Column: Arbor Vinous

Bill MacDonald makes good wine – too bad you can’t buy it
Joel Goldberg

Joel Goldberg

Ann Arborite Bill MacDonald makes some of the best Michigan wines you’ve never tasted.

There’s a good reason his “MacDonald Vineyard” label never appears on retail shelves or restaurant wine lists. As an amateur winemaker, he can’t peddle his wares commercially.

But you might envy those fortunates on his holiday gift list. For three straight years, from 2006 through 2008, the Michigan State Fair’s wine judges awarded him the large blue ribbon that denotes the state’s top amateur wine.

The number of years he entered? Three, 2006 through 2008.

Retiring undefeated this year, he stepped up several weight classes to enter the Indy International Wine Competition, which draws hotshot amateurs from around the country. His 2008 Pinot Gris – made from grapes grown in the small Old Mission Peninsula vineyard he and his wife bought in 2003 – took home a Double Gold medal.

Unfortunately, while MacDonald’s vinous talents were impressing judges, his day job was teetering. Last year, after 26 years as a real estate appraiser, he found himself downsized as collateral damage from a bank merger.

Never missing a beat, he quickly leveraged those blue ribbons into a first wine industry job, as winemaker for Spartan Cellars, the non-commercial winery where grapes from MSU’s experimental vineyards go to ferment.

We sat down at Vinology over a glass of Riesling to talk about growing grapes and making wine, and began with a quick spin in the Wayback Machine.

Joel Goldberg: Tell me about the first wine you ever made.

Bill MacDonald: I was 16 or 17, and had just learned about fermentation in science class. So I made a wine out of Welch’s grape juice and a little packet of Red Star Yeast. When the bubbling stopped, I just capped it. I think I used an old vodka bottle.

JG: How’d it turn out?

BM: Awful. It was sweet and mildly alcoholic.

JG: It’s a long way from that to becoming a vineyard owner and winemaker…

Bill MacDonald

Bill MacDonald checks on the ripeness of grapes for the 2009 vintage.

BM: My sister and her boyfriend have a place in the Russian River [Sonoma County, California] where they grow grapes. The first time I crushed grapes with them, I said, “I want to do this.”

In 2003, my son was going to Northwestern Michigan College, in Traverse City. When we went to see him, we visited Peninsula Cellars, on Old Mission. Right next door to their old schoolhouse was a seven-acre parcel of land for sale.

We bought the property. It already had about 1,000 grapevines on one acre – 50% Pinot Gris, 50% Lemberger – that were planted in 2000.

Now, I knew nothing about grapes. Fortunately, we had a vineyard manager and I knew they’d be properly cared for. So I said, “OK, I’ve got a vineyard. I’d better learn how to make wine.”

JG: How did you start?

BM: The first year, 2003, the weather was a disaster; there was no crop. But we went to the Finger Lakes and bought 10 gallons of Seyval Blanc juice.

The next year, I went to a wine supply place in Dundee and bought some five-gallon pails of juice, some red and some Pinot Gris.

JG: You didn’t make wine from your own grapes?

BM: No, we sold them to Peninsula Cellars. I didn’t have the equipment to use fresh fruit. The next year I bought the crusher/destemmer, press and other equipment.

JG: Where do you make your wine?

BM: Right here in Ann Arbor, in my garage.

JG: So you’re a real garagiste?

BM: Exactly!

JG: Do you age any wine in barrels?

BM: I used a 15-gallon barrel last year for a Lemberger/Cabernet Franc blend.

JG: You’ve also made wine from Pinot Meunier. [A red grape grown in Champagne, closely related to Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris.]

BM: In 2007, our vineyard manager, Jim Thompson, said, “If you want free grapes, a vineyard up the road has some Pinot Meunier – help yourself, pick all you want.”

I said, “Free grapes? Sure!” It was mid-November when we picked it – myself, my wife and my daughter. We drove up, picked, and came back to Ann Arbor in one day. The grapes were around 25 or 26 brix. [A measurement of sugar content; at 25 or 26, they were extremely ripe.]

At first I didn’t like the wine, so I put the carboys in a corner of the basement and forgot about it. I tried it again in February and said, “Wow! This is like another wine! So I bottled it.”

JG: Every winemaker has a horror story, when something went terribly wrong. What’s yours?

BM: My first year, when I bought those 10 gallons of Seyval Blanc. I had two five-gallon glass carboys. I’d heard somewhere, “Oh, you should raise them a little bit off the floor.”

