Marvin Shaouni has been fascinated with wine since he worked in a high-end restaurant in the late 1990s.
It was then that the Detroit-based editorial and commercial photographer got to know master sommelier Madeline Triffon. She was managing the wine program for Matt Prentice’s Morels Bistro in Bingham Farms and “opened this new world” of wine to him.
“I tasted my first Chateau Grand Traverse Late Harvest Riesling,” he recalls. “At that time, I had no idea that anybody was making wine in Michigan.”
Flash forward 20 years and Shaouni is acutely aware of Michigan wines — so much so that he’s putting together a documentary about the industry.
After years of photo shoots that included food and then traveling to China to handle photography for a book called The Art and Craft of Tea, he decided to tackle a project in the Republic of Georgia, where he spent several weeks documenting an ancient winemaking tradition he says goes back 8,000 years. He sold some of those pictures to Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate.
Back home and looking for another project that he didn’t “have to travel thousands of miles to do,” he began thinking about Michigan wines and how far they’ve come in a relatively short time.
“Here you have these winemakers in Michigan only (making wine) for close to 50 years,” he says. “Why doesn’t anybody know more about Michigan wines? Because it’s such a young growing region.
“When you put it in perspective of other wine regions, there’s so much potential here. I can’t believe nobody’s done a documentary on Michigan winemakers. People need to know about it.”
One thing led to another, and he connected with Dave Bos, who with his wife, Jackie, relocated from Grgich Hills Estate in Napa Valley to the Traverse City area a few years ago. Besides having their own boutique wine label, BOS Wine, Dave is a vineyard consultant who put Shaouni in contact with northwestern Lower Michigan winemakers.
In the fall of 2019, Shaouni began traveling to the region to get footage and film interviews with winemakers, a week at a time here and there. The onset of the pandemic interrupted the flow. But this past September and October, the Boses hosted Shaouni so he could concentrate on documenting the harvest and conduct more interviews.
At Mari Vineyards, he met Sean O’Keefe. He’s the son of Ed O’Keefe, who founded Chateau Grand Traverse.
“I spent a lot of time with Sean, learning more about his philosophy and techniques of winemaking with cold-hardy grapes like Riesling, Pinot Grigio and Gamay Noir,” Shaouni says. “With 26 Michigan vintages under his belt, working specifically with cold-hardy grape varietals, there was a lot for me to learn.”
Sean also encouraged Shaouni to interview other winemakers. He went on to conduct interviews with Shady Lane Cellars, WaterFire Vineyards, Left Foot Charley, Nathaniel Rose Wine, 2 Lads Winery and Big Little Wines, among others. He also did interviews with both O’Keefes, noting that getting the elder O’Keefe’s take “will be an important part of the story, since he was the very first to plant Riesling vinifera vines (on Old Mission Peninsula) in 1974, back when everyone else thought hybrid vines were the best and most logical for the region.”
Now he’s back in Detroit, where he plans to create a 10-minute reel that he hopes will help the project gain more traction with interest from film festivals and potential investors. Long term, he’d like to see it become a feature-length project or documentary series.
“I was able to capture some really great interviews and some great footage,” he says. “I just feel like it’s a wonderful story to pursue.
“And at the very least, I hope this film brings more awareness to this relatively young wine growing region and the work of these talented and passionate winemakers.”