In our quest to write two Michigan wine country books, we've discovered that there is still a strong belief that Michigan produces only sweet whites and that the industry is fairly new. Quite the contrary, Michigan produces world class wines, from sweet to very dry, that are beating renowned wine regions, nationally and internationally, year after year.
Wine critic and writer Tom Stevenson writes in his book, The New Sotheby’s Encyclopedia of Wine, that he is "impressed by Michigan Pinot Noirs because of their naturally elegant weight and structure; and by the Pinot Grigios, which typically exceed in quality their Italian namesakes; and by the Merlots, Rieslings, Chardonnays and sparkling wines."
Michigan's 73 wineries consist largely of boutique operations that focus on smaller productions of wine. For some, the focus is on producing single-vineyard wines, which means harvesting grapes from one vineyard rather than multiple sources. This approach aids the winemaker in crafting wine that uniquely expresses a locality – literally, a specific place on earth. A wine that states a region's identity or specific vineyard on its label truly represents the region in which it was grown.
Michigan Wine and Agritourism
Diverse wine grapes and other fruits thrive here due to unique growing conditions created by lake effect from prevailing westerly winds from Lake Michigan. The massive freshwater lake moderates seasonal temperatures, cooling the air in the summer and warming the air in the fall. This buffer on the climate extends the growing season for pockets of regions around Michigan and for areas, in particular, located near the state's west coast.
As most Michiganders know, agriculture and tourism drive an enormous portion of the state's economy. Remarkably, Michigan agriculture is currently a $71.3 billion industry, and our Great Lakes state is the second most agriculturally-diverse state in the country, next to California.
One thing is certain as you explore Michigan wine country – the journey and destinations represent Michigan agriculture at its most refined. The trend to be a locavore is sending consumers directly to the farms, fields, and orchards, creating an increased demand for agricultural experiences. For winery visitors, this means interacting with the winemaker, touring the vineyards and facilities, sampling wines, and participating in wine and food pairing dinners. Today, wineries are Michigan’s top agritourism industry, contributing $790 million to the state's economy.
"Agricultural tourism operations, like wineries, are increasingly important to the future of Michigan agriculture and the state economy," states Don Koivisto, director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture. "Agriculture and tourism, the state's second and third leading industries, support economic stability and development, strengthen Michigan's family farms, improve the quality of life for our citizens in both rural and urban areas, and preserve the state's rich and diverse farmland and agricultural heritage."
Michigan wines offer a lively connection to the land in which they are grown and are an essential aspect to the state's vibrant future.
As Eddie O'Keefe, III, of Chateau Grand Traverse shares, "Wineries give credibility to a region. They give a region soul."
So, when you're enjoying your next meal prepared with locally-grown food, pair it with a locally-grown, Michigan wine. And when you think of wine country travel, plan a visit to Michigan wine country. Just think, drinking Michigan wine and traveling to Michigan wine country boosts our state's economy. Now that's something to celebrate!
Michigan wine production was at its peak during the 1930s through 1960s, reaching 1,000,000 cases of wine. Remarkably, Michigan's 73 wineries of today are producing only half this production, or 500,000 cases. This decline was caused by detrimental obstacles challenging the industry through the 20th century. Fortunately, passion and perseverance of Michigan vintners have evolved wine production into the modern, thriving growth industry of today.
Sugar rationing during World War II prompted the mass production of sweet, cheap, and fortified wines for at least two decades in the post-Prohibition era. When the war ended, however, a new trend began penetrating the American market. Returning soldiers, exposed to Old World styles of wine in Europe, preferred these drier-style wines. Also, new celebrities, like cookbook author and television personality Julia Child, educated Americans on how to cook and pair wines with food. American wine drinkers become savvier and more knowledgeable, and the demand for palatable table wines was on the rise. In 1969, the consumption of table wines surpassed sweet wines for the first time in the nation's history.
Michigan winemakers recognized the changing market, and as early as 1957, the state's nine wineries started a commission of experts to conduct blind tastings of their wines and evaluate the quality. Three years prior, Baco Noir was planted by Bronte winemaker Angelo Spinazze for the production of the state's first table wine.
A Detrimental State Regulation
Unfortunately, a detrimental law change in 1972 shut down operations for some of Michigan's biggest wineries, nearly stomping out the industry. Law 16A increased the amount that wineries needed to pay farmers for grapes to receive a much-needed tax break. The requirement, which had changed six years prior from $55 to $85, was now $100 per ton. The tax break allowed for a reduction of forty-six cents per gallon, provided the wine was less than 16 percent alcohol and was made from 75 percent Michigan-grown grapes.
By 1973, production had significantly dropped to only 600,000 cases. Michigan’s in-state market share, which was once 80 percent, dropped to less than 30 percent by 1975. The drop continued through the rest of the 1970s, bottoming out at 250,000 cases.
Fortunately, two of Michigan's post-Prohibition wineries, St. Julian Wine Company and Warner Vineyards, survived these financial challenges and began producing palatable table wines. Also, new wineries opened, including Tabor Hill and Chateau Grand Traverse, after planting acres of hybrid and vinifera grapevines. A new era for Michigan vintners was ignited.
Linda Jones, program manager of the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council, says that the state's wine industry has grown 10-15% in sales per year over the past 15 years. Today, Michigan produces about 500,000 cases a year and continues to face several obstacles, the biggest being distribution. Most of Michigan's wineries are small, boutique wineries that produce less than 5,000 cases a year, making it cost-prohibitive to hire distributors.