So I put them on paint cans – and one of the cans slipped. Crash! Five gallons of wine, 50% of my total, all over the basement floor. I think my swear words are still echoing around the house.

After that, I put the carboys on the ground and didn’t worry about extra aeration.

Bill MacDonald's current wine lineup.

JG: What wines are you currently making?

BM: Of course Pinot Gris and Lemberger, and a Lemberger rosé. I always make rosé – love rosés! This year, I’m hoping to find some fairly ripe Pinot Noir, maybe do a Pinot Noir rosé.

JG: How much wine do you make?

BM: About 300 bottles a year, total.

JG: Did you ever have any formal winemaking lessons?

BM: No. I subscribed to Winemaker magazine, read some books. And talking to the northern winemakers has really helped. Recently, Lee Lutes [winemaker at Black Star Farms] has been really helpful.

JG: Tell me about all those medals.

BM: My first competition was sponsored by Winemaker magazine. I sent in my 2005 Pinot Gris and got a gold medal! So I was encouraged.

Then I heard about the State Fair, so I sent in my Pinot Gris and Lemberger. They were the only two wines I made, and I got two blue ribbons. They select Best of Show from the blue ribbons, and I got that for the Pinot Gris.

After three years, I got all blue ribbons and Best of Show each year. So I thought I’d better retire.

Label from a bottle of MacDonald pinot gris.

Label from a bottle of MacDonald 2008 Pinot Gris. The wine took home a Double Gold medal at this year's Indy International Wine Competition.

JG: Was it Pinot Gris that won each year?

BM: Pinot Gris the first year, then Chardonnay. Last year was Cab Franc, some grapes I bought from Leelanau County.

JG: After this year, the Michigan State Fair won’t be there any more.

BM: That’s pretty sad; it’s the oldest state fair in the country. I keep hoping we’ll get bailed out, but who knows?

JG: Which wine won your double gold at Indy this year?

BM: It was my 2008 Pinot Gris. This year I gave it a little residual sugar, but it had acid that offset it. Kind of like a Riesling, where you’ve got a little bit of sugar, but high acidity, too. That gives it a good balance.

JG: Earlier this year, we ran into each other at a seminar for people thinking about starting a winery. Where are you on that?

BM: That was a great seminar for me. Everybody thinks, “Oh, I’d like to be a winemaker and have my own place.” But for me, it made me think, “I don’t want to own a winery.”

JG: Really?

BM: At this stage of the game, I’ve been working for 30 years. I’m afraid that if I owned one, it wouldn’t be fun any more.

JG: If you’re not going to start your own winery, do you see yourself in a second career as a winemaker somewhere?

BM: That’s really my goal, to make wine up north.

JG: Do you plan to plant more of your vineyard?

BM: I’d like to. We have some area up above, we can increase our Pinot Gris if we want.

We have some low areas, too, where we’d like to build a house. So we’re figuring, “If the house is here, where can we put additional vines?” We can maybe plant another acre if we work it right.

JG: The rest is too low to plant?

BM: Right. The cold air just goes right through there, through part of the Lemberger and a little of the Pinot Gris. Just in that first row, you can see where the cold air flows.

JG: At what point do you take over running your own vineyard?

BM: When we move up there. We love Ann Arbor and we love Traverse City, which has all the restaurants, the film festival, and so on. I don’t know that we could leave either one of them.

We’re talking about having some kind of structure, maybe a pole house or a barn with a finished second floor. Right now, I’ll just go up there and throw a tent up. But the last couple of times I did that, I’d be asleep and they decided to come through with the tractors and do spraying at two or three in the morning. That’s the best time for them, because the air is still.

JG: A lot of the things you enjoy up there are also things that people like about Ann Arbor.

BM: Absolutely. They’re the two best cities in the state, as far as I’m concerned.

JG: Do you still sell your grapes to Peninsula Cellars?

BM: No, this year it’s Bryan Ulbrich at Left Foot Charley. I can learn a lot working with him; he’s a great winemaker.

JG: This has been an extremely cool summer up there. What are you doing differently in the vineyard this year to help ripen your grapes?

BM: A lot of it is canopy management. We’ve really pulled off a lot of leaves to open up the fruit zone to the sun. I was up there a few weekends back and dropped a lot of the green fruit. I know it’s not going to ripen, so we can let the energy go into the rest of it.

