February 26, 2024

Finding Lost Cellars Winery

A journey through family legends and Charlevoix vines
By Hanna Lee-Kleb | Feb. 3, 2024

In the heart of Charlevoix, Lost Cellars Winery stands as a testament to family history and the pursuit of a winemaking dream.

Since its inception in 2007, the 13-acre property has undergone near constant evolution. Initially started as a hobby project, the winery transformed under the ownership of Jay and Lora Higdon from a modest production of 150 cases sold at local farmers markets to a winery that now boasts an output of nearly 1,000 cases. The transition has also involved rebranding the vineyards under the Lost Cellars name and introducing new product lines such as Creepy Tree Ciders and Rebar Distilled Spirits.

From Sicily to Charlevoix

That name, Lost Cellars, comes from Jay unraveling the family lore surrounding his great-great-grandfather. At a celebration of life for Jay’s grandmother in 2015, he was at the family plot in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and stumbled upon a gravestone with two unfamiliar names: Nunzio and Mariana.

Curiosity led him to a conversation with elder family members and Jay discovered that his ancestor, who hailed from Palermo, Sicily, had emigrated to northern California in 1903 in pursuit of a winemaking dream.

Nunzio purchased 10 acres of land for a mere $12, promising to farm it for three consecutive years. True to his word, he planted a vineyard, a garden, and crops, and he even dug a wine cellar. When he briefly returned to Sicily for a year to marry his love, Mariana, he entrusted the farm to a close friend, only to find upon his return that his land had been confiscated by the state because he’d left the country. Nunzio had even lost his wine cellar.

“I remember turning to Lora and saying, ‘Lost Cellars would be a great name for a winery,’” Jay recalls.

The Higdons, both holders of doctorates in education and MBAs in business, embarked on their winemaking venture as welcome a lifestyle change.

“We have a business background, but we are lifelong wine enthusiasts and are approaching our winemaking to reflect our expectation of a good quality wine,” Jay says. From owning a global real estate company to a decade-long career in corporate America, their diverse experiences prepared them for the challenges of trying something new.

Grapes—and Community—Come First

Of course, no new beginning comes without its challenges. Balancing production with demand and raising awareness as a relatively unknown winery were just a few of the initial hurdles. However, Jay says the support from the Charlevoix community and neighboring wineries has fueled their success.

In fact, Jay believes connecting with visitors and the local community is paramount for Lost Cellars. Involvement in farmers markets, supporting local charities, hosting chamber events, and collaborating with local restaurants for wine dinners are just a few ways they have integrated into the fabric of Charlevoix. Jay and Lora say they admire the collaborative spirit among winemakers in the region and recently joined the Petoskey Wine Region trail.

“No one wants to go to just one winery,” Jay says. “It’s more attractive to be part of a community that’s developing and growing right around us.”

The tasting room at the winery emanates a welcoming and relaxed vibe. The space is transitioning from a rustic to a more modern feel, and visitors are encouraged to unwind and stay awhile. When you visit, you’ll find a curated selection of wines—at the time of this writing, Lost Cellars had nine available for sale. There’s something to please every palette, from classic Chardonnay to a French-inspired Malbec.

“We try to educate our customers on our philosophy of wine and spirit production so they can understand the uniqueness of our products,” Jay explains. He adds that among their popular wines, the dry Riesling and a surprising Marquette single varietal stand out.

Jay defines Lost Cellars’ wine-making ethos as a commitment to producing unique small-batch, high-quality wines. Their approach involves minimal processing, allowing the character of the fruit to shine through. The estate vineyard, spanning just under three acres, cultivates four varietals: Riesling and Cayuga (both white grapes), as well as reds Marechal Foch and Petite Pearl. They are all resistant to the challenging northern Michigan climate.

“We also source from local vineyards La Crescent, Marquette, Cab Franc, Cab Sav, Merlot, and Leon Millot, mostly hand picked by our Lost Cellars team of volunteers. We chose only the best grapes for our wine,” Lora explains.

For your bubbly friends, there’s also a sparkling rosé and a 2022 Gruner Veltliner Sparkling, which uses the Charmat or tank method where bubbles are achieved in large stainless steel tanks during the second fermentation. (That’s how prosecco is made; Champagne, in contrast, does its second fermenting in the bottle.)

Ciders, Spirits, Snacks…and a Chalet

So why just stop at wine? Cider was an obvious next step, bringing to life the Creepy Tree brand with a Cherry Apple Cider. But it’s the spirits that really take center stage, and as one of the few craft distilleries paired with a winery in the region, Lost Cellars has become a unique destination.

The line of Rebar Spirits derives most of its products from grape wine fermented and distilled on-site. They offer four different vodkas, gin, limoncello, orangecello, rum, and brandy. In the works are grappa, whiskey, and new flavored and aged versions of their go-to spirits.

And let’s not forget the food. The tasting room offers a range of artisan pizzas, charcuterie, fondues, nut mixes, and pairings to complement the wine selection.

“I am an artist at heart, and being able to come up with different blends of wine, spirits and experimenting with recipes has been a creative outlet for me,” Lora says. The couple identify as gourmet cooks and foodies, and the pizza on-site is handmade from fresh ingredients.

And if all that weren’t enough, the estate also includes a vacation rental called Chalet in the Vines, offering visitors a memorable vineyard getaway. Lost Cellars even serves as a Harvest Host site for short RV stays, a program that allows “self-contained travelers to overnight at unique locations around the country including farms, wineries, museums, breweries, and more,” according to the Harvest Host website.

Growing Toward the Future

If you haven’t already guessed, these folks don’t slow down, not even for the slow season. Coming up on the calendar, Lost Cellars has planned a Big Band, Jazz, and Swing Night on Feb. 23. Guests are encouraged to dress the part and savor special offerings like filet mignon and brie appetizers paired with Cuvee Rosé, which is sabered tableside. The event promises an immersive experience reminiscent of eras gone by.

This spring, Lost Cellars will be partnering with J. Bird Provisions in downtown Charlevoix and operating an additional tasting room at the shop, which is located right next to the Beaver Island Boat Company. Wine and spirits will be available for tasting and for purchase alongside the gourmet grab-and-go market offerings and merchandise curated by J. Bird Provisions owner, Jessica Nagel.

As the Higdons envision the future, they say their aim is for Lost Cellars to become a can’t-miss destination for wine lovers. Renovations, expansions, and significant growth are on the horizon, with plans for more private events and improved visitor experiences.

“We’re not ready to retire—our intention is to build this into a premier winery in the region, and we’re in it for the long haul,” Jay says.

Find Lost Cellars Winery at 04434 US Hwy 31 South in Charlevoix. (231) 499-4755; lostvino.com 

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