By Bill O'Brien
OLD MISSION -- Bob Betzler and his family live in California, the heart of America's wine country, and didn't have a clue about northern Michigan's burgeoning grape and wine industry.
Now, they're fans.
The Betzler family, who moved west from the Detroit area decades ago, were among visitors who streamed into Chateau Chantal vineyard and winery on Old Mission Peninsula on a warm fall day last week. They were on a sight-seeing trip to the lighthouse, and didn't expect to see acres of vineyards lining the highway as they drove north from Traverse City.
"I have to say this was a surprise .... that's why we stopped," said Betzler, traveling with his wife Karen and his two sisters. "We wouldn't have known it was here."
The family tasted and purchased some of the best creations the region's wineries have to offer. It was "easily comparable" to Napa Valley wines the Betzlers enjoy in their home state, he said.
They were equally impressed with spectacular, color-splashed peninsula vistas.
"It's beautiful, gorgeous," Karen Betzler said. "Most people like things that are different, and this is something special, from that standpoint."
Area vintners are in the midst of another banner grape harvest, several local winemakers said, rivaling the vintage from two years ago regarded by many as Michigan's best-ever grape crop.
"The quality is similar this year," said Mark Johnson, veteran winemaker at Chateau Chantal.
The warm, dry summer has some vineyards harvesting about two weeks earlier than normal. A lack of rainfall and fickle weather during June's blossom cut back on grape volume and size, he said, but smaller crops typically produce higher-quality fruit. The warm summer was ideal for fruit quality.
"It's good for the consumer," Johnson said.
Across West Bay on the Leelanau Peninsula, winemakers reported similar results.
"The fruit quality is superlative: really ripe fruit, with good acid and sugar content," said Bruce Simpson of Good Harbor Vineyards & Winery near Leland. "I think we should have some nice, balanced wines this year."
White wine varieties made with Riesling grapes that thrive in northern Michigan's summers remain the most-popular with consumers, said Ron White who owns the Blue Goat wine shop in Traverse City.
"They buy it again and again. Not just the locals, but the tourists, too," said White, who expects more top-shelf products from this year's harvest. "It should be great wine once they get it in the bottle."