TORCH LAKE — Charlie Sheneman’s friends laughed when he told them he was leaving California to make wine in northern Michigan.
But he can laugh now that he’s just weeks away from opening a new family winery, Torch Lake Cellars.
“I’m not making any money yet, but it’s sweat equity," Charlie Sheneman said. "I enjoy it, to look back and see what we’ve done. It looks great. It’s ours.”
Torch Lake Cellars has 4.5 acres of Riesling, pinot gris, pinot noir and Cayuga white. The Shenemans yielded 3.5 tons of pinot gris last year, the first grapes planted and only ones mature enough to produce. That’s enough for more than 100 cases of wine.
The Sheneman family launched Torch Lake Cellars in 2010 with an acre of pinot gris planted on a south-facing hill on family property first purchased by Charlie Sheneman's grandfather, Charles Sheneman,in the 1960s as grazing land for his dairy cows.
It started with Charlie’s parents Michael and Jamie Sheneman driving past wineries on the Leelanau Peninsula and dreaming of a retirement project for the family land. They decided to plant grapes and open a winery and brought their son back home to help.
Turns out the wine life suits him well.
“I don’t like working for anybody else; I like working for myself,” he said. “I set my own hours. I like working a lot, I’d work seven days a week if I could.”
Charlie Sheneman attended the viticulture program at Northwestern Michigan College, which partners with Michigan State University to offer plant science courses in Traverse City. He learned how to grow grapes that make good wine and met the people who still mentor him in his ripening career. He credits the school with all his vineyard success.
It isn’t easy to start a winery. It takes vision, energy, money and time.
Three of those things were plentiful for the Shenemans, which made up for a lack of million-dollar investments. The family philosophy is work hard, and not to rush.
“Go slow. Make sure you do it right with every little detail accounted for,” Charlie said. “Make sure the rows are really straight. Make something that attracts people, even if we’re off the beaten path. Take the time to do that. All the little stones on the floor, that’s going to get people talking. On top of that, we want the wine to taste awesome.”
The Shenemans think the business will attract customers from Shanty Creek Resorts and Bellaire. There aren’t enough wineries to make a wine trail, but having limited competition could help business.
Michael said they went for a sort of come hither factor in a beautiful tasting room. The tasting room sits atop a hill overlooking the vineyard and Lake Bellaire, has a floor Jamie tiled by hand, bar tops Charlie made by hand and a spiral staircase made of cedar and sumac from the property that winds to a top-floor cupola with a panorama view.
The Shenemans did all the construction with some help from friends and neighbors that kept down costs while hand-crafting a building that fits their vision.
Charlie has his mind on the vines now that the tasting room is almost finished. He plans to plant four more acres next year and eventually grow the vineyard to 20 acres with more grape varieties.
Drinking wine won’t be the only activity for Torch Lake Cellars guests. Charlie is building a driving range on the north side of the vineyard and plans on building an event space for weddings held at the winery.
The wedding space will have a pavilion, stage, bar and photo booth, all surrounded by grape vines and overlooking Lake Bellaire. Charlie has a deadline for that project – next year, before his wedding to Jacqueline Schneider.
“I have to get that place done,” he said.