by Sally Goldberg
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.
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
Related Article: CHENIN BLANC: Coming to Michigan, Courtesy of South Africa
Coenraad Stassen: Taking over at Brys
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.
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."
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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!"
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.
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.