At the newly opened Gilchrist Farm Winery, a hospitality-focused team is working together to serve locally sourced food grown using sustainable practices.
Located in downtown Suttons Bay, the tasting room acts as a restaurant, pairing locally grown wines with handcrafted, original dishes featuring the crops grown on the property. In addition, the family-owned winery will release its first vintage in the spring.
Here, Business Manager George Brittain shares details of the farm’s regenerative farming practices, chef collaboration, and plans to support the local community.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Where did the idea to create a winery stem from?
My in-laws had grown grapes and made wines over the years in many different areas, but they always knew they wanted to retire here in Suttons Bay because we are all Michigan natives. They knew they could grow excellent wines here, and from there, the dream just got bigger and bigger. We now have 22 acres of grapes and a tasting room in downtown Suttons Bay. My wife and I are both in the hospitality business, and we own the Anchor Inn in Traverse City, so now we manage all aspects of the winery and tasting room.
We started in 2018 with a test acre, and a few years down the line we planted the rest. We had our first harvest this year and will be releasing our first estate-grown wine in the spring. Right now, we are selling locally grown wines that are custom crushed for us.
Did you run into any challenges prior to opening in September?
When you’re opening something like this, you’re kind of up against a timeline. Construction was the first challenge we ran into, because we were down to the studs. A lot of businesses had existed in the space that our tasting room was in, but it was previously a home. We wanted to preserve that homey, hospitable atmosphere and create an experience like you’re walking into someone’s house to enjoy some delicious food and wine. We also had to deal with permitting, which is completely out of our hands. We learned that you cannot control the timeline.
You use regenerative farming practices to grow your crops. What exactly does that mean?
That’s a new term for a lot of people. It’s taking over farmed soil, soil that is just dead from the organic material aspect. When working with soil, it’s important to try and build the amount of organic matter within it. We do this through composting. My sister-in-law, Laurel Huntoon, is a soil scientist, and at this moment she’s picking up truckloads of spent grains for us to add to our compost mix. We’ve basically created a soil factory here, and we’re building it for our own use.
We don’t subscribe to monoculture, which is where there is only one thing growing — just the vines. We use a diverse amount of cover crops between the vines, more plant species to bring the right minerals and nutrients to the soil. We’re really aiming to bring the soil back to life.
These practices are double the labor and double the risk. There’s a reason that everyone uses pesticides, but we’re getting everything in place on an organic level to make sure the vine is able to stand strong against pests that will disrupt it. Everything, down to the woodchips we use, is intentional. We have an acre-sized market where we grow as much as possible for our restaurant and kitchen, farm-to-table style. The compost from the kitchen comes right back out to the soil.
What is the recipe-creating process in the kitchen?
Everything is collaborative. The chefs meet with my mother-in-law, Olivia, and Laurel to inspect and help in the garden. The chefs let them know what items they’d like to use, and Laurel and Olivia work together to figure out what they are able to provide. The four chefs
we have in the kitchen can really do anything. They are preserving things, pickling things, making things from scratch, and they love it. Their skills are wild. It’s cool to be able to serve things on a Saturday and be able to tell people it was picked right here on Thursday.
What has the reception been like since you’ve opened your doors?
Everything is trending in the right direction. We couldn’t generate too much fanfare prior to opening because of the permits. Now that we’ve opened, local reception has been amazing. Our focus is on hospitality, and everything points back to being hospitable to our customers. If I was at your house, you’d welcome me in and offer me food or something to drink, and that’s exactly what we do here.
The reception has been great because we are locals who are offering things that the locals want and care about: seasonality, locally sourced ingredients. Everyone who lives here does so very intentionally, and it’s amazing to give people a taste of what the area has to offer.
What are your plans looking ahead?
We love the wintertime here, and we always have about a foot of snow on the ground. We’ve got a fireplace in the tasting room, and I’m in the process today of helping build our greenhouse, which will let people sit “outside” and enjoy a meal under the lights.
In January, we have plans to begin our monthly supper club series, and we also want to throw some fun parties this year, specifically for the locals. People can struggle in the winter if they don’t have their cold-weather hobbies down. We want to throw some parties that showcase the fun side of the wine business — a tiki party in the dead of winter, for example. We don’t want to take ourselves too seriously; we want a fun and playful atmosphere.
We’re also offering carryout and online ordering. We are trying to fill the needs of the locals, and we’ve gotten overwhelming feedback that people want easy, locally sourced, affordable, delicious meals to go. We offer shareable plates so that our customers can enjoy high-quality meals without spending too much.