By Sarah L. Stewart
Ten years ago, Sam Simpson was a senior at Michigan State University, preparing to start a job with an international food company. His 28-year-old sister, Taylor, was living in Chicago and working in wine sales distribution.
Then everything changed. In March 2009, the siblings’ lives—and their career trajectories—abruptly changed direction when their father, pioneering Western Michigan winemaker Bruce Simpson, passed away suddenly at the age of 55.
Taylor says deciding what to do next wasn’t really a decision at all. The brother-and-sister duo left the corporate world behind, returning to their mother, Debbie, and the orchards and shorelines of the Leelanau Peninsula to take over the family’s Harbor Hill Fruit Farms.
“We moved home to make sure the operation kept running,” Taylor says. “It was the obvious choice.”
Stepping into their father’s shoes at such a young age wasn’t easy; Sam calls the move terrifying. But if any two 20-somethings were prepared to helm a fruit farm and winery, it was the Simpsons. Taylor brought to the table her years of experience in sales and distribution, and childhood summers spent helping out in the tasting room at the family’s Good Harbor Vineyards. Sam, who grew up farming and winemaking alongside his father, had spent a year studying viticulture and enology in college before changing his major.
“My dad told me that it was a terrible idea and I should get a finance degree,” he says. “I always listened to him.”
Drawing on their combined strengths, the Simpson siblings have led Harbor Hill in a new direction over the past decade—and as a result, the business stands uniquely poised for success in the rapidly growing Michigan wine industry.
“I think our dad did a lot of things because he had done them for so long,” Taylor says. “We had to make it work.”
A new chapter
When Taylor and Sam were children, Harbor Hill’s primary focus was the family cherry farm, whose roots reach back to the 1950s. Tending the farm with his father was a big part of Sam’s life growing up.
“He was my best friend, so whatever he wanted to do, I was fine doing it,” Sam says. “[Helping on the farm] was something to do with him.”
Although Good Harbor Vineyards was among the first wineries on the Leelanau Peninsula, the wine side of the family business was always secondary to cherry farming—until Taylor and Sam took the reins and faced a grim reality.
“It’s a cash suck,” Taylor says.
The first, and perhaps biggest, strategic decision the siblings made was to get out of cherry farming, taking a strategic risk by shedding a business that their father had invested his life in.
“It was the most obvious change to make,” Taylor says.
With their attention narrowed, they continued their father’s winemaking tradition via both Good Harbor Vineyards and a second winery they acquired, Aurora Cellars. They’ve also innovated by broadening their reach beyond winemaking, positioning Harbor Hill as a resource for the region’s vintners by adding services from vineyard consultation and management to custom crush and labeling. And their timing was excellent: In the past five years, Michigan wine production has grown 47 percent, to 3 million gallons annually, according to the Michigan Craft Beverage Council.
“There are so many people who are wanting to get into the industry,” Taylor says. “The beauty of this model now is we are able to service them at any point along their path. We can help them from grape to glass.”
Eyes to the future
The Simpsons continue to innovate with Harbor Hill’s latest venture, a mobile bottling service capable of bottling 1,800 cases per day at any winery throughout Michigan’s Lower Peninsula.
“We bought equipment that was way more than we needed for ourselves,” says Sam of taking another risk to further expand the company’s reach. “We’re providing a service to other wineries, which will help offset our costs.”
The service, which has been in the planning stages for years, launched in early 2019 and is already filling a niche.
“We’re filling up dates pretty quickly,” Sam says. “There’s been a tremendous amount of interest.”
Long gone are the days when Harbor Hill was a cherry farm with a winery on the side. Yet Taylor and Sam agree that their father would be pleased with the new direction they’ve taken.
“I think he would enjoy seeing what the business has transformed into,” Taylor says. “I think he’d be proud.”
Farming on Western Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula runs deep in Taylor and Sam Simpson’s family—and so does banking with Huntington. The Traverse City branch oversaw their grandparents’ trust, their father banked with Huntington as head of Harbor Hill Fruit Farms prior to his death in 2009, and the siblings have since turned to Huntington for business deals such as financing new equipment.
“We’ve been with Huntington for a very long time,” Sam says.
This longstanding relationship has resulted in a level of trust and familiarity that’s been mutually beneficial, he says.
“That’s a huge reason why we’re with Huntington, the service level we’ve gotten locally right in our hometown,” Sam says. “You don’t get the same feeling of the locality with other banks.”