By Andrea Stuart
The youngest of five siblings, Michael Oprish, President and General Manager of Bernardus Lodge and Winery, was born with hospitality coursing through his veins. Growing up in the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan provided Oprish with a unique curiosity of the world. Gelid winters (that forced everyone indoors for months at a time) and living in the protected shadow of Motor City, just outside of the cultural collage, were perhaps what caused the itch. And opportunity scratched it.
Oprish finds a high-vibration life satisfying, which is not surprising given his active family. Annual winter vacations included hitting the slopes in northern Michigan. In summer, the family trekked to Florida to visit relatives and put in some beach time. In between, the family indulged in weekend getaways on the speedboat for waterskiing, and at the end of the day proudly brandished the sun’s lashing. “Typically, Midwesterners don’t venture too far off the grid, so we were unusual,” says Oprish.
Even routine life was anything but boring. Oprish enjoyed a menagerie of sports from baseball and basketball to wrestling and golf, the last of which would remain a passion throughout his life. His father, a golf enthusiast, and the family, members of a country club, provided Oprish with the chance to become familiar with the sport. His school even had a golf team.
Nevertheless, he grew up on the edge of an era saturated in cultural turbulence. He recalls his father missing work due to the race riots, and he peripherally observed the oil embargo of the ’70s. That his father did not work for the automotive industry and Oprish unconsciously desired to do something less conventional than engineering were the impetus for his branching out.
Like many before him, Oprish fell into hospitality at the ground level. Undecided about what he what he wanted to do when he grew up, he answered a help wanted ad in the newspaper for Sheraton Hotels while attending college. “Anytime you grow up in Detroit and you have the opportunity to go to Chicago, you do it,” Oprish laughs. He eagerly embedded into the industry doing everything from housekeeping to room service, working his way up to management.
As his career blossomed, taking him from his humble beginnings in Illinois to Carmel Valley Ranch—which Oprish refers to as his big break—he discovered that resort management was his true calling. “I wanted to get into resort business. In the city, hotel is more check-in, check-out business. Not as personalized,” he explains. “Resorts are the opposite. [Resorts have] people on vacation, so the mood is full of energy and the stay tends to be longer so you can get to know people. There’s a romance about it.”
It was during his time working for Carefree Resorts in Telluride, Colorado in the mid-1990s—where he met his partner Brigid Kennedy—that the opportunity to work at Bernardus Lodge presented itself. He arrived in 1999. Working for owner Ben Pon inspired a new awareness in Oprish. “I consider Mr. Pon a great mentor. He’s a kind, gracious man, consistent with expectations. He motivates me to deliver his dream while realizing my own,” Oprish says of the racing legend. “I have learned a lot from him. He’s a very dear friend. He’s just very perceptive.”
Oprish’s relationship with Pon has grown over the last 14 years, imbuing a sense of humility in him. This is, in part, why Oprish returned to Bernardus in 2011 after a short time away. “It was serendipitous. And Mr. Pon is a very convincing guy,” he lets out a hearty chuckle. However, Oprish’s career has also had personal benefits.
Before his father passed away, Oprish asked him to visit California and golf Pebble Beach. “It was a magical day. He had played all over the world but never Pebble,” says Oprish of his father, a Jack Nicklaus fan. “When [Nicklaus] won on the course in ’72 it was always on his list to play there.” The words fall out of Oprish in ribbons of admiration.
Now, Oprish divides his time between Bernardus and traveling, playing golf courses across the world from St. Andrews to Pebble, and absorbing the aesthetic and intellectual nuances while enjoying every moment.