April 6, 2016

Oilman Marty Lagina: Earth, Wind and Wine

BY JIM DULZO (Traverse City Record Eagle Mar 15, 2016)

Marty Lagina always wanted to be a lawyer, but got into the energy business after college to help pay for law school.

Many law classes, royalty agreements, drilling projects and wind farms later, Lagina is still no lawyer. Instead he’s pursing his ultimate dream: becoming a top-drawer red wine vintner and proprietor of one of the world’s most environmentally benign wineries.

His long path from his Upper Peninsula hometown of Kingsford to Old Mission Peninsula runs through Michigan Technological University, the University of Michigan, Amoco and his own drilling and wind companies, Terra Energy and Heritage Wind Energy.

Lagina has produced branded wine for 10 years. Now his new winery is rising from the Old Mission Peninsula landscape. Given his background, it makes sense.

“I’m a 50-50 blend of Italian and Croatian,” he said, which makes him “a 100-percent descendant of the old Roman civilization. They were certainly well acquainted with making and drinking wine."

“I named our winery Villa Mari, after my hardworking Italian grandmother, Nona,” Lagina said. “Her maiden name was Mari, so it’s always been Mari Vineyards. She fed all her family from a city garden, had a wine cellar hand-hewn from granite and full of homemade wine. My passion for wine making originated in the magic of that cellar.”

Villa Mari's appears to be straight out of Italy with its enclosed tower atop walls of Upper Peninsula dolomitic limestone. The pale rocks, from one of his wind farms, wrap around the building’s thick insulation and poured concrete, making the seven-story building a wine lover’s — and an energy wonk’s — dream.

The facility's 25,000 square feet will house a tasting room, a patio, wine production and bottling, a killer view of East Grand Traverse bay and, deep below, storage vaults holding at a rock-solid 55 degrees — perfect for making red wine.

A tiny wood-gasification furnace will heat the big place, likely using just 10 cords of wood — starting with ash borer-stricken timber from his property — annually, with about one-thirtieth the emissions of a typical fireplace.

Add all-LED lighting and clean, renewable electricity from the windmill on M-72 —which Lagina bought from Traverse City Light & Power and refurbished — and you get a large operation with a carbon footprint (net greenhouse gas emissions) very close to zero.

So Lagina is marrying his two great loves: renewables and red wines.

“I’ve been growing grapes for 15 years and really want to do a world-class red wine,” difficult in northwest Lower Michigan’s short growing season, he said. “It takes great growing technique, a world-class facility and perfect storage.”

That’s why jumbo-sized hoop houses arch along the hilltops across the road. They extend the growing season just enough to grow red grapes, in addition to the whites the area is famous for.

“We’re located at 45 degrees latitude, the same as Bordeaux, Piedmont and other great red wine capitals," Lagina said. "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.”

In all, Lagina is growing 26 grape varieties, 30 other fruits and maple trees. He hopes to make some maple-based specialty wines.

Villa Mari’s web site offers six red wines; most are available at select area wine shops. The winery has 4,000 crates of reds ready to sell on opening day in late spring.

Lagina meanwhile searches for more ways to operate sustainably. To cut pesticide use, he’s trying an ozone-treated water sprayer on plants that kills bugs by choking them on too much oxygen. If it works, he’ll use it on his vineyards — another step away from the fossil fuels that first powered his expansive, imaginative career.

Whether he’ll ever build another wind farm remains an open question. Lagina says he’s flummoxed by the opposition he’s encountered; people, he says, get riled up about all the wrong things — like the number of birds a turbine supposedly kills, which he points out is typically far less than one cat or a few glass windows do.

“I’ve always considered myself to be a realistic environmentalist,” he said.

Villa Mari is a direct result of that.

“We want to have a place that’s beautiful, has many interesting stories, world class wine, and a carbon-neutral operation," said Lagina. "It is very important that we be an asset to this community.”

Jim Dulzo is the Groundwork Center’s senior energy policy specialist. Reach him at jimdulzo@groundworkcenter.org.
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