Bruce & Debbie Simpson Good Harbor Winery 1995

History of the Leland Wine Festival

While we’d usually be reminding you about the annual Leland Wine & Food Festival coming up this weekend, Michigan’s most venerable wine celebration was canceled this year due to a boater complaint. We thought it would be a good time to share the how, when & why of of the Leland Wine Festival as told so well by Good Harbor Winery’s Devon Kessler:

For nearly 40 years, the Leland Wine & Food Festival has been bringing area wineries to one location for visitors to learn and taste what the Michigan Wine Industry is all about.

Bruce & Debbie Simpson Good Harbor Winery 1995

Bruce & Debbie Simpson of Good Harbor Winery (1995)

The idea for the festival came about after Cris Telgard, one of the founders of the festival, went to a wine festival in Monterey, California and thought it would be a great idea for Leland. At this time, there were only four wineries on the Leelanau Peninsula – Good Harbor Vineyards, Boskydel Vineyards, MAWBY Vineyards, and Leelanau Wine Cellars.

Good Harbor Vineyards at Wine Fest 1955When the festival started in 1986, there was nothing like it in the state of Michigan. This is when Bruce Simpson, the founder of Good Harbor Vineyards, one of the founders of the festival, went to the Michigan Wine and Grape Industry Council to ask for a grant to help kickstart the idea. The Council awarded the group a $10,000 grant – as long as they could match it – to bring their idea to life. The founders’ goal of bringing something like this to the area was to call attention to the wineries and the area as a food and wine destination.

“It was a soft educational opportunity for people to learn about food and wine pairings,” Larry Mawby, founder of MAWBY Vineyards and co-founder of the Leland Wine & Food Festival, explains in a podcast about the history of the festival. “[It also] encouraged the exploration of the wine industry in Michigan.”

Since there were only four local wineries, the inaugural festival consisted of the founding wineries of the Leelanau Peninsula and several wineries that were already established in Southern Michigan. In total, there were about 30 wineries that took part in the first festival. It wasn’t until about 24 years into the festival that there were enough producers in Northern Michigan – specifically the Leelanau Peninsula – that “we were able to say goodbye to the Southern Michigan wineries,” festival founder, Kathy Telgard, explains.

Telgard describes the first festival as amazing. “BATA would give tours to the wineries, amateur winemakers would give seminars in the Bluebird Dining Room. There were wine tastings and then we would end with a dinner at The Leland Lodge to thank everyone.”

The Leland Education Foundation (LEF) was one of the first groups to volunteer for the festival. This partnership came about after Kathy went to a prime rib fundraiser for the foundation and spoke with them about volunteering for the festival. LEF helped by pouring wine for the wineries and in return, the festival board made a donation. Still to this day, the LEF and Leelanau Christian Neighbors (LCN) volunteer for the annual gathering. The founders believe that the long-running festival has been such a success thanks to the amazing group of volunteers that have continued to give their time to making the event continue. If you would like to volunteer for this year’s event, you can sign up online.

The festival has been held on the second Saturday of June since the beginning. Mawby explains that this is the perfect time because the first weekend is usually graduation. He thinks this is one of the factors that has made the festival so successful the past 37 years.

PS: You can hear a great interview with Kathy Telgard & Larry Mawby on the Leland Chamber of Commerce website!