For the first time in more than four decades, Chateau Grand Traverse is operating without its illustrious founder, Ed O’Keefe Jr., somewhere nearby.
It won’t be quite the same.
O’Keefe Jr. died on New Year’s Day at his home at the Old Mission Peninsula winery he built. His family says condolences poured in from around the world. So did stories that helped shed even more light on the personality and impact of this entrepreneur who had nearly as many career adventures as cats have lives.
Born in 1931, O’Keefe became a college gymnast who almost made it to the 1952 Olympics in Finland. He served in the military and was a Green Beret. He opened a string of nursing homes. He also worked as an undercover narcotics agent.
After moving to the Traverse City area in 1974, he became a Michigan wine pioneer when he opened Chateau Grand Traverse and set out to prove that yes, native European grapes could be grown commercially in northern Lower Michigan.
“What drove him to be in the business was the challenge of saying, ‘You can’t do it,’ ” says one of his sons, Eddie O’Keefe, current president and co-owner of Chateau Grand Traverse. “He did a lot of research, but if you look at his pedigree, he was always an overachiever, very aggressive, very driven and very intelligent.”
Another son, Sean O’Keefe, who is now winemaker at nearby Mari Vineyards and a co-owner at Chateau Grand Traverse, says his dad made his mark on the wine industry alongside pioneers from winery regions in other parts of the U.S.
“My father was part of a movement — there were a couple people, Dr. Frank in the Finger Lakes (New York) region (was one),” Sean says. “My dad was friends with these guys and he was one of the people who was very adamant that you could grow European grape varieties here.
“If it wasn’t for his stubborn character pushing it forward, I don’t think we’d be nearly as developed as we are. It was a major struggle to convince people (including the experts at Michigan State University) that what my father was doing was right. Most dismissed it as folly or a mistake.”
But Ed wouldn’t give up.
“He did his research and jumped into it full-on believing he could do it,” Eddie says. “And ultimately, he did, but I always jokingly say he was a 46-year overnight success.”
Somewhere around 2000, Eddie took over day-to-day operations, though his dad never stopped being a fixture around the property.
“We have a winery inn, which is probably 100 feet from our winery office, and he had an apartment right there,” Eddie says. “With regard to his most recent years, he spent a lot of time in our office talking to us. He was aware of what was going on (in the business), but what he really enjoyed doing was hanging out with people … at the winery guesthouse.”
Ed would share pictures and stories with those who were interested — and many were. One business group that held a couple of retreats at Chateau Grand Traverse actually scheduled time to hear from the senior O’Keefe as part of their meeting schedule.
“We just had somebody call yesterday booking for a four-day stay, and she said, ‘I’m looking forward to seeing Ed and hearing his stories,’ ” Eddie recalled in mid-January.
The person taking the reservation informed the caller that Ed had recently passed away.
“The lady started to cry,” Eddie says. “People just loved to hear his stories.”
In recent years, Ed had a golf cart to get around the 55-acre property.
“Oftentimes he would go up daily to the wine tasting room and talk to guests,” Eddie says, “and that was OK until COVID hit.”
The pandemic lockdown was tough on his dad, who thrived on contact with people. Having dealt with some cancer issues, he also had a minor stroke in November.
“It just knocked the wind out of his sails,” Eddie says. “He was really tired after that.”
It wasn’t too long after that that hospice was called.
“He was very adamant about wanting to stay in his home, and he was until the end,” Eddie says. “He went from hospice to death in a matter of weeks.”
As sad as the family was to lose him, the funeral service was an uplifting affirmation of his life.
“What struck me is that we had a variety of people from all around the world, maybe their first job was with our winery, and they ended up making a career in the wine business,” Eddie notes. “People who had a real affection for him marveled at his affection, tenacity and humor.”
Bryan Ulbrich, co-owner and winemaker at Left Foot Charley, shared a story about being in New Jersey to buy a piece of used equipment when the elderly winery owner walked in and said, “I hear you’re from Michigan. That’s Ed O’Keefe’s territory.”
“I said, ‘You know Ed O’Keefe?’” Ulbrich recounted in a video shown during the funeral service, which is still available for viewing online. “He said, ‘Son, everyone in this industry knows Ed O’Keefe.’
“And I’ve come to learn over the years that is certainly true. He had a huge influence on wines across the country and around the world.”
Ed also was a big influence on his five children, says Sean.
“The way I look at it is, we’re the second generation,” Sean explains. “We’re like those trees that grow up under the other ones. I don’t think my brother or I or anybody else have that sheer amount of chutzpah — to go up here, move all this land, build this place. There aren’t a lot of people like that.”
Sean goes on to recall that his dad was born in 1931 — in the middle of the Great Depression. Like others of his generation who became wine industry trailblazers, he was “one of a kind.”
“These pioneers aren’t a dime a dozen,” he says. “That’s a once-in-a-generation kind of thing.”