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Profiles,Viticulture,Wine,Wine Business,Winery

Dr. Joseph O’Donnell: A Wine Industry Professional Who Has Reinvented Himself From The Medical Profession

Every single person who segues from one career to another has a defining moment’s story to tell, and this one’s about the kindest and gentlest neurosurgeon I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing and with whom I’m now working.

The preeminent neurosurgeon from Grand Rapids, Michigan, Dr. Joseph O’Donnell is referred to simply as “Dr. Joe,” a humble expression of who he is and what he’s been able to accomplish in his lifetime. Dr. Joe has just retired from his active day job as a neurosurgeon; however, he’s not completely closed his practice and still sees patients. He simply has a reduced work load.

This seems consistent with many who segue from the medical profession into the wine business. The ties and bonds are too strong to simply leave all that they accomplished behind. There so much valuable intellectual property that’s been established. The field cannot afford to lose the expertise and the resources that these professionals leave behind.

In the late 1980s, Dr. Joe partnered with his hunting and fishing friend Bill Stouten, a Michigan real estate broker. A century-old cherry orchard outside of Suttons Bay, Michigan, on the Leelanau Peninsula, became available for purchase; at that time, the cherry industry was experiencing a downturn. This area is located in the renowned grape growing AVA, holding a lot of promise for the partners; although, at the time, there were no wine grapes growing on the property.

There was also a five-acre spot on the property of ancient peach trees that were falling down from age’s natural decay process. Dr. Joe decided to consult with Dr. Stanley Howell, Michigan State University (Landing), who taught – at the time – in the university’s plant and soil science department. Dr. Howell holds a Ph.D. in Horticulture, and is best known for his studies in the physiological and cultural factors limiting vine growth, sustainable yield, and acceptable fruit maturity and quality. His areas of research emphasis were photosynthesis, root and rootstock contribution to the above listed goals, canopy management to maximize sunlight penetration to the fruiting and renewal zone, and crop control and estimation.

Dr. Joe felt that if anyone could help him determine whether or not his property could sustain wine grape growing, it would be Dr. Stan. It was decided that if the property was able to sustain peach trees, it would also be able to support wine grape growing.

Dr. Joe then enlisted the help or Larry Mawby, a champion of East Coast grape growing cultivars, owner and winemaker at L. Mawby Vineyards on the Leelanau Peninsula. Larry has been growing and produced and estate-bottled Leelanau Peninsula wines since his first harvest in 1978.

At first, Dr. Joe and Bill Stouten planted only 11 acres of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. From then until now, the property has, from years of continued plantings, 60 planted acres of wine grapes.

In the spring of 2008, Dr. Joe became the sole proprietor of Shady Lane Cellars, and goes to the winery each week to touch base with all that is happening; most especially the production of wine.

Today, the winery is best known for its Riesling. Dr. Joe admits that he knows California pretty much struggles with this variety, because Riesling is a cool climate grape; however, in Michigan, German-style, cool climate grapes like Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Lemberger do extremely well in Michigan’s cooler climate.

Being an established, scientific academic made it easy for Dr. Joe to segue from his career in the medical profession to one that still involves the sciences:  in this case, enology. His love of field and stream, combined with his love of the sciences, made the transition to vineyard proprietor one that is in keeping with his love of nature and refinement.

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