Today’s Q&A is with Tracy Faulkner, who with husband Harry purchased Willow Vineyard & Winery — the fifth-oldest winery on the Leelanau Peninsula — in February from founders John and Jo Crampton. They’ve renamed it Willow Winery — A Faulkner Family Vineyard, and the couple is just starting to put their own touches on the place as they make plans for the future. Tracy used to be president of the National Concierge Association while in Chicago and has a background in luxury brand marketing in the hospitality industry; she and Harry now divide their time between Houston, Texas, and Traverse City. Harry is a petroleum and electrical engineer who founded Lambda Energy, based in Kalkaska, with his two partners. Tracy explains how they came to own a winery and what they’ve got up their sleeves. Willow is closed for now. They’re hoping to complete the transition and reopen the tasting room July 1, and start offering the winery as a wedding venue in 2022.
Tell us about Willow.
A: This was John and Jo’s labor of love and we intend to continue their great tradition. They handplanted all of the vines to grow all of the grapes, then all of those grapes are handpicked, hand-pressed and hand-bottled. From the vines to the wines, they did it all. It’s a very boutique vineyard deep rooted in tradition.
What roles will you and your husband play at Willow?
A: We’ll be very hands-on as owners using our respective backgrounds and travels to take Willow to the next level. My role is going to be on improving and enhancing the guest experience through modest changes to the experience and to the venue itself. I have also spent significant time in Napa, California, wine country, behind the scenes at world-famous vineyards, learning how wine is made, and (been) treated to some expert tasting classes. So, my focus is also going to be on the wines and really helping make the wine and be an understudy to our winemakers with the goal in five years to be the winemaker. I’m really big on education and learning new things and teaching yourself new things. And wine is a passion of mine — usually it’s drinking it; now I’ll be making it.
I’d call Harry the horticulturalist/arborist. He is really the expert with all things green and living and organic. His role is going to be working side by side with our vineyard manager in the actual vineyard, cultivating the vines and helping grow the grapes.
Why did you want to buy the winery?
A: We were part of the harvest at Chardonnay Shores Vineyard — it’s not open to the public. Their vineyard grows the grapes, and they sell their entire harvest to their friends, the Brengman Brothers. We were free labor; we were invited to help them one Saturday in October for the harvest. We fell in love with it. The more time we spent in the vineyard picking grapes, the more amazing it became. I went home that evening and started to look for vineyards for sale (note: Tracy had looked for them before, but not in earnest). That’s when we spotted Willow. The strangest thing was my husband and I are (club) members of many of the wineries along East Hilltop Road, where Willow is located. We never knew it was there. The next day we went up to taste the wine and look at the views and the vineyard and tasting room, and we met John and Jo. It was spontaneous. I said, “Hi, my name is Tracy and I would like to buy your vineyard. It’s absolutely amazing.” He said, “It’s already sold.” I was crushed! While they did have an offer, it was a group … a consortium trying to pool funds and make it a business venture.
So, what happened?
A: They agreed to accept our backup offer just in case. That was in October. We were waiting for the group to get their finances together or close the deal or see if it would fall through. A couple days after New Year’s, the group was asking for yet another extension. John and Jo had been waiting since September — when they placed their original offer. Our realtor reached out to them and they said, “If the Faulkners can close in 30 days … they can have this vineyard.” We had 30 days to make it happen, and we did.
Will you live there?
A: We’re in love with our gorgeous log home just a few miles away that has equal rivaled views of the bay. We’ve been there for three years and plan to live there. Willow has a charming home as well, with vineyard views and sweeping sights to the (Leelanau) Peninsula. With so many friends and family from Chicago and Indy, we’ll use the space for them this season. But eventually it will become the Bridal Suite and Honeymoon Retreat for guests.
What have you learned so far that you didn’t know about operating a winery?
A: There’s a lot to learn! But the camaraderie of all the other owners and vineyards and sharing information has been the key to success so far. We’re wine club members at many of them, and the relationships have escalated now that we’ve joined this unique group of owners and wine growers and winemakers. That’s been the best part for us, and I know the best part once we open is the relationships we will have with the people who come to visit us.
What are you most excited about?
A: My husband and I truly believe the Michigan wine scene — the 45th parallel — is the next Napa Valley. The more nationwide exposure that Traverse City and our sweet vineyards can all get, the better. I think it is still one of the best-kept secrets in the wine world. And we look forward to sharing it with everyone for many years to come.