Who would have thought that Delta County could be a great place to produce international award-winning wines? Leigh Schmidt did. Well, at least he had a hunch that the area could be. In 2009, he opened Leigh’s Garden Winery in downtown Escanaba and each year has proven more fruitful than the last.
Leigh learned a bit about wine-making as a home-winemaker several years before retirement and planted his first cold climate grape vines in his backyard at his Escanaba home. Wanting to find vines that would survive in a climate like the U.P., he stumbled across the Minnesota Grape Grower Association and after several years of learning about the cold climate grapes being hybridized by the University of Minnesota, he planted a small vineyard in south Bark River on property leased in 2006.
After three years of caring and pruning and growing the grapes, his colleagues at the Minnesota Grape Growers Association pressured him to get started with the wine-making. By this time he was retired and could spend time in this “hobby”, not expecting half of what it has become today. Encouraged by community support and a fool-hardy stupidity, he invested in an historic building downtown which featured a bar as part of the tasting room and an empty cellar which became the winery production location. He established contact with two growers who were also growing Univ. of Minnesota hybrids and would supply him with quality grapes. He decided to take a leap of faith and made the move forward, not knowing the reception the winery would get, nor if it would endure through the very tight years of 2008 and beyond.
As word about the locally-made wines spread by word of mouth and some very limited advertisement, Leigh grew from 400 gallons the first year to 1,100 gallons in 2014. Leigh’s Garden Winery is now able to provide wine on a yearly basis to our local customers and the many tourists they see annually.They have also become a sort of information center about Escanaba’s downtown area, which he refers to as Old Escanaba. “We do our best to not only serve customers a taste of wine, but also project the friendly side of Escanaba.” says Leigh.
In 2014, Leigh entered 5 of his wines in an international competition at the Cold Climate Grape Competition held in Minneapolis, MN and brought home 5 medals; three bronze, one silver and one gold.
Leigh and his staff offer approximately 15 varieties at the start of their season, which is April annually. They carry wines that are sweet, semi-sweet, and dry in both red and white varieties, trying to provide for the variety in taste of customers. They also feature some associated products and souvenirs, but let’s face it, people go to the winery for wine. When visiting the winery guests (21 years of age & older) receive two complimentary tastes of wine, or they can purchase a Leigh’s Garden Winery souvenir glass with 6 tastes. They offer this because they think customers should be able to taste a wine before they purchase it. Leigh is always quick to remind customers that his wines are made in very limited quantities and sell out in short periods of time, or over the course of the year.
Their home at 904 Ludington Street has been upgraded with some minor changes during winter months making the setting more appealing, relaxing and enjoyable to customers. The building they are housed in went up in 1881 and has some features related to the era. The bar, was added to the building in 1972, when Marlys Thone purchased it from King’s Bar once located a bit further up Ludington Street.
Leigh’s favorite part of what he does is the people that come through the door, locals and tourists. “They come in not knowing what to expect or having a preconceived notion of small mid-west wineries, and we just knock that out of their heads with our wines, our service and our friendliness. But you can find this all through downtown, friendly owners who work their shops, attend to and appreciate their customers, engage you in conversation, and are involved in their community. I know this sounds like an advertisement, but it is such a great place to do business, that once someone finds us, they come back.”
When Leigh isn’t busy serving customers his wines, he keeps busy tending the wines in the cellar or the vines in the vineyard, picking the grapes in season, and spending time with family and friends. Leigh has lived in Escanaba for over 40 years after moving here from Cleveland, Ohio and marrying “a local girl” as he says. Connie Bichler and Leigh met at NMU, and her first job as an elementary teacher for the Escanaba Area Schools brought them back to her hometown, Escanaba. He took a job with the Delta-Schoolcraft ISD. They raised two children, Emily and Soren in Escanaba and retired together about 11 years ago. Leigh says his connection to the Escanaba area grew stronger with each year as he learned to appreciate the people, the slower pace of life that was so different than a large city and the joy of nature here.
To learn more about Leigh’s Garden Winery, stop into the tasting room and chat with Leigh yourself. If you aren’t able to do get to the winery in-person, head over to their Facebook page where updates about winery happenings are posted on the regular.
– Written by Escanaba resident Carrie Bartel.