Winning Wine

Taylor Simpson, co-owner of Good Harbor and Aurora Cellars, weighs in on her wineries’ recent accolades
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Taylor Simpson, co-owner of Simpson Family Estates. Photo by Shannon Scott Photography

The teams at Good Harbor Vineyards and Aurora Cellars have been on a roll.

The vino at the two Leelanau Peninsula wineries — owned and operated by Simpson Family Estates — is continuing its trend of racking up major awards.

“Both wineries have the same winemaking team,” says Taylor Simpson, co-owner of Simpson Family Estates, “and that’s important because the awards that are being earned are all being earned by the same group of not only cellar folks, the same winemaker, but also our vineyard team.”

Here, we spoke with Simpson to learn more about her wineries’ recent recognition and what’s going on in her tasting rooms this winter.

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

Q: What makes your two wineries unique, and how are they similar?
A: We focus on cool-climate red varieties at Aurora, in part because of what was planted there when we purchased it, but also the terroir for the specific parcel of land that it’s on is unique for the peninsula. It has a really thick clay cap — really dense clay — which you don’t find in a lot of parts of Leelanau Peninsula. And why that’s significant is that [clay is] really good for growing reds. It stresses the vines out. The more stress that vines have in an appropriate manner, the higher the quality of fruit. It does seem a little backward, but that’s how grapevines work. Even out in Napa, what people would deem to be the best fruit is grown in the mountains, and that’s because the vines are so stressed up there with very little water, and the soil itself is very rocky, and the altitude. So we focus on high-quality reds. We do have a full portfolio at Aurora; in fact, the sparkling wines have won quite a few awards nationally — our whites as well. So the full portfolio is amazing; it’s just that the quantity of wines that we’re making there is so small in comparison to Good Harbor. And also, the wines that are offered between both wineries are distinct. You won’t find them repeated at each winery.

Q: Can you give me some examples?
A: We have a Chardonnay at each. So the Chardonnay that may be at Aurora will either have longer lees contact [or] a different barrel program than the one at Good Harbor. Those might be the only two wines that are replicated. What you’ll find at Good Harbor: We have a late-harvest Riesling, an unoaked Chardonnay, a Pinot Grigio; we have a Pinot Noir-Zweigelt. All of those wines are unique to Good Harbor. You won’t find any of those wines at Aurora. And that’s very important to us because we want to make sure that when people come to Good Harbor, they know that they can only get those wines there and that they also should have many reasons to also go visit Aurora and taste a completely different portfolio of wine grown in Michigan.

Q: Can you give me a preview of new wines you might be making down the road?
A: Some cool stuff came out last year, and people are really excited for it to release this year. At Good Harbor, we brought out an Albariño last year. So the Albariño’s coming out again. We have a limited amount — it was a small crop this year — so that will go quick. We got some Tocai Friulano, which is exciting. It’s a variety that’s very popular in northern Italy. There’s a vineyard up here that [grows it, and] we bought all of that fruit. So we’re going to have a Tocai Friulano at Good Harbor. We have a new rosé coming out. And, of course, a wine that we started making back in ’18, the Pinot Noir-Zweigelt. We planted some Zweigelt, which is a red variety that’s grown widely throughout Austria. My brother [co-owner Sam Simpson] and I were like, “Why don’t we plant some of that? If it grows well over there — we have the same growing climate — it’s got to do well over here.” And sure enough, it does. [Winemaker Drew Perry] made a blend at 60% Pinot Noir, 40% Zweigelt, which is a blend that’s unique to Good Harbor. The 2021 will be coming out later this year. And then, at Aurora, our Sauv Blanc sold out in like two months last year. So we have a lot more of that; we bought some more Sauv Blanc. We’re pretty excited about that, and we’re releasing a new Pinot Noir rosé up at Aurora. Those will, I’m sure, not last long.

