Blog: Sharon Kegerreis & Lorri Hathaway

With wine grape harvest well underway and snow soon to drape Michigan's vineyards, let's hope for a rosé forecast for vintage 2010. Wine writers Lorri Hathaway and Sharon Kegerreis, co-authors of The History of Michigan Wines, will cover the state's trial-and-error wine industry and toast its status as a world-class wine and food destination.

Post 1: Michigan's Wine Industry Rocked Detroit After Prohibition

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.