Pioneer winemaker Mark Johnson dies

Aug 29, 2017

Mark Johnson, one of the pioneers of winemaking in northern Michigan, has died. He was 65 years old.

Johnson grew up in Mancelona, but he learned winemaking in Germany. 

According to his obituary, Johnson followed his high school sweetheart, Ursula, to Europe, where he earned a degree in enology – the study of wines.

Johnson married Ursula and in 1983, he returned to northern Michigan, where he planted one of the first vineyards on the Old Mission peninsula. He described that experience to IPR in an interview in 2015.

“We’ve got a gut feeling," he said. "We look around us and we think this is about as close to heaven as we’re going to get, and there should be a vineyard in heaven. So we’re planting.”

Johnson spent the last 24 years at Chateau Chantal.

Friend Don Coe, founder of Black Star Farms in Suttons Bay, calls Johnson "the ultimate winemaker."

“He understood climate," says Coe. "He understood the ability for this region to produce the kind of wine he studied in Europe, and he was a champion for the evolving Michigan wine industry.”

Coe worked with Mark Johnson over the years, until Coe’s retirement last year. He says Johnson was a great ambassador for Michigan winemaking.

“He had a wonderful sense of humor, a great sense of joy and he was a terrific spokesperson for his wineries,” says Coe.

Mark Johnson died last Thursday. He’s survived by his wife, Ursula, three children and two grandchildren.