Mark Schrock never planned on owning a restaurant. He already had his hands full working as a general contractor and owning a few rental properties. Not to mention, he’s also a lifelong musician. But when the opportunity came to open a restaurant in Fennville, he couldn’t pass it up.
“We didn’t set out to open a restaurant, that’s not really the deal,” Schrock said. “We just set out to create something cool in our little town — and keep something cool in our little town — because it’s home. Fennville is home.”
In 2009, Salt of the Earth opened in Fennville’s charming downtown. The farm-to-table restaurant specializes in New American cuisine and bakes artisan breads using all locally sourced ingredients and products. The rustic-chic venue is also known for its live music scene — during the winter months, it’s a second home to many emerging Midwestern artists.
Given Salt of the Earth’s location, serving farm-to-table fare came naturally. Fennville is located in the heart of Southwest Michigan’s agricultural region and is situated in the state’s famous “Fruit Belt.”
Salt of the Earth is very intentional with its craft beverage program; it has a strong focus on local craft beer as well as wine from the many wineries nearby, including Fenn Valley Vineyards, Wyncroft, Modales and Crane’s.
Fennville’s small-but-mighty community is made up of dedicated farmers, cheesemakers, restauranteurs, winemakers and brewers who partner together to showcase the bounty of Fennville’s agriculture.
“It’s a small community and there’s nothing better than serving your friends’ products in your restaurant,” Schrock said. “I would say we all inspire each other to do good work and do better work. The people out here work really hard to put out good products and provide good hospitality. I’m really proud to be in this area — it’s been really rewarding to see this community thrive
and be vibrant.”
Working as a team
That strong sense of community can be felt just a mile down the road at Crane’s Pie Pantry Restaurant & Winery. Family-owned and -operated since 1972, Crane’s is a treasured Fennville institution, famous for its from-scratch pies made from family recipes that have been passed down through generations. It also uses local food sources and fresh fruit right off its farm and produces small-batch wine and hard cider.
Rob Hagger, Crane’s general manager, is the grandson of Bob and Lue Crane, the original founders.
“My goal is to just make my grandma and grandpa proud,” he said.
Hagger, previously an educator, returned to the family farm and started producing wine at Crane’s in 2014.
“There’s a lot of inspiration just from the farming in the area,” he said. “We work with so many farming families that create amazing fruit.
“It all just falls into supporting Michigan agriculture, supporting Fennville and really promoting our area. It’s a great place to be and it’s good timing to be here, because it’s really taken off.”
Newer to the wine business, Hagger has received guidance from veteran wineries in the area, like Fenn Valley Vineyards and Wyncroft in nearby Pullman. Fenn Valley opened in 1973 and supplies grapes to Crane’s, as well as filter pads, canning operations, bottles and caps when needed.
Crane’s massive cold storage and freezer for its baked goods also comes in handy for Fenn Valley and other wineries in the area, like Michigan Wine Company.
“We’ve worked with Michigan Wine Company and we’ve collaborated and gotten cabernet (grapes) together, but we made two different wines,” Hagger said. “Everybody just works in conjunction. And the bigger wineries, like Fenn Valley, help us smaller ones out a lot.”
Raise a glass
Winemakers have discovered the magic of Fennville’s viticulture and have been flocking to the area for decades, producing award-winning and nationally recognized wines.
Fennville, home to Michigan’s first American Viticultural Area (AVA), was only the third in the nation when it was established in 1981. It stretches from south of the Kalamazoo River in Saugatuck to just north of the Black River in South Haven, with Lake Michigan bordering on the west.
An AVA is a federally designated area where the wines produced present similar characteristics that differ from other winegrowing regions. Climate and soil types are just a couple factors that play a role in the wines that are made in each region.
Fennville’s unique glacial, sandy soil and cool climate make it an outstanding region for viticulture, where bright white wines like riesling, chardonnay and pinot gris flourish.
“We grow just about everything here,” said Brian Lesperance, vice president of Fenn Valley Vineyards. “We do really well with chardonnay, we get a lot of the really crisp, green apple characteristics of chardonnay. Amazingly enough, we can probably grow some of the best merlot you’re going to find in the world here, which is something a lot of people don’t necessarily realize.”
With its close proximity to Lake Michigan, Fennville wine has some intense flavor development, Lesperance said.
“Our wine grapes develop their flavors, which then leads to their aromatics, earlier in the ripening process,” he said. “A lot of that has to do with the fact that we get cooler nights because of the lake and then warmer days, so we get that fluctuation of temperature on a daily cycle, which really helps accelerate the ripening phase of the fruit.”
A perfect pairing
Nothing pairs with a great wine better than a great cheese.
