Travel Notes: A Trip to Bonobo

A guided tour and tasting elevates a visit to the Traverse City winery
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Sunset at Bonobo Winery on the Old Mission Peninsula.

During a typical tasting room visit, you might sample a few different wines, order a glass of one you particularly enjoy and pair it with a charcuterie board, and relax for an hour or so before moving on to other activities (or another tasting room).

But plenty of Michigan wineries offer opportunities to take your experience to the next level with immersive tasting and touring packages. As I discovered during a recent visit to Bonobo Winery on the Old Mission Peninsula, doing a guided tour and tasting can help you develop a richer understanding of — and appreciation for — your favorite wines.

Taste and Tour
I’ve written about Michigan wine country for the better part of three years now, and during this time, I’ve interviewed winemakers, sommeliers, and tasting room and vineyard managers to learn what makes our state’s thriving wine scene unique.

The tasting room at Bonobo Winery.

It’s not often I get to put down my phone, leave the office, and go experience Michigan wine country firsthand, though. So when the Grand Traverse Resort and Spa near Traverse City invited me and seven other wine and food content creators Up North for a visit and a trip to Bonobo, I jumped at the chance.

Our agenda at Bonobo included a full-blown tour of the winery — both the expansive tasting room and the cellar below it — and the vineyards, which are spread across 50 acres on Bonobo’s property. In mid-September, Traverse City was experiencing some of its last hot, sunny days of summer — those coveted good-weather days on the cusp of harvest when the grapes finish ripening.

Cabernet Franc grapes going through veraison.

Harvest hadn’t quite started when I was there, but our tour guide, Todd Oosterhouse, co-owner and general manager of Bonobo Winery, let us taste a few of the grapes maturing in the vineyards. We plucked deep-purple berries from clusters of Pinot Noir; Riesling grapes that were already lightly sweet; and Cabernet Franc grapes, which were still going through veraison, changing from green to red as they ripened.

Along the way, we also tried several of Bonobo’s wines, which ran the gamut from red to white to rosé. Notably, while Bonobo doesn’t make sweet wines, it is the biggest producer of sparkling on the Old Mission Peninsula. (Mawby takes the cake on the Leelanau Peninsula.) Bonobo’s sparkling rosé, a fruity blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier with a strong, carbonated bite, stood out to me, as did two other wines: the oaky Chardonnay Barrique, set to be released a couple of weeks after our visit, and a soft Chardonnay bearing the Oosterhouse Vineyards label that tasted to me a bit like buttered movie popcorn. “OV” is Bonobo’s elevated small-batch brand, which also includes a Pinot Noir, and the grapes for it come from specific OV-designated rows in the vineyards. “Everything’s done intentionally,” Todd said.

That was apparent from the onset of our tour. Throughout the property, the different varietals’ locations reflected a strategic understanding of the terrain. Todd pointed out that the red wine grapes were planted in a valley, where warm air gets pulled down, resulting in a significant temperature difference between the higher and lower elevations. But a swale near the Riesling lay bare because, in contrast with the warm air tugged into the deep valleys, the air in the short dips remains stagnant and cold.

Todd Oosterhouse, co-owner and general manager of Bonobo Winery, takes our group on a tour of the cellar.

Down in the cellar, Todd walked us through the winemaking process and explained the purposes of different pieces of equipment, from the barrels used to age certain wines to the “dimples” (aka the cooling jackets) on the steel vats (fermentation, I learned, is a hot process). I was surprised to hear that prior to launching Bonobo, which has been open to the public since 2014, Todd had been more of a beer drinker, and he’d learned about wine on the job. He could have fooled me.

His prior experience as a general contractor did, however, come in handy at Bonobo. He and his brother Carter, another co-owner (the third is Carter’s wife, Amy Smart Oosterhouse), designed the building that houses their tasting room, production facility, and full-service kitchen. The intentionality behind their wines extends into the construction and décor of the tasting room, which features multiple “pocket spaces,” as Todd called them: distinct sitting areas, complete with deep leather sofas and armchairs and other eclectic seating options, where groups can settle into their own zones to drink and socialize.

Chef Scott Steger’s elevated take on a s’more.

One such area was the antiques-filled library, where we stopped after our tour to try different wine and food pairings. Chef Scott Steger, the creative behind the culinary menu, updated every month, had prepared three courses, each matched with one of Bonobo’s wines. I took Todd’s advice to alternate between sipping the wine and tasting the food to pick up how they complemented each other. Bright Pinot Gris bounced off spicy butternut squash and rich, buttery burrata. Bonobo Red — a robust, tannic blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Petite Syrah — had the weight to balance black pepper–crusted salmon and hearty Dijon gnocchi. For dessert, the blanc de blancs popped against chef Steger’s elevated take on a s’more: a flourless chocolate cake with toasted marshmallow fluff, graham cracker crumble, and bourbon caramel. The food and the wine, taken together, had become new, complex characters.

Know Before You Go
When I left Bonobo that evening, sated, I took with me a newfound appreciation for the dedication and creativity that goes into a bottle of Michigan wine — and I found a few new favorites along the way.

Bonobo is just one of many wineries around the state that offer tours of their facilities and vineyards and host wine and food pairings. If you want to go on your own guided adventure, here are a few pointers to keep in mind:

  • Sign up beforehand. Tours and wine dinners typically require advanced registration and may have limited spots, so visit the winery’s website to see what they have available and sign up early.
  • Don’t eat the grapes without permission. Every grape counts, especially in years when harvest yields are low, so make sure you have permission to try a grape or two before you pull them off the vines.
  • Ask questions. If you’re curious about a part of the winemaking process, ask your tour guide. You just might learn something new!

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