TV home-improvement guru Carter Oosterhouse is out to create a new kind of Michigan winery—with a big assist from his wife, Amy Smart, and star chef Mario Batali. (Batali helped with the tasting room menu, he's not an owner).
Golf and a shared love for northern Michigan helped create a bond between star chef Mario Batali and hunky HGTV host and carpenter Carter Oosterhouse. “Mario is a damn good golfer—much better than I am,” Carter says. Now the two are collaborating on a menu for the tasting room at Bonobo, Carter’s winery project with his wife, actress Amy Smart, and his brother Todd and sister-in-law Caroline. The menu focuses on classics like pasta all’Amatriciana and local ingredients like cherries and whitefish. Says Carter, “I always felt that we needed a great complement to our wines, and I was fortunate enough to know Mario, so I thought, Why not ask him to help us?” Bonobo, located on a former cherry orchard where the Oosterhouse brothers worked as kids, has an oversize tasting bar that Carter built. “I bought three old barns from a friend and used the wood to make it,” he says. Constructing a bar wasn’t difficult for Carter; growing Riesling and Chardonnay and making terrific wine is more challenging. “Wine feels like something you never fully master,” he says. “It’s like golf.”
Below, Mario Batali quizzes Carter and Amy on their new winery, cooking and their favorite local restaurants.
Mario Batali: Why build a winery on Old Mission Peninsula?
Amy Smart: I think it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. The area already has a bunch of wineries, so a good number of people come for tastings. During the summer our patio is going to be awesome because we have the most incredible view of the lake.
Carter Oosterhouse: Plus the microclimate is fantastic for Riesling and Chardonnay.
MB: What’s harder, farming or building?
CO: Oh, boy. I think they’re kind of the same in the sense that with both you’re cultivating, you’re creating. But farming is probably harder.
MB: Tell me about the design of the winery. It’s a great place to hang out.
AS: We created nooks, so you can go with a group of friends or family and have a glass of wine and some great food and just sit and relax. We have this amazing indoor-outdoor fireplace and a separate fireplace area that’s also a cozy spot with lots of seating. We’ve got a library for people who want a more secluded, intimate feeling.
CO: First dates.
AS: Yes, it’s a good first-date spot for people because no one is really watching. Plus, the tasting bar that Carter built is gorgeous, and the chandeliers over it are originally from our wedding.
MB: I love that you built me a beautiful open kitchen.
CO: Amy, you need to give yourself credit for that. Mario, when you first joined us, our kitchen was in a tiny little space. Amy said, “Why don’t we move it into the wine-production facility?” The winemaker was like, “Wait, you’re carving into my area because of Mario?” I said, “Look, Mario trumps you, sorry. We’ll find space for you elsewhere.” So we switched the kitchen from one side of the building all the way to the other. And it’s got three great big sliding doors—they weigh at least 600, 700 pounds apiece. They match the bar design, and they open like barn doors to reveal the kitchen. They close off the kitchen when it’s not in use, and that was all Amy’s idea. So don’t sell yourself short there, babe.
MB: What are some of your favorite restaurants around Traverse City?
AS: There are so many places: Mission Table, The Cooks’ House, Harvest, Red Ginger, Trattoria Stella. Our tradition is going to Stella for a big Italian dinner. They have incredible local ingredients.
CO: They catered our wedding.
AS: That was the best. At most weddings, people don’t like the food. We feel lucky that we had good food at our wedding.
CO: I’ve never seen so much diversity in food in such a small town. There are also lots of food trucks. You’d be shocked at how many food trucks we have here.
AS: There’s such a cool vibe over at The Little Fleet with all the different trucks.
MB: What do you drink when you’re not drinking wine?
AS: I’m a sucker for a really good margarita, which isn’t always the easiest to find around here. But Red Ginger has good cocktails
CO: I’m more of a beer guy and an old-fashioned guy. I like my bourbon. This area has a big microbrew movement, which is really good to see. Rare Bird, Mackinaw Brewing Company, Jolly Pumpkin, Short’s—there are so many of them.
MB: When did you buy your house in Traverse City?
CO: Nine years ago. The original bones of the building are 100 years old, and it’s on 13 acres. It had all of these great outbuildings and barns. We just restored one as a yoga studio. The top of the barn is a studio, and the bottom is a woodworking area with a kiln.
MB: Who does most of the cooking in your family?
CO: We cook together, but Amy does the majority of it. She makes everything from scratch. It’s impressive.
AS: I really believe in using fresh ingredients as often as possible.
CO: Which makes the kitchen a disaster, but it’s also the best food you can get.
AS: I’m a messy cook, so Carter likes to make fun of me for that.
CO: It’s like a tornado has run through the kitchen. She’s extremely creative and has no fear.
MB: Do you have a favorite dish of Carter’s?
AS: Carter makes kick-ass scrambled eggs in the morning.
CO: Yeah! What’s up?!
AS: They’re so fluffy and delicious.