Nicole White: Creating Community

Dune Bird Winery co-owner explains what makes her tasting room special
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Nicole White, her husband, and their two kids in the vineyard. Photo courtesy of Dune Bird Winery

Nicole White and her husband may not have ever expected to run their own winery, but they are now fully committed to creating a cozy space for people to gather and drink wine — or not. The couple have two kids, ages 6 and 8, and it was important to them that their winery be family friendly and offer the full tasting room experience even for those who don’t partake.

The Whites sold their home to purchase the property for Dune Bird Winery in spring 2021 and opened their doors in the fall of the same year. They live on-site, and they’re currently working to convert a third barn on their property into a home for the family.

Here, Nicole White explains how her family came to own a winery, what makes their tasting room unique, and what visitors can look forward to at the winery in the coming years.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: How did you get into the wine industry?
A: Well, kind of by accident. We never envisioned ourselves starting a business like this, frankly. We don’t have a history of viticulture; there’s no legacy of winemaking or vineyard management or anything like that. We actually come from over a decade of active-duty military service, where we were stationed all over the country; we lived abroad. Coming back to northern Michigan was coming home for my husband. I’m from Montana, and there are a lot of similarities between Northwest Montana and northern Michigan, and so a lot that I totally fell in love with, especially in Leelanau specifically.

Dune Bird Winery from above. Photo by Drew Palmer for Dune Bird Winery

So we were super excited to move back home about five, six years ago but didn’t quite know how we were going to make a living. And so my husband actually continued to work overseas, continued to deploy. He was gone about half of the year. And he was in some very dangerous situations constantly. So early last year, early 2021, we decided that we wanted to do something different. We really wanted to create a business that kept him home. We wanted to create a business [where] we could work side by side. So we started looking into a bunch of different options.

Our friend was selling this specific property. It had been created as a winery [Gill’s Pier Winery] 20 years ago. A vineyard was planted; [a] tasting room was built. And then our friend had turned it into a ranch with yaks and alpacas. So a really hard left turn. It was quite utilitarian, as you would expect with a ranch. And it had actually been let go for a few years, so it was in pretty rough shape. We had considered a couple different ideas with the property, but we have some really good friends in the wine industry, and they were like, “You’re looking at opening a brand-new business on this site — why not consider reviving what it was created for? Why don’t you consider bringing back to life the original intent of the property?”

And so we really [took] a second look and were able to bring around us some different mentors in the industry. We connected with an incredible winemaker, Drew Perry, and were able to hire out the vineyard management and hire out some pieces of the puzzle that we really had no experience with. What we have experience with and what we love, actually, is creating spaces. We love to host, we love to bring people together, we love to foster community, and we really felt like there was a need in Leelanau for another space that really focused on people, that really focused on bringing anybody and everybody together. Because we don’t come from the industry, I think we were able to look at it with a different lens and through a different perspective.

Q: And what was that unique perspective?
A: The irony — well, one of the many ironies — of buying this property and turning it into a winery is that my husband doesn’t even like wine, really. I love wine enough for both of us — I’ll just put that out there. So we really wanted it to be a space for the non–wine drinker as well. And that’s very countercultural. It’s counterintuitive. And it was a very big business gamble, frankly. We didn’t quite know how that would turn out, but we knew that there are a lot of people who want the experience that a winery offers, but they may not drink wine! And so we wanted to create a space that included them as well.

We have an incredible menu that we’re very proud of. We have some wines that are just absolutely knocking it out of the park. We have a Pinot Gris sparkling wine, … and that’s our top seller. We just sold out of our current vintage. Thankfully, we’re expecting this next vintage in the next couple weeks. It’s very popular — as are all of our estate wines. We’re also very proud to offer and elevate the nonalcoholic right alongside it. We have a very high-end espresso bar that we’ve invested a lot into. We’re really proud to partner with a roaster down in Grand Rapids. … It is something that we’re really passionate about, creating a business model that was outside the ordinary. …

We’re a very approachable winery; we’re very family friendly. We have special things for the kids on the menu. We have special things in the tasting room, like Dune Bird [activity] boxes and lawn games and a swing set. Our passion is people. And we use coffee and wine as a tool to gather people together and to create community. That’s a really needed element, especially coming out of a couple years of COVID. And we’ve had an incredible community reception to that, to the fact that we’re a little different.

