind when it came to grape varieties. “[I looked for] cultivars that had the ability to produce nice, quality wines, would grow well with minimal inputs, and were well suited to our conditions,” he says. That led him to Vignoles, a hybrid developed in the 1930s. It was long thought to be a cross of Seibel 6905 and Pinot Noir. However, genetic testing has shown this isn’t the case, and the parentage of Vignoles remains a mystery. It’s known for its enticing aromas, refreshing acidity, and late budding, which helps it escape spring frosts7.
The vines went into the ground in 1976, making Elm Valley the second commercial vineyard in the region.
Everything is Everything
Larry didn’t have any formal viticultural training – the closest he came was a three-day UC Davis course he took in 19761. Instead, he looked to vignerons in other regions. “I wanted to understand why growers [there] do what they do, not simply what they do,” he says.
Growing grapes in a nascent wine region notorious for frigid, snowy winters is not for the fainthearted. Yet when it came to establishing the vines, Larry insists he didn’t experience many obstacles. “[The] viticulture was straightforward,” he says – it seems his grit is rivalled only by his modesty. “[But] I did experiment with many different cultivars to find what worked best under our conditions,” he continues.
Elm Valley’s first vintage was in 19788. A few years later, Larry reached out to Myron Redford of Amity Vineyards in Oregon, whom he’d met on a trip back in 1976. He was looking for Pinot Noir vines for Elm Valley. Myron obliged and sent Larry Pinot Noir pruning wood from his vineyard. He also sent cuttings of Pinot Gris, which he thought might suit Larry’s site as well. Larry successfully propagated the budwood and planted them on their own roots in the early 1980s9.
In 1986, the vineyard expanded again. Larry planted a selection of vines from clonal trials conducted at universities around the country9. New clones of Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Auxerrois, and Chardonnay now called Elm Valley home. Pinot Meunier and Riesling joined the fray a bit later, along with hybrid varieties L’Acadie Blanc and Regent.
If Breakthroughs Keep Coming, Let Them In
After a few vintages of making still wines, Larry tried his hand at sparkling wine production. The sparkling wines were so successful and well-suited to his site, that he decided to make them every year. “Before sparkling, [the original vines] went into a dry, still barrel-fermented, and aged Vignoles,” he says, “[now they go] into our crémant.” By the late 1990s, Larry was making more bottles of fizz than still wine, and in 2003, he completely transitioned to sparkling wine production.
Crémant and traditional method bubbles are crafted out of Elm Valley’s vines. However, a select few are destined for Talismøn, a traditional method, multi-vintage, field blend9. “Talismøn speaks not only of that year’s harvest of that place, but of the life of that place on our planet,” Larry says. The reserve wines are aged in a solera-inspired system consisting of old puncheons. “There are still a few molecules of the 1992 harvest wine in the blend, 28 years later, and each bottle tells the story of Talismøn from 1992 to present,” he continues. Aged on lees for a minimum of three years prior to release, the wine is brut in style and absolutely delicious.
Time Is All We're Made Of
By the early 2000s, the business and vines were almost thirty years old and still evolving.
Larry met the Laing family and eventually brought them on as business partners. Michael Laing elaborates, “my parents built a relationship with Larry after having him advise them on what to plant on their property. My dad also worked a few vintages with Larry to get a feel for the business [, and] my mom worked in the tasting room. Mawby is a leader in our area and my mom and dad recognized that.”
Over time, Larry has turned over day-to-day operations to Mike and his brother Peter. That includes maintaining the old vines at Elm Valley. They require a different approach than the younger blocks to keep them healthy and productive. “We periodically train new trunks to replace older, less fruitful trunks. Sometimes we will spur prune older vines with established, well producing canes instead of cane pruning the same vine,” Mike says.
If Your Dream Is Shattered, Pick Up the Glass
Elm Valley’s old vines have been really lucky. They’ve brushed off major weather events, like the deep freeze of 2003. Neighbouring vineyards had losses of up to 80% that year, but Elm Valley came out relatively unscathed8. Larry credits this to their viticultural techniques. He suspects they “were not so adversely affected [by the freeze], as we grew our vines nearer the ground, and left a ‘kicker cane’ growing along the ground that we could bring up to fruit that year.”
However, forty years of tenacity couldn’t prepare the vines for 2015. That year, a freak August hailstorm destroyed their entire crop. “Sadly, they were hurt very badly by [that storm] and are [probably] never going to fully recover,” Larry concedes. After such a beating, other winegrowers may have simply replanted. Not Mike and Larry. “I like the wine and want to see how they will do as they get older and older,” Larry says.
The vines are still bouncing back from that devastating event. Crop levels are down, but they’re producing high-quality fruit each year and Mike plans to keep them around. “As long as our vines are healthy, producing acceptable yields due to age or changing growing conditions, and they are varieties we enjoy working with, we will leave them in the ground,” he says.
If You Seek a Beautiful Peninsula, Look About You
Michigan has a long history of grape growing and wine production. As the Anishinaabe can attest, wild grapes have dotted its landscape and been cultivated for ages10. In the 1700s, vineyards were planted in the Southeast by Lake Erie. A thriving grape juice and jelly industry began shortly afterwards and boomed for centuries11. During that time, wine was produced as well, but that all stopped when Prohibition hit. The state’s first commercial winery was founded in 1936, immediately following Prohibition12. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that Michigan’s modern wine industry really began taking shape. Despite flying under the radar, the wines of Michigan have quite the following and an economic impact of over $5 billion13. Wineries in the Northwest are particularly popular, which has resulted in a thriving tourist industry. The old psychiatric hospital has been renovated and converted into accommodation and restaurants for the region’s many visitors6.
Can You See What’s Coming?
Larry planted Elm Valley vineyard on the Leelanau Peninsula in 1976, making it one of the first vineyards within the Leelanau Peninsula AVA. Larry and the Laing family have been crafting critically acclaimed wines and ciders under the MAWBY Sparkling Wine moniker for decades. But what comes next for these old vines is anyone’s guess. As long as they stay healthy, Mike and Larry will likely keep them in the ground. However, they may soon be joined by other varieties.
“The future of a farm is always an evolution. We look to explore new varieties as the climate changes and more disease and cold weather resistant cultivars are developed. Wine quality is always our main goal,” Mike says.
Perhaps in one sense, Leelanau’s anonymity is a blessing. Other, better-known wine regions are struggling to overcome the challenges of climate change, invasive pests, and disease. These regions are boxed in by tradition and inflexible market expectations, unable to respond and adapt for fear of backlash or losing their prestige.
But it seems, in Michigan, winegrowers can truly be free.
Special thanks to Larry Mawby and Mike Laing for their insights and my husband Frank Lepera for suggesting Elm Valley for this piece. Full disclosure, if it weren’t for MAWBY Sparkling Wines, Frank may have never entered the wine industry and we may have never crossed paths. Consequently, Frank and I have enjoyed Talismøn (and several other MAWBY bubbles) on several occasions, including at our reception.
Written with inspiration from musical Michiganders Diana Ross, The Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Parliament Funkadelic, Iggy Pop, and, of course, Death.
2 https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/gltides.html (tiny though they may be)
9 Please see 2020 Talismøn article written by Larry Mawby
10 Please see article on the Anishinaabe
Diana Hawkins provided the photos, confirming that 'I asked the winery for a photo of the vineyard and attached the copyright free one they sent as well as a google earth image posted on their website'.