On a hot summer day in 2000, a goat ran into Cathy and Tom Halinski’s home. The rest is history. The Halinskis opened Evergreen Lane Farm & Creamery in 2008, located just a few miles southwest of Fenn Valley. Evergreen produces artisan goat and cow’s milk cheeses using fun ingredients like The Poet, a stout made by New Holland Brewing Company, and hard cider from nearby Virtue Cider.
“We try to incorporate interesting features from the area,” Cathy Halinski said.
When you stop by Evergreen, you can browse a variety of cheeses, grab everything you need for a picnic, and visit the goats and pigs, and Dash, the horse. The chevre, a soft goat cheese, is one of Evergreen’s best-sellers, as well as the goat’s milk cheese curds.
Aside from the farm, you can sample and purchase Evergreen’s products at a handful of local restaurants, wineries, cideries and gourmet shops.
At Modales, you can elevate your wine tasting with a sample cheese tray from Evergreen, and you can even try baguettes from Salt of the Earth and homemade jam from Crane’s. And Virtue Cider makes a killer grilled cheese with three of Evergreen’s cheeses.
With more brewers, winemakers and cidermakers moving into Fennville over the last few years, it’s become a hot spot for agritourism, Halinski said.
“More and more artisans have started moving into the area, and now Fennville has really become a destination for a lot of vacationers,” she said.
At Modales, everything comes down to one, simple word: manners.
“In Spanish, the meaning of ‘Modales’ is ‘manners’ — it’s how we treat our employees, our customers and the community, and how we’re a part of the community and how we give back,” said Jim Gonzalez, owner. “We all work together.”
In 2016, Gonzalez and his wife Carol purchased the vineyard and partnered with viticulturist Todd Robbins and winemaker Andrew Backlin to meticulously craft their wines from start to finish. The winery opened its permanent tasting room last spring, which overlooks its picturesque 76-acre farm.
“This manifested out of an idea, a seed,” said Robbins, who is also Modales’ general manager. “And to see the physical manifestation that has taken place — it’s really rewarding to work on something really hard for that long.”
The signature Modales brand offers estate-grown red and white wines, and experiments with different varieties using minimal intervention to let the fruit speak for itself. Modales’ sister brand, Ooba, is a play on the Spanish word for grape, “uva,” and is more on the playful, spunky side. It includes fruity wines and bubbly ciders, allowing the winery to embrace creativity and think outside of the box.
“Here, it feels like the sky’s the limit,” Backlin said. “You can take more risks and there’s weird techniques that may or may not always be commercially viable, but because we have smaller lots, we can try it out and see if it works.
“What’s fun about the wine we get to make is the adventure — it’s always something new.”
When the Gonzalezes purchased the property, there were three migrant cottages located next to the tasting room, which previously housed seasonal workers and their families, dating to the ‘40s. When the cottages were taken down, the building materials were saved to preserve the history and can now be seen in the tasting room today.
“Juanita Lamastus is one of the people who picked fruit on this farm,” Robbins said. “We’re paying homage to all of the history of this place, not just trying to gloss over it.
“And Juanita is how we came up with the name of one of our most popular wines — the Lamastus.”
Michigan Wine Company, which opened last summer, is the latest winery to call Fennville home.
“We were already a little familiar with what was going on here in Fennville, and we thought it would be a good location to be a part of,” said Joe Krajkiewcz, who owns the winery with his wife, Erica. “It felt like home.”
Krajkiewcz has a background in engineering and sculpture, and Erica is an avid runner and physical education teacher. Together, the two blend their passions for art and adventure into their wines.
“We’re trying to do things in an artistic fashion and I think that resonates with the coastal community we’re in,” Krajkiewcz said. “For us, everything is small-batch. Sometimes I have to reel myself in, the artist in me wants to keep trying different things and experimenting.”
Krajkiewcz experimented with hops last year. Putting hops into wine had never been done in Michigan before, and that’s exactly why Krajkiewcz wanted to do it (and because IPAs are Erica’s favorite type of beer). The Dry Hopped white wine — one of the winery’s most popular — is made with Seyval blanc grapes and Citra hops, making it a refreshing choice with citrus aromas.
Another factor that sets the winery apart is its unique labels. Each wine has an “adventure” pairing listed — like “disc golf,” “back country camping” and “Christmas parades.”
“If this whole experience has taught me anything, it’s that if you’re passionate about it, it’s going to show,” Krajkiewcz said.
For your Fennville tasting tour map, visit pikelife.com/fennville-map.
Featured image: Rosalio Espino, farmhand at Modales
Credit: Courtesy of Modales