Marty Lagina: Earth, Wind, and Wine

March 28, 2016 |

Marty Lagina in front of Villa Mari, his new winery and tasting room on Old MIssion Peninsula. 

TRAVERSE CITY—When he was young Marty Lagina wanted to be a lawyer. But because he was fascinated by energy production, he decided to earn his law school tuition by putting his brand new engineering degree to work as an oil and gas man.

Many law classes, royalty agreements, drilling projects, and wind turbines later, Lagina still is not a practicing lawyer. But he’s well on his way to what looks to be his ultimate dream: becoming a top-drawer red wine vintner and proprietor of one of the world’s most environmentally benign wineries.

His path from Kingsford, Mich., his U.P. hometown, near Iron Mountain, to the hills of Mission Peninsula is a winding one. The Michigan Technological University grad earned his University of Michigan Law School tuition by working for Amoco and then launching his own, successful energy development company, Terra Energy. Eventually, he launched his own wind power firm, Heritage Wind Energy.

Now, after 15 years of growing grapes and almost 10 years of producing branded wine while he ran his energy empire, Lagina’s new winery is finally emerging from the wintry Mission Peninsula landscape, just north of Traverse City. He says that, given his background, it somehow all makes sense.

“I’m a 50-50 blend of Italian and Croatian,” he says. “So I guess it would be most accurate to describe me as a 100-percent descendant of the old Roman civilization. They were certainly well acquainted with making and drinking wine.”

His new winery, Villa Mari, honors his Old World roots.

“I named our winery after my hardworking Italian grandmother, Nona,” Lagina recalls. “Her maiden name was Mari, so it’s always been Mari Vineyards. She was an extraordinary woman. She fed all her family for years from a city garden, and also made moonshine to make ends meet during the Depression years. She had a wine cellar hand hewn out of granite beneath the house, full of homemade wine in barrels and all sorts of traditional Italian food, like prosciutto, too.

“I think my passion to make wine originated there, in the magic of that cellar.”

Villa Mari, the building, is big, beautiful, and looks to be straight out of Italy—complete with enclosed tower atop tall walls of imported, Upper Peninsula dolomitic limestone. The pale, chiseled-down rocks, pulled from the site of his Upper Peninsula wind farm, wrap around the entire building, covering a thick layer of insulating foam and a foot of poured concrete.

That makes Lagina’s massive, seven-story winery—three-quarters of it buried underground—both a wine lover’s and a clean energy wonk’s dream come true.

One Building, Two Dreams

When spring arrives on Old Mission Peninsula, Marty and Olivia Lagina grow red grapes for Villa Mari in jumbo-sized hoop houses.

Perhaps the largest construction project Old Mission Peninsula has seen in decades, Villa Mari has been under construction for more than a year, but looks unimposing from Center Road, blending into the hill it occupies.

Yet its 25,000 square feet house a tasting room, a patio with heated floor, wine production and bottling operations, a lookout offering a killer view of East Grand Traverse Bay, and, deep in the earth, storage vaults holding at a rock-solid, year-round 55 degrees, perfect for finishing red wines.

Heating the above-ground area will be a tiny, wood-gasification furnace that, in the first five or six years, will burn through just 60 cords of ash borer-stricken timber already reclaimed from his property and now stored in a hoop house near the small furnace building. The furnace releases almost no particulate matter, about one-thirtieth the emissions of a typical home fireplace. Big insulated water storage tanks will hold its heat for days, and dispatch it as needed.

The villa is lit with LEDs, of course, and the small amount of electricity the place will use will be 100 percent renewable, courtesy of the old Traverse City Light & Power wind turbine, on M-72 west of town, that Lagina purchased from the municipal utility and refurbished. He says he’ll pay more in taxes than on energy bills even when Villa Mari is operating at full tilt.

The combination of electricity from the wind and heat and cooling from the downed trees and the earth will make the entire winery close to a net-zero carbon operation.

It is hard to tell what Lagina cares about most—clean energy or great red wine, but he’s determined to marry the two.

“There’s nothing I like better than an experiment,” he says. “I’ve been growing grapes for 15 years and I really want to do a world-class red wine,” something that’s difficult in northwest Lower Michigan because of the short growing season. “So it will take all of this to succeed: a great growing technique, a world-class facility, and perfect storage.”

That’s why the hilltops across the road are lined with jumbo-sized hoop houses arching over long rows of grape vines. With their covers rolled down, the big structures extend the growing season in both directions enough to get red grapes, not just the white ones the area is famous for.

“We’re working to make the best reds possible,” he said. “We’re located at 45 degrees latitude, the same as Bordeaux, France and Piedmont, Italy and other great wine capitals. The only difference here is the temperature; the sunlight is identical. Using just some of the grapes we’ve grown with our technique, our Praefectus 2012 red won the Michigan ‘Best in Class’ award last fall.”

Lagina is developing a world of agrarian opportunity on his properties—including about 50 acres of vineyards and many more acres of fruit orchards.

According to Cristin Hosmer, one of his assistants, Lagina is “currently growing 26 varieties of grapes and about 30 other fruits on this and other properties. They first started planting in 1999. This year, we will have maple syrup coming, and we’ll be using it for new wines.”

Maple-based wines are something Lagina says he’s been interested in for a long time, and he believes that nothing is more “Pure Michigan” than maple tree-based products. Lagina is convinced he can make some fine specialty wines from partially concentrated, fermented maple sap.

He adds that utilizing the hardwood forest surrounding the vineyard as a source of maple syrup will make sure it is sustainably preserved.

A Sustainable Dream

Lagina says he’s been thinking about sustainability for a long time, and saving materials—like old beams, fallen ash trees, U.P. stone—for 30 years.

“We’ll have all kinds of collectibles—including a painting by Winston Churchill and the actual moonshine still used by Nona—on display around the place,” he promises. “The tasting bar will be made entirely from one ancient ash tree that succumbed to the Emerald ash borer.  We won’t put it in until everything else in that room is done, so we don’t harm it in any way.

“I’m proud of what we’re doing, but ultimately, to be successful, people have to enjoy it, and we are determined to make that happen.”

In fact, some people already are. The vineyard’s website offers six red wines leaning toward the high end, and most of them are available at select wine shops around Traverse City. A check of a nearby store revealed that only three were available that day—the others were sold out. But, Lagina says, connoisseurs need not worry; Villa Mari has 4,000 crates of its variety of reds ready to sell on opening day, sometime in late spring.

And even as he and a crew of 50 people wrap up their big construction project, Lagina keeps searching for better ways to do things.

For one, to reduce or eliminate pesticide use, he’s trying out a new machine that sprays ozone-treated water on plants; it’s supposed to kill bugs, essentially by choking them on too much oxygen, and leave no chemical residue or any other harmful product.  He’s trying it on an experimental basis this season. If it works, he will use it on all his vineyards as another of his many, seemingly ironic steps away from the fossil fuels that first powered his expansive, imaginative career.

He’s proud of the fact that, on a windy day, his McBain wind farm, known as Stony Corners and visible in quick glimpses along M-115, produces enough clean energy to power all of Traverse City, though utilities around the state, including TCL&P, actually purchase its output.

“The project was very well received by the farmers there,” he says. “We talked to community leaders first, took some of them to Germany so they could stand right next to the kind of turbine we were planning on using. We added the turbines gradually. And so we still hear from people there asking, ‘When are you going to build more?’”

Reality Check

Whether or not he’ll ever build another wind farm remains an open question. Lagina readily admits that the opposition he’s run into wh