The Lone Oak Vineyard is Producing Premium Michigan Wines
Music plays. Tonight, it’s Ian Stewart burning up a louche, lounge-y version of the Peggy Lee classic “Fever.” The room is packed, savory aromas waft through the air and the wine flows.
It’s happening in Grass Lake—a town so small there are more back roads than main ones—at the tasting room of Lone Oak Vineyard. If it’s your first time, the sight of the squat one-story house at the back of an unpaved parking lot may have you worried you’ve taken a wrong turn. But open the door. Proprietors Kip and Dennise Barber are throwing the best party in town, and probably in a pretty big radius.
It’s been a long path to owning a vineyard.
“I thought Boones Farm and Mad Dog 20/20 were pretty good before I met Dennise,” admits Kip, a former woodworker and antique furniture restorer. “She was a flight attendant, and she’d traveled a lot. She’d buy a bottle and we’d have it with dinner when we were dating.”
But once introduced to good wine, Kip jumped in deep, growing grapes in his Ferndale backyard and finding out everything he could about viticulture. In 1997, after experimenting with a home winemaking kit and coming up with decent results, Kip realized he’d found his calling.
While searching for the right location, the couple became excited by the Grass Lake property, a lot covered with oak trees that they realized they’d have to clear in order to plant grapes. “I promised Dennise that she could keep one tree,” says Kip. In the center of the vineyard stands a magnificent oak, the trunk too big to hug. It adorns the bottle labels and provides the name: Lone Oak Vineyard Estate, which aptly condenses to the acronym LOVE.
The fact that the property sat on a south-facing hillside was huge; key to the Barbers’ growing strategy is getting as much sunlight into the grapes as possible. Observant visitors will notice that, as opposed to typical straight up and down plantings, the vines are oriented east to west with the canes north and south in a cross pattern to soak up every single ray of sunlight.
The Barbers initially planted about a dozen varieties of vines that continue to flourish today—though admittedly, the winter of 2014 was tough. Grape varieties include glassy green Chardonnay and Riesling, russet Gewürztraminer and deep purple Cabernet, Merlot and Pinot Noir.
“If you limit your varieties,” says Kip, “you limit the people who are going to get the wine that they want.” But it’s the darker grapes that are dearest to his heart. Grass Lake sits near the 42nd parallel, which also runs through southern France and northern Spain, and Kip’s goal is to produce a big, rich red grape—similar to what is grown directly across the Atlantic.
The pride of the vineyard is Vin du Roi, “Wine of the King,” a Bordeaux blend that features Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petite Verdot grapes and delivers deep, dark flavor with berry and cherry notes.
In addition, the vineyard bottles its own Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and an excellent Gewürtztraminer and also has a number of blends. One popular wine called Puppy L.O.V.E. is a hearty rosé that honors Ozzy, the Barbers’ Lab, and yes, he is named after Mr. Osbourne of Black Sabbath fame. According to Dennise, “He’s a black Labbath.”
All the wines proudly boast “vineyard estate” on their labels, a designation that can only be applied when at least 95% of a wine’s contents were grown by the vineyard that bottled it. Unlike many southeast Michigan wineries, Lone Oak doesn’t import a single grape.
The best introduction to Lone Oak’s wines is to visit the vineyard tasting room or to participate in one of the vineyard’s many events including multi-course—and usually sold out—wine tasting dinners.
Music Nights have become a Lone Oak mainstay. “We started in 2010; we just thought it would be something cool to do, and we found Ian,” says Dennise. “Now, we have musicians coming to us. They love the vibe here, and of course, we love having them.” Dennise creates the menu with Karen Drushall of the Bone Island Grill. “It’s a small kitchen, so Karen preps everything and then we finish it here,” she says.
“We love selling the wine right here. Then we can meet the people who like our stuff,” says Kip, although he’d like to find the right distributor for their wine. Meanwhile, he and Dennise focus on getting folks to the vineyard to hang out and enjoy the wine and atmosphere. “The human interaction, just sitting around and swapping stories, is my favorite part,” says Dennise. That opportunity—to perfect the art of eating, drinking and making new friends—is open to anyone who visits Lone Oak.
Learn more at Lone Oak Vineyard Estate