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by Sally Goldberg

Never mind culture shock. The first major crisis facing young winemaker Cornel Olivier in January, 1999, was the 80-degree temperature drop from South Africa to north Michigan.

Cornel Olivier: One of the Lads

How did he adjust? "After a week I switched from short to long-sleeved shirts," he recalls.

Cornel had just arrived for a winemaking internship at Chateau Grand Traverse on Old Mission Peninsula, arranged through an agricultural exchange program between Ohio State and Elsenburg Agricultural College in Stellenbosch, South Africa. The experience would change the course of his life.

Four years later, in 2003, Coenraad Stassen arrived at Old Mission's Chateau Chantal from Elsenburg via the same program.

Today, both are rising stars in Michigan's wine constellation. Cornel jokes that people sometimes call him "the Flying Winemaker" in reference to his rapid ascent: consultant with Brys Estate in 2003, winemaker at Brys in 2004, and, since March of this year, partner and winemaker in the newly-founded Two Lads Winery. Coenraad (pronounced coon-rod) follows one short step behind; he recently left Chateau Chantal and signed on to take Cornel's place as winemaker at Brys.

Related Article: CHENIN BLANC: Coming to Michigan, Courtesy of South Africa

Coenraad Stassen: Taking over at Brys
Was it more than chance that landed two South Africans on Old Mission Peninsula? Not at all -- though they attended the same school and have since become firm friends, they met here for the first time.

Both young winemakers (now in their early 30's) say that pure coincidence brought them to Michigan - that and being victimized by unfortunate seasonal timing. "I had hoped to intern in California," says Cornel. "But the harvest in California was already well over, and I was offered an internship at Chateau Grand Traverse. I was really surprised that they were able to grow wine grapes this far north. After talking to the winemaker at Chateau Grand Traverse I was convinced otherwise and was intrigued to hear about their ice-wine production."

Coenraad also hoped to land in California but he, too, missed the harvest and turned down an offer to be a lab technician at Napa's Cakebread Cellars. "I wanted to be involved in wine making, not stuck in a lab." 

He considered a startup winery in Virginia that had just completed its first harvest. "But I was suspicious of a winery's ability to make wine in a cool climate, so I decided to go with my third choice, Chateau Chantal. At least they had been established for ten years."

How does Michigan winemaking differ from South Africa?  "Climate is much more of a factor of winemaking in Michigan," explains Cornel. One similarity, though, is the moderating influence of the Great Lakes here and that of the Atlantic and Indian oceans in South Africa.

Coenraad expands on that. "Every harvest is different one from another here in Michigan, unlike South Africa where the growing season is pretty much the same each year. As a result, in South Africa you can make a half decent wine without that much effort. Here, if you are sharp, it drives you to learn more and provides a challenge. Your winemaking style is much more influenced by whether you had a cool or warm growing season."  He adds, "I got my backbone in South Africa and I love a challenge."

Cornel attacks the perennial question of whether wine is made in the cellar or the vineyard.  "A professor of mine in Stellenbosch used to say to me, 'you can make good wine from good grapes. You can make bad wine from bad grapes, but you cannot make good wine from bad grapes.' "

"For instance, there was always the philosophy here that good grapes should be grown on South Western slopes. But at Brys we've proven that you can make great wine on Eastern slopes with proper vineyard manipulation," he continues.

Coenraad attributes Brys's growing reputation to Cornel's skill for making premium wines. His immediate goal is to build on that reputation, learn about the soil and vines, and get his bearings before thinking of making any changes.

Cornel, meanwhile, faces the challenges of a startup winery. "My dream was to have a place of my own," he says. "So when I was offered a partnership in Two Lads winery, with Chris Baldyga and Dick Quartel, I jumped at the chance."

Construction on the winery began in late April, and its opening is planned in time for the first wine release, in the Spring of 2008. "We have the greatest view of the water up here and people are going to be blown away by the building, the views, and of course the wine," Cornel says.

The Two Lads vineyards were planted in 2001. The winery and farm, Old Mission's northernmost, consist of 58 acres, 13 of which are planted with Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot.

Initially, Two Lads sold some fruit to Chateau Chantal, where Coenraad was working as assistant winemaker. "So Coen got to work with some of the fruit way back then", says Cornel. "Our focus is on red and sparkling wines. Our first year release will be a blend of Cabernet Franc and Merlot," explains Cornel. 

Old Mission's size made it inevitable that Cornel's and Coenraad's paths would cross. Yet despite their common careers, a good chunk of their bonding took place inside a rugby scrum.

"Cornel and I both played semi-professionally back home," explains Coenraad. "So it was a huge asset for the Traverse Bay Blues Rugby Club to have some players with foreign experience. When Cornel and I played, we ended up third in the Midwest, with the two of us scoring 90% of the points".

These days, instead of diving into the scrum themselves they share coaching duties at the Alliance high school team, composed of boys from several local schools, including Suttons Bay and Traverse City Central High. Their team finished third in the state this year. 

Does either of these South African transplants hanker for their home sod?  They both agree that the harsh winters take some getting used to, and they miss the Cape with its moderate climate, spectacular mountains and valleys, and centuries-old Cape Dutch homesteads framed by lush vineyards.

But they're here for the long haul. Both plan to take out US citizenship, and both are married to women from Traverse City.

We wondered if either of their wives was involved in the wine industry.  "Yes, my wife Lindsay is involved in the wine industry," quips Coenraad. "She has to drink all of the wines I make!"

Appropriately, Coenraad met Lindsay in a winery tasting room. "She works at a local law firm, is a belly dancer, and manages to find the time to study to become an herbalist," he says.

Cornel and his wife Alyson, a sales rep for Pfizer, are equally busy raising two high-energy young boys.

Both men share an enthusiasm about the future of Michigan wines and feel optimistic about being part of a region that's well on track to making a world-class product - eight thousand miles from where they started.

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Need to Know


Early results from an experiment by Chateau Margaux's Paul Pontallier indicate that screwcaps may age red wine better than natural cork -- plus eliminate any risk of corked bottles, as reported in The Drinks Business. 


The 2011-2 mild weather was healthy for Michigan's vineyards, but it's played havoc with state winemakers who leave grapes on the vine in hopes that they'll freeze for the production of icewine, reports AP writer John Flesher.


Recently-deceased Korean dictator Kim Jong Il was a wine geek (and reputed alcoholic) with a 10,000-bottle cellar, according to ex-Slate wine columnist Mike Steinberger. Kim earlier gave up Hennessy Cognac on doctor's orders.


Warming climate may help cooler grape-growing regions -- like England -- but could damage places like Napa, writes jounalist John McQuaid in Yale's environmental magazine.


Western Farm Press reports that Cornell Prof Miguel Gomez is studying how smaller wineries can jointly create a successful cool-climate wine region. He'll look at emerging areas in Michigan, New York and Missouri.


Here's one for some Michigan entrepreneur to try! A just-opened Long Island outlet mall store will sell nothing but New York State wines. Starting inventory at Empire State Cellars: 400 labels from 150 wineries.


Want a refresher about Michigan wine history and potential? Get a quick two page cheat-sheet by Layne Cameron in Western Farm Press, and make some allowances for the MSU-centricity (the author's employer).

Links to wine news from Michigan and elsewhere. Use the Contact Form to let us know what should be here.


Recently-deceased Korean dictator Kim Jong Il was a wine geek (and reputed alcoholic) with a 10,000-bottle cellar, according to ex-Slate wine columnist Mike Steinberger. Kim earlier gave up Hennessy Cognac on doctor's orders.