Joe Ohanesian’s long and successful career in the Michigan wine industry started because of an ad in 1998.
He had been job-hopping in Traverse City after graduating a few years earlier from Michigan State University, where he had studied psychology and business, when he stumbled on a posting from Chateau Grand Traverse. He applied, figuring the cellar assistant position would be more interesting than an office job.
A year in, he was sold on joining the industry permanently.
“What really solidified it for me was working a harvest,” he says, adding that “after all the dust [settled], in that winter of ’99, I knew: … ‘That was a whirlwind, but I think I just found what I want to do.’”
Over the years, he’s worked in various roles at Black Star Farms, Peninsula Cellars, and 2 Lads Winery. Since the beginning of this year, he’s been the winemaker at 2 Lads on the Old Mission Peninsula.
Here, Ohanesian tells Michigan Wine Country about the wines he’s making, his passion for bubblies, and the role of gravity in his unique cellar setup.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What wines are you making at 2 Lads this year? Is there anything new or that you’re particularly excited about?
The Rieslings have always been stellar. [We’ll have] a lot of Pinot Gris. We also make a Pinot Gris rosé, and it’s been a hit. And then certain years we make a Pinot Noir rosé or a Cab Franc rosé. We make a lot of [Pinot Noir]; I’m about to rack around 36 barrels of Pinot Noir for ’21. I have about 30 barrels of Cab Franc and another 15 barrels of Merlot — so a lot of red wine.
Our 2 Lads estate Riesling has now been aged one year in stainless-steel barrels, under lock so it really can’t breathe. It’s aging on its lees. That’s going to be exciting because not everybody has the means or the ways of aging a Riesling for that long and then releasing one that’s a year old already and will continue to age gracefully.
What’s your all-time favorite wine that you make at 2 Lads?
The bubbles. Now, which one? I would almost say year to year that oscillates between our long-term-aged brut cuvée, which is mainly Pinot Noir with Chardonnay, or the brut rosé, which is 100% Pinot Noir. The pairing versatility with the brut rosé is really fun; it can go from popcorn to some of the fanciest meals you’ve seen in restaurants. It’s a fun one for me to make.
How would you describe your winemaking style?
I don’t want to say winemaking’s easy, but it sure does get easy when all your ingredients are spot-on. So that’s what I really try and focus on: How are the vineyards doing? My style is to try and grow the best things we can, working with our growers and our own estate, and then just let that fruit gently ferment, gently age, and coax it right into the bottle at the best time. We don’t do a lot of manipulation. We let the fruit sing all the way through. That’s what I try and do.
Speaking of viticulture, how does the Old Mission Peninsula’s unique geography impact the wine that you make?
There are a lot of amazing wine regions on this whole [45th] parallel. [We] have the bays next to us with this buffer that will allow us to have a little bit more of a ripening season, especially on Old Mission. You wouldn’t think that a big lake would make such a difference, but it sure does. It’s the bays that influence, the elevation, which way do you have your vineyard set. It’s been amazing to be on this little sliver of land in the middle of two major pieces of water and how much that influences it.
Switching back to the cellar, I read that 2 Lads uses “gravity flow” and “gentle handling techniques.” Can you tell me about that?
I’m downstairs in the cellar [right now]. Our crush pad is upstairs next to the tasting room, and we have a gentle bladder press. Imagine taking a cluster off the vine, we put it in a press, and it has all these very gentle programs. So you’re gently breaking the skins and you’re gently getting all the juice into this juice pan. There are stainless-steel pipes that go from our upper level straight down, and then I can have a hose hooked to a tank so there’s no pumping, there’s no agitation, there’s no extra air being introduced to the first part of the juice. We can gently go from cluster to press, juice pan, juice right into a tank, fill up the tank, settle it very gently. And of course we do rack things with pumps, but we have a very gentle pump. So we’re just trying to not beat up the wine or the juice, so to say, and move it gently.
The gravity thing is kind of unique because not everybody has a crush pad above their cellar. I would say 99% of everybody around here, it’s all on one level, and you’re always pumping things. That is one thing that separates us from others is the gentle handling of our juice and wines.