Passionate Winemaking with Tony Ciccone
Michigan winemakers are tough guys by nature, that’s understood. In California, even the most weather-challenged producers cringe at the conditions that can affect Michigan’s prime wine country, the Leelanau Peninsula—the savage winters, iffy summers and year-round agricultural nail-biting.
The breed of winemaker that chooses these northern shores to plant delicate varietals like pinot noir and gewürztraminer are genuine pioneers.
But how do you become a pioneer among pioneers? Ask Tony Ciccone.
When it comes to planting Italian wine grapes like Dolcetto and Sangiovese, the owner and self-avowed ‘mad scientist’ of Ciccone Vineyards, a fertile forty-acre plot overlooking the heartstoppingly beautiful Grand Traverse Bay, was told: ‘It can’t be done’. Here’s a hint: Never say that to a headstrong Italian. Ciccone, a retired physicist with an illustrious downstate career and a passion for home winemaking, moved with his wife Joan to Leelanau a decade ago and promptly proved the naysayers wrong. His Dolcetto, which he hand-planted along with a host of other wine grapes, has been steadily improving in the years since, commanding countless awards of excellence along the way, including prestigious medals at both the 2002 Great Lakes Wine Judging at Oakland Community College (for his 2000 vintage) and the extremely tough Michigan Wine & Spirits competition for his silky, plum and raspberry rich 2005 vintage.
Such success is due to a number of factors, of course: good weather, wise harvesting and a couple of heartfelt petitions to the Head Winemaker in the sky, but not in the least because of the twin dedication of Tony and his right hand woman, wife Joan. Says Joan, “I tell people all the time, if you go into this line of work to make a ton of money, it probably isn’t going to happen. You have to have a ‘back-to-the-earth sort of appreciation for the amount of work it takes to produce a glass of wine, otherwise, forget it. You do it to share, to re-connect to the natural world.”
“Correct,” agrees the ultra-practical Tony. “You want to know how to make a million in this business? Start with ten million.”
They understand, of course, that the few Michigan wineries that finish up profitable even in bumper crop years are producing wine on a scale that far exceeds his annual twenty-five hundred cases. But the sort of hands-on operation of which he and Joan are rightly enamored can maintain itself through various non-winemaking means. The spectacular grounds, for example, host wedding parties nearly every weekend and Tony holds regular tours in which wine-tasting, vineyard walks and a humor-ladened ‘Wine 101’ course is offered by the spry Tony, who at seventy-five can hold his own, energy-wise, to folks half his age. And Joan? Whose job is it to mow the endless grass strips that bisect forty acres worth of vineyards? And prune and nurture and feed the dozens of workers involved in the painstaking hand-picking that the all estate bottled winery requires? Don’t even ask.
Now, there may have been a time when you hesitated to use the ‘M’ word at Ciccone Vineyards, unwilling to confuse the two rather disparate careers of Tony, Joan and their eldest daughter. As Tony puts it, “I respect what she does and she respects what I do.”
The ‘M’, of course, is Madonna. Yeah, that Madonna. Although equal space is given in family scrapbooks to the other seven Cicconce kids, Ciccone Vineyards is set to release a special, one-time series of wines bearing Madonna’s picture and the twin signatures of her and her father, commemorating in part her recent, wildly successful world tour, but more, a chain of pride—for ethnic heritage, family love and the quintessential life lesson passed on to her by Tony and proven out indisputably by both: “Nothing in worthwhile in life comes without cost, and there is nothing that has more value that working hard to achieve goals.”
Though their two career paths moved in strikingly different directions, the results are the same: Unlikely success along trails that many blaze, but few master.