Michigan's newest winemakers are following their passion -- and doing well

This article is one of a series of stories about Michigan’s agricultural economy. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

After 16 years of wedding anniversary trips to Michigan wine country, Tracie and Andy Roush decided to turn their annual vacation into a career.

Before opening Petoskey Farms Vineyard and Winery in Petoskey in 2014, Andy Roush had worked in finance most of his life and Tracie Roush worked in marketing and home remodeling. They lived far from wine country in Rochester. But in the early 2010's they decided to make a change. Tracie Roush says she was fascinated by the idea of recreating the memorable atmosphere of the many Michigan wineries she and her husband had visited.

"It's always relaxing," she says. “Generally, there is a view and you kind of forget about life for a while, the craziness of corporate America and that rat race that a lot of us run. We thought, 'What a dream to do that and create that leisure experience for our customers.'"

The Roushes are just two of the many Michiganders who have been enticed to join the Michigan wine industry in recent years. The Michigan Wine and Grape Industry Council has approved 35 new wineries in the state just in the past five years. In that same period of time, the federal government has approved the state's fifth distinct wine-growing district, known as an American Viticultural Area, in the northern tip of the lower peninsula where Petoskey Farms can be found.

There is still ample opportunity for Michigan's wine industry to grow.

While the Michigan wine industry has expanded steadily in recent years, it would seem there's still ample room for growth. California's famous Napa Valley is home to over 450 wineries despite being only twice the size of the Leelanau Peninsula, which has 26 wineries. What's more, having a group of wineries in the same area is generally seen as a benefit to business, rather than a threat of competition. Clusters of wineries become tourist destinations like the Leelanau Peninsula Wine Trail, the Pioneer Wine Trail, and the Lake Michigan Shore Wine Trail.

The Michigan wine industry's newcomers are opening their businesses out of a deep passion for both their home state and its wines. Tracie Roush says she and her husband took classes in viticulture (grape production) and enology (the study of wine and winemaking) and volunteered in vineyards and wineries on the weekends before fully committing to opening their own winery.

"There was nothing we didn't like about it," she says. "We loved being out and working in the fields. We loved to be in the tasting room talking with customers. We loved making the product. There were no roadblocks. It was always green lights."

Grapes on the brain

While the Roushes are newer to the trade, some of Michigan's newly minted winery owners have been working with grapes and wine for a long time – although in contexts much different from owning a full-blown winery. 

Glen Greiffendorf is the vineyard and winemaking manager for 12 Corners Winery, which opened in South Haven in 2012. Having grown up on a grape farm for Welch's grape juice in Baroda, Greiffendorf started experimenting with making Concord grape wine when he was in his 20s.

"I would just drink it right out of the jug," Greiffendorf says with a laugh. "Now it's way more refined. We actually use a glass."

Greiffendorf went on to take a production job at Fenn Valley Vineyards in 2007, where he learned the trade of winemaking before being asked to join 12 Corners. Greiffendorf grew up with Lemon Creek Winery and Tabor Hill Winery essentially in his backyard, and he was inspired by seeing the Lake Michigan Shore Wine Trail take shape.  

"All of a sudden there were 10 more wineries and I was just one of the guys on the wine trail, going and visiting these places," he says. "I knew all the production guys and the owners and that's when I thought, 'Wow, that seems like a fun career."

Michael Wells, owner of Tecumseh's Black Fire Winery, made his first wine from grapes in his parents' Detroit backyard when he was 16 years old. Wells laughingly admits that he had no idea what variety of grapes he was working with at that time, and he "fermented" his wine in pop bottles in the back of his dad's closet. 

After retiring from a career as a law enforcement officer and fire department lieutenant, Wells returned to winemaking in a much more professional capacity. He studied viticulture at Michigan State University and began growing wine grapes professionally in Tecumseh in 2005, selling to Michigan wineries including Pentamere, J Trees Cellars, and Flying Otter. He made the transition from grower to winemaker when he opened Black Fire last year.

"I've seen a lot of bad things for most of my life," Wells says. "Most people show up at a winery and they're pretty happy. They normally leave and they're happier. I just thought that was a good fit for me."

Made in Michigan

For these new winemakers, the decision to locate in Michigan was truly a no-brainer.

"When we decided this was what we were going to do, there was no other area in question," Roush says. "It was like, 'Okay, we're going north to beautiful Petoskey.'"

Greiffendorf echoes that sentiment. All his family and friends were already in Michigan, so staying here was a natural decision. But more importantly for his business, he also had an expansive network of friends in the industry here. He places great value on the old friends (and new ones) he encounters each year at the Michigan Wine and Grape Conference.

"There's always something new to learn at my stage," he says. "I've only been doing it 10 years. Most of the help comes from veterans in this industry."

Wells says he also feels fortunate to have gotten into the Michigan winemaking scene during something of an industry renaissance.

"I think Michigan wines are way better than they used to be, and I don't think the soil has changed much," he says. "I think the winemakers are just doing a better job with the varieties and what they're making."

Business has been booming so far for Michigan's newest wineries. Wells says his first year of business exceeded his earnings projections. The Roushes just signed a lease on a second tasting room location in downtown Petoskey, and will soon add another 1,500 vines to the 2,300 already planted on their property. Greiffendorf says that 12 Corners' 2017 season has so far been marked by unexpectedly high business in April, far ahead of the main summer tourism season.

But even beyond all that good news, the wine business is hardly a business to these vineyard proprietors.

"It seems more like a hobby, even though it's probably a hobby gone mad," Greiffendorf chuckles. "To me, it really doesn't seem like work."

Patrick Dunn is the managing editor of the Issue Media Group publication Concentrate and an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer for numerous publications. Follow him on Twitter @patrickdunnhere.

Photos courtesy of 12 Corners Winery and Petoskey Farms Vineyard and Winery.

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