At Big Little Wines in Suttons Bay, winemaking is a family enterprise.
Ann Arbor natives Peter and Michael Laing, the brothers behind Big Little, got their start in viticulture back in 2003. That’s when their parents planted 2 acres of Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir on a farm on the Leelanau Peninsula, where the brothers visited, helped harvest grapes, and cultivated a newfound interest in wine. By 2010, the pair — who had previously been pursuing other careers in other places — had moved to the area and were making their own wine together.
With help from respected winemakers, including those at Mawby, which partnered with the Laing family in 2009, the brothers have been able to produce several popular wines, including Open Road rosé, Driftwood Riesling, Mixtape, and Dune Climb.
We caught up with Peter and Michael Laing to learn more about their experiences in the industry, their wines (including an unusual white Pinot Noir), and their plans for the new year.
Michigan Wine Country: How did your parents’ property inspire your combined interest in winemaking?
Peter Laing: When our parents purchased the property [on] the Leelanau Peninsula, Mike was just starting his career as a teacher and I was still in college. They bought the property as a semiretirement project and consulted with Larry Mawby on site and variety selection, which formed a relationship with him very early on. The work that they were doing with Mawby sort of piqued our interest, and we started spending more time there. I worked for a vineyard management company in 2006 for a summer, and Mike worked on a vintage in New Zealand between 2007 and 2008.
Mike Laing: I was working as a teacher, so this was a total switch of careers for me. Big Little is our artistic outlet, and we’re trying to make our own stamp on what we think Leelanau Peninsula wines should look and taste like.
MWC: What has been your experience in gaining education in the wine industry?
ML: I would say that Larry Mawby has been our prime mentor in making sparkling wines, and Bryan Ulbrich, owner of Left Foot Charley winery, for crafting non-sparkling wine. These are relationships and education that have formed over time and through experience; there’s nothing super formal for us. We’ve had 15–16 vintages now, and a lot of it is through trial and error and repetition. In my opinion, doing it is the best way to learn.
MWC: Mawby produces a lot of different sparkling wines. What has it been like working on those with Larry?
ML: Pete and I have our separate experience in New Zealand and Canada, but working with Mawby is where we’ve really grown. Making wines for Mawby has given us a complete immersion in sparkling wine all year round. It’s what we think about nonstop. Sparkling wine is easily what we are most comfortable with and most comfortable experimenting around. We think that with the weather and the climate, sparkling wine is the best for the area.
PL: Our Big Little portfolio has a few sparkling varieties, but our primary focus is making those for Mawby. We believe in bubbly for this area.
MWC: Are you anticipating any challenges for the vineyard as we enter the colder months?
PL: The lack of snowfall in the past few years is a concern. Historically, snowfall early in the season helps get us through and insulate the vine throughout the coldest months of the year when we see the temperatures dipping below the point where the vine can survive. Even in those temperatures where the vines can be damaged, a solid snowfall can help protect the vine. With climate change, the lack of snowfall is a problem we will probably continue to face if we are continuing to see those very low temperatures without the consistent snowfall.
MWC: Big Little features a white Pinot Noir. Can you tell me a little about the process of making that?
ML: On the store shelves, you might not find a white Pinot Noir at Meijer or Walmart. Boutique wine stores sell them, and a lot of times they come from Germany. The reason for this is that Germany is a cold-climate region. We ripen Pinot Noir in northern Michigan to create red wines, but a white Pinot Noir is something we really like; it’s unique. It took us a while to get the process right and develop our style, but we’ve really found our stride within the past two years. It’s something we can do every year consistently.
MWC: What Big Little wine would you say is the most popular among your clientele?
ML: Probably Mixtape, which is an aromatic blend of Riesling, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Gris. It’s super food friendly and has a great crossover between sweet- and dry-wine drinkers. It pairs really well with a lot of ethnic foods, foods with some heat; it’s a crowd-pleaser for sure.
MWC: What plans do you have for Big Little leading into the new year?
PL: We’re celebrating our 10th year of our tasting room being open, so we are developing some programming in conjunction with Mawby, who is celebrating their 50th anniversary this year. Since our tasting rooms are on the same property, we want to develop some exciting things between the two. Keep an eye on our socials for updates on that. It’s going to be an exciting year at our tasting rooms.