Opening a winery was a lifelong goal for Walt and Eileen Brys.
Inspiration first hit when the couple traveled together for a business conference to San Francisco, Calif., for Walt’s employer in the 1970s. They toured Napa Valley, and though California wines did not yet possess the same prestige they do today, “they absolutely fell in love with the concept of having a winery, and it became a dream of theirs,” says their son Patrick Brys.
Brys Estate Vineyard & Winery celebrates its 15th anniversary this year, having first opened its doors in 2005. It came about after Walt’s career took him into real estate development and prompted the family to move from Ohio to Texas. The winery was still a dream when he retired in 2000.
“They decided this was going to be the next chapter for them,” says Patrick, current president and CEO of Brys Estate, who joined the winery team in 2009. “They had reached the time in their lives — and also the financial means — where they could do something like this.”
The couple hired a vineyard consultant and began searching for vineyard sites, looking in California, Texas, New York, Florida and Washington.
Having grown up in the Detroit area, Walt and Eileen remembered traveling to Traverse City and were aware of the growing wine presence in Michigan. They found 80 acres on the Old Mission Peninsula — perfect for the wine they planned to grow — and bought the property in 2000.
They set to work renovating the abandoned 19th-century home that came with the property. In 2001, they began planting grapes, with a first harvest in 2004. That was also when they constructed the tasting room and winery cellar. In 2005, they opened with their first vintage.
“When they first opened up the winery in 2005, they were lucky if 50 people showed up on a Saturday to visit them. Fast-forward 15 years: Pre-pandemic, we could see well over 1,000 visitors on Saturdays,” Patrick says. “The buildings have expanded. We’ve almost doubled the amount of space in the original building. We started with no outdoor space and couldn’t even serve wine by the glass.”
They do now, along with snacks such as charcuterie boards. An elevated deck can seat up to 100 guests. Through multiple additional land purchases, the property is now up to 111 acres, making Brys one of the largest contiguous winery properties on the Old Mission Peninsula. They’ve also planted more grapes, giving them about 50 acres of vines.
As it has for most businesses, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a wrench into Brys operations. The winery is normally only closed five days during the year, so the forced closure was difficult. Nonetheless, they’ve survived in no small part due to web sales, specials and shipping their products.
“Now that we’re back open, it’s in a completely different way,” Patrick says. “Ninety-eight percent of the time, we’re all outside. If the weather doesn’t cooperate, we do have inside capabilities.
“We’ve launched a new lawn bar that overlooks the vineyard. We put 100 seats out there — all socially distanced — and we’ve been able to have people enjoy the view and the vineyard and have a glass of wine.”
Meanwhile, Patrick reflects fondly on the winery’s greatest successes, which include making Wine Business Monthly magazine’s “Top 10 Hot Brands” list in 2014.
“It was an amazing experience to be recognized on a national scale for what we’re doing,” Patrick says.
Unfortunately, the winery’s plans to celebrate the 15th anniversary have been impeded by pandemic constraints. Still, there are specials in the tasting room and on the website, along with 15 percent discounts on certain items, deals for sets of five wines that sell for under $15 and a limited edition anniversary sparkling rosé called Brys Bubbly.