At first glance, Port Huron and the lower Thumb may seem an odd place to find vineyards. After all, Michigan winters are notoriously cold, and an area with this much snow must make it difficult to protect legendarily fragile wine grapes. But the Port Huron area has a special advantage to its burgeoning wine industry that not many other areas can boast. It all boils down to geological changes tens of thousands of years ago, and one feature of our landscape: the glacial moraine.
Up until about 22,000 years ago, all of the Great Lakes region was covered in a heavy sheet of ice up to a mile thick. As these glaciers retreated, excruciatingly slowly, they carved out the current lakes and left a few bonuses for later inhabitants along the way. Glacial moraines are the left-behind piles of rock and sediment that form large outcrops and shelves. And these outcrops, as it turns out, help to create the perfect conditions to shelter delicate wine grapes from high winds and frigid temperatures, much as the Niagara Escarpment, another moraine, does the same for the bustling Niagara wine industry. The Great Lakes do their part too, by moderating temperatures year round and preventing dangerous extremes in temperature, which can damage grapes and reduce their flavor. Moraine areas create microclimates where wine grapes can thrive.
Until just a few years ago, though, no one thought to take advantage of the Port Huron moraine. That oversight is being remedied quickly, and the area is home now to several successful and award-winning wineries. In 2013, twelve local vineyards and wineries banded together to form the 275-mile Thumbs Up Wine Trail, featuring participants from metro Detroit, through Port Huron and all the way up to Bad Axe. The group’s founders believed that the spirit of cooperation, not competition, would create more opportunities for the new industry.
Not all the wineries in the Port Huron area have adjacent vineyards; some purchase grapes from suppliers around the world, then ferment and age the wines in their own blends in-house. Others, such as Green Barn Winery, buy grapes from local growers and craft unique wines for sale in their tasting room, or produce custom wines on demand. Some of the businesses offer tours, and others are private enterprises whose product can be sampled in stores or at tasting rooms only.
We tested a few of the products from the winery trail over the course of a long week. It would be nearly impossible, not to mention dangerous, to visit all twelve in one go, so we recommend pacing yourself over the course of a long weekend or two. And we kept to the spots closest to Port Huron itself; metro Detroit’s tasting will have to wait for another day, and the tip of the Thumb section of the trail deserves its own trip. This time of year is especially suited for sipping cider or a late summer wine and enjoying the foliage along the Sunrise Coast. Here’s a sampling of what we found:
Vinomondo, Fort Gratiot
This was the start of our Thumb-centric wine adventures earlier this summer, as part of a birthday party. Vinomondo makes batches of wine to order. Here’s how it works: for $10 each, guests first sample the different wine options and appetizers, then choose the wine they’d like to bottle. After a few weeks to allow the wine to ferment, the party returns to the winery and, with much laughter and some spillage, bottles and caps the wine to take home. The fermenting and aging takes anywhere from five to eight weeks. If you’d prefer to skip the investment in a case, Vinomondo hosts tasting parties without requiring any further purchase, and also has a newly opened wine bar and brew pub with fantastic views of the river.
Green Barn Winery, Smiths Creek
Launched in 2012 by husband and wife team Mike and Becky Wrubel, Green Barn offers one thing we couldn’t find anywhere else: wine slushies. Yes, wine slushies, in all sorts of flavors, including a Holiday Spice Cabernet slushy we were told works great for crockpot cooking. We wouldn’t know; there wasn’t any left. They also host an annual wine tasting cruise down the St. Clair River and frequent wine pairing dinners. The store’s wide variety of Michigan wines, which focuses on the sweeter and berry-intense, is well organized and makes it easy to spend a bit more money than you’d intended before that first slushy kicked in. Oh, and the tasting room also features giant Western-style saddles to straddle, so long as the aforementioned slushies haven’t hit you too hard.
3 North Vines, Croswell
In the fall of 2007, Krista and Nate Shopbell purchased 35 acres of prime land just off the coast of Lake Huron. By 2008, they’d planted their vines, and the vineyard and winery has been expanding ever since. 3 North Vines focuses its efforts on perfecting just a few types of wine at a time. Currently, they offer a Pinotage (a deep red South African wine), a Pinot Noir and a Spanish-style Albarino with a crisp finish and lots of stonefruit notes. The small tasting room, only open on weekends, is simply decorated with barnwood walls and plenty of light pouring in. And we couldn’t resist taking home a bottle of the 2013 Pinotage.
Blue Water Winery, Lexington
While you can’t actually visit the 10-acre vineyard at Blue Water, you can sample more than enough of their award-winning products at the Lexington Brewery, which brews beer from hops grown at the vineyard. Both ventures were started by Connie Currie and Steve Velloff, who studied wine-making at the University of California - Davis before planning their move to Lexington. Their patience paid off in 2013, when the 2010 Cabernet Franc won the gold medal at the prestigious San Francisco International Wine Competition. Not one to turn down an award-winning wine, I sampled the 2013 version, which left me wishing I didn’t have one more winery to visit. Next time we’ll plan to spend an afternoon at the brewery, sampling more wines and some of their newer drafts.
Sage Creek Winery, Memphis
Sage Creek is a labor of love for retirees Jim and Sherry Gavin. When Jim first started making homemade wine from kits over ten years ago, it was a hobby. But since then, the couple’s business has grown enough to require first one storefront, then a move to a larger one just up the road. The duo order grapes from around the world, "pre-smooshed," as they call it, so the selection is broad and quirky, with a focus on sweet and fruity whites and reds. We had to give the Cruz N Main St a try: house red wine blend infused with bacon. It tasted...well, it tasted exactly like bacon-infused red wine. Maybe not the sort of thing you’d serve at a state dinner, but bacon and red wine can’t taste too bad, after all. We finished our trip with the autumn blend sangria, a crisp and warming potion that was perfect for the end of a fall adventure around the Thumb.
Mickey Lyons is a Hamtramck, Mich.-based writer and historian. She is the creator of Prohibition Detroit, a blog about Detroit's historic drinking establishments.