The Traverse City native of ‘Trading Spaces’ fame has found a passion for producing wine on Old Mission Peninsula.
By Stephanie Steinberg
Photography by Scott Everett White
Traverse City — As Carter Oosterhouse drove through Malibu Canyon — on his way to pick up lumber from Home Depot — you could hear the joy in the HGTV star’s voice as he chatted about his winery nestled on Michigan’s Old Mission Peninsula.
“It’s definitely been a huge love of mine,” he says, the cellphone connection breaking at times.
The 41-year-old who rose to fame as the attractive carpenter on TLC’s “Trading Spaces,” which returned in April after a 10-year-hiatus, grew up in Traverse City, where he worked on a cherry farm as a kid.
Though he left the cherry orchards for the ocean, and a TV career that led him to host HGTV’s “Carter Can” and “Million Dollar Rooms,” he yearned to start a business back home. The eco-living advocate wanted to get involved in agriculture. But cherries weren’t “sexy” to him, he says.
“Probably because growing up,” he surmises, “… it was just such a labor and intense profession.”
Yet in the last 40-45 years, many of Traverse City’s cherry farms switched to vineyards. Oosterhouse noticed more people, especially younger generations, spending time in Napa Valley and Northern Michigan wineries.
“I thought, ‘I know I want to get into (agriculture). I do love wine. I’m very interested in it.’ But I knew nothing about it,” he says. “So for me it was a little daunting and scary, but I started doing a little bit of research and meeting with some other wineries and seeing if it was a real viable option to really bust into the wine industry. I wanted to take a big swing too.”
He called his brother Todd Oosterhouse, a general contractor who lived in Austin, Texas, and pitched his “crazy idea” to open a winery with a tasting room back home.
The timing was ripe. The owner of the cherry orchard Carter toiled on as a kid was looking to sell his property. With no children, the man wanted to sell it to Carter. “That was really lucky,” Carter admits.
Todd was in. He left Austin and moved his two young girls and wife to a house a few miles from the 50-acre vineyard overlooking Grand Traverse Bay.
A Social Place to Drink
The Oosterhouses planted their first grapes in 2010 and officially opened Bonobo Winery in 2014.
“It’s pronounced bo-no-bo, like the ape,” Carter says. “You know, naming a winery can be extremely difficult.” From the planting to first vintage four years later, he adds, “we were trying to name it, and we could not come up with anything!”
Leafing through a National Geographic magazine one day, Carter stumbled on an article about bonobos. “I never knew a thing about them, and I realized that they’re a really social species,” he says. “I wanted to create a space where people would come in, and they would hang out and relax and interact with other people. It just so happens that the bonobo is so similar to that — they’re very friendly with one another.”
The name stuck.
A traditional winery is about 1,600 feet, Carter says. “People come in, they do a tasting and then they leave. We wanted to be more of an inviting sit-down — grab a glass, hang out a little while, maybe grab some food.”
So the Oosterhouses, both Central Michigan University graduates, designed a 6,000-square-foot tasting room they claim is the largest of roughly 10 wineries on Old Mission.
Carter put his carpentry skills to work. He built the 30-by-16-foot bar, fireplace and garage door that opens to create an indoor-outdoor space, and he made the kitchen doors mobile so wine tasters can see the chef cook crabcakes, braised pork belly or fried goat cheese.
He also found the old barn doors. “I collected a lot of lumber from two or three old barns that had tipped over, so I was able to salvage a lot of the lumber,” he says.
Carter and his wife, actress Amy Smart, return every June to work on the vineyard and implement organic practices. Last summer, Smart planted an organic garden that supplies the kitchen with produce. “We’re not using heavy herbicides or pesticides on the grapes,” Carter says, “and (Amy) has been really good on continuing that mantra.”
Todd oversees everything year-round. Standing on the expansive deck washed in sunshine, he points past the cherry trees and red barn in the distance, where 20 acres of red grapes grow in a valley. “The heat gets trapped down there,” he says, explaining the conditions that cultivate growth. “It gets baked by the late afternoon/evening sun.”