Q: What was the process of opening your winery like?
A: We purchased the property last spring, so spring of 2021, and we worked our tail ends off. We had to sell our home to purchase it. We worked full time on that project, did 90% of it ourselves, gutted the tasting room, did all sorts of dismantling, if you will, of the ranch that was there — so tearing out all sorts of fencing and paddocks and stalls and really cleaning up the grounds. We were new to the whole process of “What does it take to become a winery?” so [we] really learned by fire hose the permitting and the licensure and all of the regulations, which are pretty insane.

We were finally able to open the end of November of 2021. It was actually Thanksgiving weekend. We hosted our family, almost 50 people, for Thanksgiving at the winery, and then we opened our doors to the public two days after that. So it was really fun. It was kind of a whirlwind; we were very thankful for an awesome winter season. It was pretty critical to open in the offseason and get our feet under us. And the community was so incredible to rally around us — and help teach us, help us learn. So now we’re prepping for our first summer season, and we’re really excited and hopeful. It’s going to be an awesome summer.

Dune Bird Winery’s espresso bar is just one of its unique attributes. Photo courtesy of Dune Bird Winery

Q: What do you want the experience to be like for guests when they visit the tasting room?
A: We want them to feel as comfortable as they do in their own living room but that they’re also in an elevated and intentional space, where you feel special. You’re being waited on, and there’s a warmth and a hospitality and a friendliness that is really genuine.

We have a very warm atmosphere in the tasting room. We have a very hygge style — a Scandinavian style — but it’s pretty minimalist and modern as well. People comment a lot about our interior, about how it just beckons you to relax. You walk in the doors, and you just breathe a big sigh of relief. And you might be surprised to find the espresso bar right there. And so you readjust your expectations, which is awesome, and we love that. People find that they want to stay: They want to sit, they want to relax, they want to lean into each other, they want to order that food plate or maybe order that espresso and enjoy wine in a setting that is a little bit more reminiscent maybe of how the Europeans enjoy each other’s company, where there’s not a lot of emphasis on time. You kind of lose track of time, and it’s about the conversation. So that’s what we want people to feel when they walk in.

Q: Do you have a favorite wine that Dune Bird makes?
A: Oh man. Our Pure Leland is our sparkling Pinot Gris. It’s an excellent wine, one of my personal favorites. We have three dry red blends that all are very distinct, and all three are my personal favorites. There’s one called AV8, which is a medium-bodied red, and then Woolsey is our full-bodied red. Woolsey is probably my favorite in the winter. It has 75% Blaufränkisch; it has that really nice peppery finish, notes of deep plum and even tobacco, and some real nice earthiness. So I love that one, especially in the winter in the evening. Our Pinot Grigio is a crowd pleaser for sure, and sitting out on the patio, overlooking our pond, overlooking the vineyard, [it’s] pretty hard to beat a Pinot Grigio.

The AV8 and the Woolsey both are a nod to the aviation theme that we have. Inside our tasting room, you’ll see different subtle hints of aviation. My husband is a pilot, and we love aviation — we have a small little plane that we keep just up the road. AV8 is a type of plane but [also] just the industry, and then Woolsey is a nod to an aviation pioneer that was born and bred in Northport, Michigan, where we are.

Q: Do you have any plans coming down the pipeline for the winery?
A: Our vision overall is very much in progress. We have a lot of plans. … We have a huge barn that we will be turning next year into event space. We will be doing weddings eventually, but in addition to weddings, we’re really excited just to have a space that is capable of hosting and gathering people. We’re envisioning everything from vendors markets to yoga classes to large family reunions.

Q: Where would be the best place for people to learn about updates to the winery or upcoming events?
A: I would definitely encourage anyone to join our newsletter, which is the best way to stay informed. They can join by going to our website [dunebirdwinery.com]. Definitely follow us on social media; we post all that kind of stuff on social. And then we do have live music scheduled for this summer, listed on our website. So our website and our newsletter are the two best places.

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