Northern Exposure: Spencer Stegenga’s Ventures in the Vineyard

By Monica VanDerWeide, ’95

Spencer Stegenga

Proprietor, Bowers Harbor Vineyards

For decades, northwestern Michigan has been a mecca for ski lovers, cherry lovers, and fall color seekers. In more recent years, the region has gained fame for another industry—winemaking. For 30 years, Spencer Stegenga, ’95, and his family have been at the forefront of this industry, uncorking the secrets of the vine for a growing national audience to enjoy.

In 1991, Spencer’s parents incorporated Bowers Harbor Vineyards on Old Mission Peninsula, surrounded by Grand Traverse Bay. The sandy soil and tempering “lake effect” on the peninsula create an ideal environment for growing fruits such as cherries and apples, as well as wine grapes. As his parents transformed the former horse farm into vineyards, Spencer studied marketing at Hillsdale College. In preparation for joining the family business upon his graduation, Spencer frequently traveled to Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, and Chicago to work with wine distributors and learn about the industry. He also developed a comprehensive business plan for Bowers Harbor Vineyards in which he and his parents had equal ownership. In 1996, he became a one-third owner.

In order to market the fledgling winery industry on the peninsula, Spencer and the other Old Mission vineyard owners established the Wineries of Old Mission in 1997. The organization holds several popular events, including Divas Uncorked, Blossom Days, the Great Macaroni and Cheese Bakeoff, and Dine in the Vines, in which the wineries partner with local restaurants and businesses. Bowers Harbor Vineyards also partners with the City of Riesling, an annual event held in cities around the world to celebrate Riesling wine.

Spencer credits the farm-to-table movement of recent years in further helping his wines gain popularity beyond northern Michigan. “Northwestern Michigan wines fit that bill perfectly,” he says. He regularly enters his wines in national and international competitions as well, with countless accolades further cementing the premier quality of Old Mission Peninsula wines. His highly honored Block II Riesling most recently won double gold in the 2020 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, while his 2896 Langley, a signature red wine, took gold in the 2021  competition.

As any farmer knows, each year’s crop is at the mercy of the weather, and Bowers Harbor has been no exception. “We had a few years in the mid-2010s where we lost most of the crop,” Spencer recalls. “There are takeaways from each season. You celebrate the good years and learn from the bad ones.”

The 2020 season posed its own unique challenge, of course, but in spite of the limitations that COVID-19 presented, Spencer notes that 2020 was Bowers Harbor’s best year ever. “We already had a strong online presence,” he says, “and within a week of Michigan’s lockdown order, we started curbside pickup.” Although the Bowers Harbor indoor tasting room is still closed to the public, outdoor wine-tasting at the vineyard is booming. “We switched to a mostly reservation-only system,” he says. “Guests can reserve an hour to enjoy flights or wine by the glass on our 50 acres. Fortunately, our staff have earned more in tips than in the past based upon our new service model, and the winery tour companies are creating an overwhelming demand because of the space we have!”

Spencer credits the things that he was taught and exposed to at Hillsdale, as well as the capitalist, free-market thinking espoused by the College, with giving him the tools to handle unexpected situations such as the pandemic. “You need to have a strategy, many contingency plans, and be able to adapt to changing conditions,” he says.

As the busy summer season approaches, Spencer and his family (mom Linda, wife Erica, and teen sons Evan and Spencer) look forward to welcoming new and returning guests to Bowers Harbor Vineyards and sharing their wines and hard ciders with them. “We do two things very well at Bowers Harbor Vineyards—wine and hospitality. We offer the best experience—a family-friendly, dog-friendly, beautiful property with knowledgeable staff and great wine!”

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Published May 2021