These five wines from Aurora Cellars and Good Harbor Vineyards won Jefferson Cups in 2022. Photo courtesy of Simpson Family Estates

Q: Let’s talk about some of the recent accolades you’ve gotten. Good Harbor and Aurora Cellars won a combined five Jefferson Cups at the national competition this past November — an unusually high number, and the first time Good Harbor has won top honors. What do these wins mean for your wineries and say about the direction you’re taking things?
A: It was quite the honor. From what I understand, no winemaking team has ever taken five Jefferson Cups. To win one is a really big deal, let alone five. Our winemaker, Drew, said what he finds most validating is that it wasn’t the same wines every year. This is the third year in a row that Aurora has had multiple, and they’ve ranged anywhere from reds to sparklings to whites. Good Harbor received one for a sparkling wine and was the only rosé to receive a Jefferson Cup [in the rosé category] at the competition. So what it says to me about the effort that our teams are putting in — both the vineyard team and the winemaking team — is that the teamwork is working. It doesn’t just happen in the vineyard. It doesn’t just happen in the wine cellar. Having two groups that have the same vision and the same goal is truly being shown in the bottle.

VinePair heaped praise on Good Harbor’s 2021 Pinot Grigio this past year. Photo courtesy of Simpson Family Estates

Q: VinePair recently made two major shoutouts to Good Harbor’s 2021 Pinot Grigio, naming it one of the 50 best wines, and one of the 13 best Pinot Grigios, of 2022. What makes this wine so special, and is Pinot Grigio in particular a major focus at Good Harbor?
A: That was a huge honor to receive those accolades from VinePair, which is — nationally and internationally — one of the largest and most well-known wine blogs. They run a very serious program. When I received the accolade for the fact that it was included first as one of the top Pinot Grigios, I was like, “Oh my gosh! That’s so amazing. We know that we can make great Pinot Grigio here; we just need the rest of the world to know we make great Pinot Grigio here.” And then when I saw [the 50 best list] come out, I was like, “Holy cow, not only are we in the top 50, but the company that we are in the top 50 with are incredible wines.” Also, we were the only wine represented from Michigan. So that’s a huge honor. Drew, our winemaker, and Good Harbor [have] a long history with Pinot Grigio. Drew really loves the variety. It is one that he feels is often overlooked, but he really takes a lot of time and really cares about the Pinot Grigio at Good Harbor. It is one of his favorite varieties to make, and that’s being shown in the bottle.

It’s lovely to get a trophy, [but] more importantly, I’m hoping that people are going to start to turn their head to Michigan. Most likely, most people would say, “We had no idea that this was going on. I have to go try these and explore this wine region.” That’s truly my hope for the state and also for our businesses.

Q: It’s about time, right?
A: Yeah, we’ve been working hard for 50-plus years here, between all the wineries. It’s finally time for people to recognize that what we’re doing is serious, and we’re making really wonderful wine.

Q: Switching gears, what’s going on at your wineries this winter?
A: At Good Harbor, we’re open Thursdays through Mondays, just for general wine tasting, glass pours, charcuterie boards. Sundays, we are doing Sips and Soups, also paired with some local 9 Bean [Rows] sourdough bread, and there will be a different soup every week. You can come in, grab a bowl, and get some local sourdough and a nice glass of wine.

At Aurora, we always have our igloos. We welcome groups of up to six to come in, reserve those, and do some flights and charcuterie with local cheese and some salamis and a variety of offerings. One of the other exciting things: We do flight trios — a sparkling, a white, and a red — [that pair with chocolate from] Grocer’s Daughter. They made truffles — it’s packs of three — that pair specifically with three different wines. So you get three reds and three truffles, you get three whites and three different truffles, or you get three sparkling and three different truffles.

We also have snowshoe trails when we have snow. When we don’t have snow, we have a walking tour of the vineyard. It’s a self-guided tour where you can scan QR codes on signs through the vineyard and then watch a video that’s led by our winemaker to teach you more about where you are in the vineyard and what’s happening.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
A: Our winemaking team just tasted through all of the 2022s, and our mobile bottling operator, he came up — he was there during harvest and helping — and he goes, “We just got to taste the 2022s,” and I was like, “Oh yeah? How were they?” He goes, “They were amazing.” So I haven’t tasted them myself, but the cellar crew is really excited about what’s coming.

Q: When will those start being available?
A: We are going to be bottling like crazy in February, March, and through April. But most of our wines will be released first to [our] wine club in April and then to the general public sometime in like late May, early June.

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