L. Mawby Vineyards: Suttons Bay - The Leelanau Conservancy

L. Mawby Vineyards: Suttons Bay

L Mawby Vineyards Forever Protects 32-Acre Vineyard Near Sutton’s Bay

From our 2009 Spring Newsletter

Vintner Larry Mawby, and his new partner, Stuart Laing, have permanently protected 32 rolling acres near Suttons Bay, home of L. Mawby Vineyards. The donation of the conservation easement coincided with the year-end sale of half of his business to Stuart and his wife, Sharon. The Laings are from Suttons Bay, and are also grape growers with a seven-acre vineyard near Lake Leelanau.

“The timing was right for both of us,” says Larry. “The business was getting too big for me to handle by myself. I needed a partner. Stu’s investment will allow us to respond to the continuing demand for our wines.” Their business plan calls for doubling production to 10,000 cases or more in the coming year. A new building near the village of Suttons Bay was recently purchased for the expansion.

Stu, 57, brings an M.B.A. to the table, along with business acumen gained as co-owner of a steel fabrication plant before retiring. “He’s already taking a big load off of my shoulders,” says Larry. Sharon, who has worked in the tasting room for four years, will help to manage it.

Permanently protecting the land with a conservation easement was part of the new venture. “I’ve always wanted this land to stay as ag land,” says Larry. The sale of the business coincided with his retirement from the Conservancy’s board of directors, and made for good timing all the way around.

The easement provided some needed tax relief for both parties. “While we’re both altruistic, there are also benefits that go along with preserving the land,” says Larry. Both men had capital gains they needed to address in 2008. Larry had a low basis in the land and the partial sale his company to offset. Stuart had sold appreciated stock before the market crashed.

Money, however, can never be the prime motivator when it comes to preserving land, says Larry, “because it’s always worth more as development land, you do give up some value.”

“I’m not a very good capitalist when it comes to land,” he continues. “I believe we’re stewards of the land and that we have responsibilities. We really don’t own it; we’re just here to take care of it. What our conservation easement does is enlist the Leelanau Conservancy to be the steward of the land after I am gone.”

Stuart says that knowing Larry as well as he does made it an easy decision to enter into a partnership. Their relationship began seven years ago when Larry guided the Laings in the startup of their own vineyard and then purchased their subsequent harvests. “Larry has a great product and a well-known name,” says Stu. “I wouldn’t want to be starting our own winery right now. It would be a five- to ten-year haul before we could establish a label, and a very hard climb.”

Buying into Larry’s business was also a family decision. The Laing’s two grown sons are interested in the business. Mike, 29, left his job as a high school math teacher and is now working at the winery full time. As for Stu, he says as much as he loves working outdoors on his own vines, he “didn’t realize how much I had missed being in business, and making business decisions.”

Larry bought the 32 acres now under easement in 1975. He had just graduated from M.S.U. and had spent a summer in Europe. He knew he wanted to come home and grow grapes in Leelanau County. While working on his family’s fruit farm, the land came up for sale. “A group of investors who had planned to develop a series of golf courses and condominiums from here to the lake defaulted on their loan,” says Larry. He bought the 32 acres and started putting in vines.

The rest is history. Now, in peak season, there are 32 full- or part-time employees on the L. Mawby payroll, and likely more in the future. “Stu and Larry make a great team,” says Tom Nelson, Director of Farmland Programs for the Leelanau Conservancy. “They embody a land ethic that embraces the need to keep our globally rare farmland in production while supporting the business of agriculture that helps to keep our local economy strong. Here you have two really smart, creative people who are making money, employing people and maintaining the simple beauty of one Leelanau farm all at the same time.”