"The ability to ship wines direct from wineries to our consumers is essential for us and for our loyal consumers," explains Don Coe, co-owner of Black Star Farms of Suttons Bay and commissioner for the Michigan Department of Agriculture. "We are dependent upon our tasting rooms to introduce products. However, we are not close to those consumers and our wines are not in broad distribution. The consumer is king and should be able to get the wine they want, when they want. Consumers need to join us to ensure that artificial barriers are not allowed to limit these sales to benefit extraneous business interests."
Interestingly, Michigan previously had shipping laws that were discriminatory and anticompetitive. In 2003, Eleanor and Ray Heald led the charge to strike down the anti-commerce law by suing the state of Michigan. As wine writers, they often ordered wines from around the world, but Michigan's antiquated laws prohibited the direct shipment of wine from other states to consumers living in Michigan. This also meant that most other states denied Michigan wineries the right to ship into their states since shipping was not reciprocated. After a long battle and an appeal by the state of Michigan, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in favor of the Healds on May 16, 2005, stating that Michigan's direct shipping laws were, indeed, unconstitutional. The initiative and persistence of the Healds opened new market opportunities for the state's wineries.
Coe says, "There are ample opportunities for growth for Michigan wineries as only six out of every 100 bottles of wine consumed in Michigan are produced in Michigan."
Michigan Wine in Restaurants
One opportunity is to grow the number of restaurants serving Michigan wine. Can you imagine visiting a Napa Valley bistro and not having your choice of an impressive list of California wines?
Some Michigan restaurants are responding well to consumer demand for locally-sourced foods and wine. The opportunity for growth, though, is astounding. "Restaurants in the know are featuring Michigan wines," says Master Sommelier Claudia Tyagi. "My modus operandi in restaurants is to feature wines by varietal. So, for instance, you'll see a listing of pinot grigios, chardonnays and pinot noirs. I always make sure there are three to four Michigan wines by the glass. Larry Mawby's sparklers are always wonderful; in particular, we serve Blanc de Blanc to people from all around the world."
Tyagi recommends Forest Grill in Birmingham, Coach Insignia on top of the Renaissance Center in Detroit, and Northern Lakes Seafood in Bloomfield Hills for a respectable listing of Michigan wines. For a list of restaurants serving four or more Michigan wines, visit the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council's website.
For Michiganders, the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 signified the end of laws that challenged the legal consumption of alcohol since the mid-1800s. Remarkably, Michigan had two lengthy prohibition periods - the one that coincided with the national prohibition during the early 1900s and an earlier one that lasted for more than 20 years during the 1850s to 1870s. We imagine an exuberant, unified toast resounding within Detroit and beyond as Michigan, the first state to repeal, and its residents celebrated on April 10, 1933.
Americans' demand for wine skyrocketed as the national repeal became official. Even First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt started serving wines at the White House for the first time since 1877, when First Lady Lucy Webb Hayes refused to serve alcohol, eventually garnering the nickname "Lemonade Lucy" for her active role in the temperance movement.
Within days of the repeal, entrepreneurs Maurice (Morris) Twomey and Mariano Meconi shifted their operations from Canada to the Detroit area. Seven additional wineries opened within the next few years. Michigan's post-Prohibition wine industry was ignited. Of the nine wineries, six were located in or near Detroit to be close to consumers.
Michigan's Largest-Ever Wineries
During the "dry era" of Prohibition, alcohol was the second biggest industry after automobile manufacturing. So, it’s no wonder that upon the repeal new winery owners "went big" with the establishment of large production winemaking facilities in the Detroit area to meet the demand for wine. Twomey is quoted in a newspaper in the years following Prohibition, stating:
"The largest consumption of wines in America is found among those of foreign birth or extraction. Authoritative sources state that the population of greater Detroit alone includes over 755,000 persons either foreign born or with at least one parent foreign born. According to the department of commerce figures, the Michigan market for wines in normal times is estimated at 4,000,000 gallons annually."
In response, Twomey led the development of Michigan's largest-ever winery to date: La Salle Wines and Champagne. Six months before the repeal, Twomey began renovations of an 83,000-square-foot building, formerly an electrical powerhouse of the Detroit United Railway in Farmington. He converted the structure into a massive wine production facility with the capacity to produce 1,000,000 gallons of wine. By 1941, Twomey's winery was ranked third in the nation and produced almost half the commercial wine in the state. Unfortunately, Twomey passed away in 1963, and within 15 years, the La Salle brand ceased to exist.
As the La Salle winery flourished, so did Bronte Champagnes and Wine Company. Bronte was established in downtown Detroit in May 1933, when four business partners converted a three story Columbia Brewing building into a winery facility with the capacity to produce 800,000 gallons of wine each year.
One of Bronte's notable milestones is the release of the nation’s first bottling and labeling of Cold Duck. Robert Wozniak, who was president of the winery, tasted still burgundy wine combined with sparkling wine at Ponchartrain Wine Cellars in Detroit in the late 1950s. Immediately afterward, he encouraged his winemaker, Angelo Spinazze, to develop and bottle a similar wine.
Bronte also produced the state's first commercial table wine, Baco Noir, in the late 1950s. It was Cold Duck and Bronte Champagne, though, that garnered the most success. Both wines were featured on wine lists throughout Detroit, including Joe Muer's Restaurant, Sinbad's on the Detroit River, and at Macchus Red Fox. By the 1970s, a changing marketplace and challenging laws caused Bronte to cease operations in 1984.
Due to the production and innovations of La Salle, Bronte, and several other wineries, Michigan became a leader in the nation, ranking third behind California and New York. Production levels soared through the 1960s, at which time Michigan was producing 1,000,000 gallons a year. Surprisingly, this production is twice the amount of wine that Michigan’s 73 wineries are producing today. Of all the wineries, Meconi's winery, St. Julian Wine Company of Paw Paw, is the only one that still exists today.