Despite a beer and cocktail boom, Ann Arbor's wine scene keeps it cutting-edge

As the cults of craft beer and craft cocktails have gripped Michigan and the nation, wine hasn't been in the spotlight for awhile. But wine is far from a fading trend. Chaad Thomas, an Ann Arbor-based wine importer for First Tier Imports whose wine is sold in many Ann Arbor-area restaurants and retail establishments, says wine and wine culture is growing, especially in southeast Michigan.


"The market was really underserved during the recession and now we're seeing the return of passionate buyers, especially in restaurants," he says. "There's a new way of looking at wine. Restaurants aren't hitched to the old standards of Bordeaux and Napa cabernets. There's a culture of excitement and a youthful engagement that's driving interest, which leads to a wider variety of wines being available than we've seen in a while."


Elisa Weber-Saintin, a wine representative for Highland Park-based Little Guy Wine who works with a number of local restaurants and retailers including Plum Market, Logan, Sava's, Aventura, Taste Kitchen, and Spencer, agrees.


"In the past few years Michigan has stepped it up in terms of knowledge and excitement about wine on every level," she says.


Weber-Saintin used to think Little Guy Wine was far ahead of the curve in terms of wine trends in Ann Arbor and Detroit, more in line with what was being served on the coasts and in Chicago. But now, she says, "so many people know so much more about wine that we feel just a step ahead of everything. People aren't so scared to try new things. Before we got a lot more pushback when restaurants would say, 'People aren't asking for that,' and we'd say, 'Who cares? Let's try it!'"


Embracing riskier business


Weber-Saintin believes restaurants in southeast Michigan are more willing now than they used to be to take risks by offering unique or lesser-known wines on their menus. This allows wine drinkers to expand their palates and refine their tastes, something people are striving to do more and more in wine-drinking culture today. Kelsey Wonsavage, who selects wines for both Sava's and Aventura as the sommelier for Savco, is always trying to highlight what's not already trending in wine on her menus.


"I'm always trying to push something new that people don't really know about," she says. "I'll look around in the industry and see what's not being focused on and try and bring that out." Right now, she's showcasing wines from Hungary and Austria, which wine drinkers are typically far less familiar with than wines from France or Italy.


At Ann Arbor wine bar Vinology, risk-taking and open-mindedness are two phrases that co-owner John Jonna and his son, general manager Vincent Jonna, have been using to describe their wine menu for years. John Jonna explains that he created Vinology "to introduce into the wine community a broad, varied, and inquisitive selection of wines to try." He believes it's important to introduce Vinology patrons to the entire world of wine, not just what might be popular at any given time.


"We put things on our menu that maybe other restaurants would not, simply because we want to introduce our clients to the other side of the world," he says.


With the big variations on wine menus today, it can be tough for consumers to make a decision about what to drink. John Jonna trains his staff to ask three basic questions to profile their customers' palates: Does the customer want a light wine or a heavy wine? Would he or she prefer a white or a red? What wine has he or she had recently that he or she has enjoyed?


"Everyone's palate is different," says John Jonna.


Today's trends


So, what are people drinking more of these days?


"Rosé has finally hit the critical point," says Weber-Saintin. "I think a lot of the reason [for that] is that men have accepted it. There's not this gender divide anymore. People don't feel 'not manly' by drinking rosé."


Weber-Saintin also says Little Guy Wine's business selling lower-alcohol, very lightly sparkling wines is growing. One such wine, Txakoli from the Basque country in Spain, is one of her favorites. It's traditionally served from a porron, a special decanter that has a spout that gets gradually narrower, keeping the wine's bubbles intact all the way into the glass.


First Tier Imports, where Thomas works, has always focused on organically made, sustainably-farmed wines. But Thomas and Wonsavage both believe that the trend of drinking organic wine, made with fewer sulfites, is growing locally.


"Organic viticulture is an indicator of quality," Thomas says. "If someone is taking the time and care to manage their vineyards in an organic fashion or a biodynamic way it usually carries over into the final product."


"People are more aware of the footprint that they're leaving on the Earth," says Wonsavage. "People want to know when they're drinking wine: Is it organic? Is it sustainable? How many sulfites are added to this? ... Ann Arbor is the kind of community where everyone supports local businesses. So it's a great community for supporting some of these smaller names in the wine business."


Combating misperceptions


Despite the growth of wine drinking and wine culture in southeast Michigan, those in the wine business are still battling some of the misperceptions commonly associated with wine. Wonsavage says the stigma of pretentiousness in the wine industry initially turned her off.


"I felt that it was a rich person's hobby, and that it wasn't really accessible," she says. "[In] my generation, everyone is going towards the craft beer and craft cocktails because you know the guy with a mustache pouring beer is really approachable. They don't feel silly going to drink beer or cocktails and asking those people questions. But with wine there's still that whole stigma."


Vincent Jonna agrees.


"It's honestly very hard to be aggressive in a wine program with pricing and make as much money as you would operating a brewery or a cocktail place," he says. "I still feel that we fight that today. The value of the product that we're bringing to the table isn't as valued as a beer or a cocktail. The margins are crazier. Whether or not the consumer palate has improved and their ability to purchase wine has improved, I think that there is still a poor stigma about wine and how much you spend on it and the value it has with dinner."


But the Jonnas and Wonsavage are both quick to emphasize that drinking wine doesn't have to be pretentious at all. Vincent Jonna says he and his staff strive to make Vinology accessible, even to a "total novice." And Wonsavage hosts tastings on the second Tuesday of every month at Sava's, which provide attendees with a way to learn about wine, ask questions, and find out what they like (and what they don't).


Along with doing some tastings, Weber-Saintin suggests that novices find a good wine shop and talk to the staff there. Thomas agrees.


"Get somebody," he says. "Get to a shop or a restaurant and see who the buyer is and talk to them. Find out what they're excited about and get their perspective and taste some of the stuff they recommend. Use that person as your reference point. Understand their approach and their palate and things they're excited about and that will give you a framework to understanding what's going on with wine."


The Jonnas are eagerly awaiting the day when wine is as integrated into American culture as it is into the culture of some European countries where, John Jonna says, "as a rule people will have a glass of wine with their Sunday meal. Not as an exception, but as a rule. In France, Italy, Germany – it's a rule. That, America has not gotten to yet."


After more than 40 years in the wine business, John Jonna has come to the conclusion that wine enthusiasm can have positive results not just on a personal level but a global one.


"Once a week, have a little dinner, cook up something cool, have some bottles of wine, invite people that you disagree with about something to dinner, and hash it out over a glass of wine," he says, then chuckles a little. "Because wine loosens the tongue and sharpens the wits. If you can sit with your person you disagree with and have a glass of wine, it will help world peace."


Elizabeth Pearce is an Ann Arbor resident and wine enthusiast. In addition to Concentrate, she frequently contributes to Pulp.


All photos by Doug Coombe.

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.