Bryan was thinking about making a Cab Franc/Lemberger rosé, so maybe if we don’t get the ripeness for red wine he can use it for the rosé.

JG: Do you think you can actually get good fruit this year?

BM: I’m always an optimist, but this year will be a challenge.

I’m basically a minimalist in my winemaking. Ideally, you get the grapes right from the vineyard and they’re perfect. But there are always things you can do in the cellar – add sugar, reduce acid a little bit. I don’t like to do anything, but I’m not afraid to.

JG: Old Mission wineries have done well in some recent wine competitions, like the Michigan Cabernet Franc Challenge. Is there something special about the climate or soil conditions there?

BM: I think it’s a combination of location and maybe the winemakers are doing things a little differently. Riesling does really well there, while I haven’t had any really great southwestern Rieslings.

JG: How did you land your job making wine for MSU?

BM: I talked to [MSU viticulture professor] Paolo Sabatini and he said, “Yes, I need a winemaker for the variety trials.” I’ve also been working in the vineyards, mostly southwest but a little bit in the northwest.

JG: Even though you’re not an academically trained winemaker?

BM: Yes, but a lot of it is experimental wine. It’s not necessarily the wines I would make.

For example, we grew Riesling and Cabernet Franc at three different crop levels, so they could test the difference. You make all the wines the same way. There’s no adjustment.

JG: Because they want a totally controlled experiment.

BM: Exactly. And that’s a problem for me. Will they let me make the best wine I can? No, because that’s the protocol.

JG: Is the vineyard work part of the job description, or just something you’re interested in?

BM: A good winemaker has to know what’s going on in the vineyard. It sounds clichéd, but everything really does start there.

JG: Have you been a wine drinker your whole life?

BM: I really have. Even in my twenties, I had an old book where I collected labels and made comments about them. And the same wines I was drinking then I’m drinking now.

JG: What wines do you drink at home?

BM: I used to drink mostly whites; now I’m shifting toward reds. And rosés during the summer.

I like Sauvignon Blanc, such as those from New Zealand; it has the same crisp acidity as Michigan wine. I like to experiment a lot. Any new varietal I see, I’ll say, “Ooh, let’s try it!”

JG: If an aspiring amateur winemaker wanted to get started, what would you recommend?

BM: You can start off making “kit” wines. They’re like a recipe, but you can get the basic chemistry and learn about racking. I’ve had some kit wines that are pretty darn good.

But I wanted to jump right into juice. There are a few good basic home winemaking books you can read through. I read everything I can lay my hands on, over and over again. There’s a lot of chemistry to learn.

Bryan Ulbrich says that a lot of what I do is intuition, sort of “I think I should do it this way.” So far, that’s worked out.

JG: Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good?

BM: In my case, I think luck has a lot to do with it.


At a time when many local charities and nonprofits are feeling the pain of Michigan’s economy, it’s difficult to single out any for special attention.

But a wine writer would be remiss not to mention that area chapters of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation build their fall fundraising around a series of “Wine Opener” events in several Michigan cities.

The Foundation’s Ann Arbor’s Wine Opener happens on Friday evening, Oct. 9, at the Lake Forest Golf Club. Details and ticket information are available from the Foundation website.

About the author: Joel Goldberg, an Ann Arbor area resident, edits the MichWine website and tweets @MichWine. His Arbor Vinous column for The Chronicle is published on the first Saturday of the month.


  1. By Bill Hendricks
    October 3, 2009 at 12:48 pm | permalink

    A very nice article, I meet Bill A week or so ago.
    He is impressive in many ways. I did taste his Pinot Gris and it desivered the metal he got. It would be hard to imagine Bill not taking this further or at least running a Winery. I am sure he will be successful in what ever path he takes.
    Bill Hendricks

  2. October 4, 2009 at 7:00 am | permalink

    Great story. I never cease to marvel at the cooperative nature of the wine industry. Passionate people helping each other succeed is just too cool.

  3. October 5, 2009 at 7:40 am | permalink

    I met Bill when I was one of the judges at the State Fair Amateur Wine Judging. His wines were definitely of professional quality And a most pleasant fellow to boot.

  4. By Marguerite Patterson
    October 6, 2009 at 3:15 pm | permalink

    Great interview, Joel! How marvelous to have all that fun and then end up with fabulous results in one’s wine cellar! I would love to meet this very talented, fascinating fellow.