Dean Bender is winemaker and co-owner of Lawton Ridge Winery in Kalamazoo and Lawton Ridge Vineyard in Lawton. After studying to become a chiropractor, he returned to Kalamazoo to practice chiropractic medicine. It was there that he ran into a former college instructor in the early 1980s who had started a hobby vineyard in Lawton and went to work picking grapes to help out. When one of the partners in Lawton Ridge Vineyard wanted to sell, he bought in. Shortly after, Bill Harrison, now co-owner of the vineyard, also became a partner. They made wine as a hobby and sold the excess grapes to other wineries. Eventually, Bender and current LRW co-owner Richard “Crick” Haltom launched the winery by buying an old building on Stadium Drive west of Kalamazoo. That was in 2008 — not the best economic climate to be starting a business. But they prevailed and just observed their 12th year in business. The vineyard has grown to nearly 10 acres with room to plant another two on the 30-acre site.
Q. Have you found a way to tie chiropractic into the winery?
Bender: Well, we don’t offer anything like, “If you buy four cases, you get a free treatment.” I sold the practice in 2008 but went back in 2011 because I missed practicing. Now I work a couple days a week at the practice while the rest is spent between the vineyard and the winery.
Q. What are you most busy with right now?
Bender: What we’re most busy with is bringing in grapes that all seem to be ripening for us at the same time. So last week we brought in Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, which we use for our rosé. Now we’ll have Pinot Gris coming in this next weekend (Sept. 19), so that’s what is occupying our time. We picked Chardonnay over the weekend because we’ll use it for a sparkler, so we’re picking it a little early. A consequence of the frost in May — it was 18 degrees for us — so it damaged a lot of our vines at lower elevation, so we have a lighter crop in some varieties. That tends to make ripening happen a little earlier. Grapes are coming on quickly, so that’s what we’re doing now: picking and pressing.
Q. What are your predictions for harvest this year?
Bender: The quality of the fruit we have will be very good. The quantity is much less than we usually see, but a whole lot more than we had in 2019, which was a disaster for us. There was a freeze in the winter, a vortex that came in, so I think we had a total harvest of maybe 2.5 tons of fruit from a vineyard that usually produces 38 tons. This year I’m hoping we can get 18 or 19 tons.
Q. Do you still supply other wineries?
Bender: When we have plenty of fruit, we share. We’ve supplied a couple of the smaller wineries or wineries about our size with grapes when we have extra, which would usually be from our Riesling, Chambourcin or Pinot Gris. We haven’t been able to do that for the last three years. So it’s been tough.
Q. What’s the best part about harvest?
Bender: The best part of a good harvest is the promise of what you’ve grown can become. You think to yourself as with this year: We’ve had a good year; we’ve had warm days and a couple of hot periods, but mostly we’ve had warm days offset by having cool nights. For cool-climate grapes, this is what you want as the grapes develop balanced sweetness and acidity. That’s ideal for a good wine — at least, that’s what I look for.
Q. What’s the worst part about harvest?
Bender: So there’s disappointment, but then, there’s “the worst part.” The disappointment, as an example this year, is a smaller harvest. So far, there’s no worst part. But in past years, we’ve had the worst part such as when you have what could be a really great harvest and the grapes get an infection, like botrytis or powdery mildew or insects that infect the fruit, which leads to rot. Then you have to make a decision whether to take the grapes or not. Because you know those grapes can’t make a product you are proud to put your label on.
Q. What’s the best part about being a winemaker?
Bender: There has to be some appeal to the creative part of each person that’s involved in winemaking as in beer making or cooking — that there’s this thing you can make and every time it’s different in ways that are almost unpredictable. So it’s a challenge. Most of the time it is rewarding, and I guess for me, that’s the best part. When you make a product that people go, “Wow, this is really good,” that is something you never get tired of hearing. While I am the winemaker, this is a team effort and hopefully something that makes all of us proud.