Their six grape varieties make 12-14 different wines. Bonobo produces about 5,000 cases a year, with bottles priced in the mid $20 range.
“In the wine world, it’s more of a boutique winery,” Todd says.
As far as working with his brother, they talk nearly every day. Of course, they have their disagreements. “He’s my younger brother by nine years,” Todd points out.
“With him being on TV and all that stuff, the joke is who looks older. And I always say because he’s lived a harder life, that he looks older than I do. He doesn’t like that very much because he’s the TV personality,” Todd laughs.
One thing they agree on: Bonobo has gained fame thanks to their Australian winemaker Dominic Bosch.
“He’s such an asset to the region, to Michigan and to us,” Carter says, explaining their cabernet franc won bronze at the London Wine Challenge International Competition. Their 2017 sauvignon blanc earned platinum, or 94 points, at an international wine competition in San Diego.
“He’s now just running gangbusters with the grapes that we have and turning it into incredibly delicious wine,” Carter says.
Taking a break from labeling bottles, Bosch says he came to the Midwest two years ago. A seasoned winemaker in Australia, he left in search of an emerging wine market.
“I tasted a lot of wine around here in both peninsulas, and I realized the potential to make world-class wine, like chardonnay, pinot gris, pinot blanc, sauvignon blanc, was ripe here,” Bosch says. He credits the soil, climate and lakes. “We are the same latitude as Bordeaux (in France). However, weather-wise, we are very close to Burgundy, and our growing season here is a tad longer. So we can get richer characters.”
While sweeter wines like riesling are stalwarts in Northern Michigan, he says wineries, including Bonobo, are experimenting with sauvignon blanc, pinot blanc and chardonnay.
“Those varieties are really going to put us on the world map,” he says.
The Sweet Taste of Success
In 1993, Chateau Chantal was the second winery to open on Old Mission Peninsula. There were few nearby tasting rooms until the last five years, when President and CEO Marie-Chantal Dalese says the peninsula and entire state has seen “great growth” in wineries.
“It only enhances our state’s reputation as a quality wine-producing region,” Dalese says. Yet much of America is unaware Michigan makes wine.
“Sometimes we face some prejudice because of that,” she says, noting comments like “‘You’re not California. What are you doing making wine?’ Well, we have a very unique growing climate here and can produce world-class wines from that climate. … As more and more wineries open, that shows the nation that we’re serious about wine.”
Steffen Mammen, tasting room server at Brys Estate about 2 miles from Bonobo, says there’s a strong “sense of community” among the wineries. Bonobo is one of the newcomers, and “we’re excited to have them,” he says. “They have some celebrity status out there too, so they bring in more tourism.”
It’s true. On summer evenings, it’s not uncommon to find Carter in the tasting room. Yet he’s not the only attraction. Bonobo is open the latest until 9 p.m., so when other tasting rooms close at 6, wine tasters flock to them. Bonobo also offers heavy apps — rare to find in nearby tasting rooms — and live music.
Watching people enjoy what they’ve created is Todd’s favorite part: “You see the joy that people feel because they’re experiencing something,” he says.
Asked which is his favorite wine, Carter says it depends on the season. “The pinot gris and pinot blanc are definitely fantastic spring and summertime wines, and then there’s the rosé we started making,” he says. “In that hot, hot summer when you’re on a boat, it’s the perfect wine to have. But then I always go back the chardonnay select, which is probably my favorite. It’s in a stainless steel tank for about 6 months, so it’s not super buttery or oaky.”
While he’s excited to be back on “Trading Spaces” — “I feel like we picked up right where we left off and … (the cast) was rolling just as we did 10 years ago,” he says — he’s just as excited to take a break from LA and return to Bonobo this summer. And, of course, he’ll be drinking the fruits of his labor.
“At the end of the day when you sit there and you have a bottle of wine or a glass,” he says, “it makes it all worthwhile.”
12011 Center Road, Traverse City