Big and bold is easy for any wine drinker to understand. Nuance, on the other hand is more of a challenge.

Michigan’s 70 wineries are producing wines some call surprising, a revelation, exceptional, and nuanced.

Grand Traverse Bay

With nearly every U.S. state producing wine, Michigan is trying to nab a spot, along with regions like New York’s Finger Lakes, as the next best thing outside the west coast.

Doug Welsch

Some Michigan producers boast their cool-climate wines, particularly Riesling, are the best-kept secret of world class wines. “People are going to be surprised at what’s coming out of Michigan because it’s as good as your going to find coming out of Europe,” said Michigan wine pioneer Doug Welsch, Fenn Valley Vineyards.

“Michigan wines are very similar to European wines. If you want food-friendly wines that are reminiscent of what you’d find in Europe, you’re going to find it in New York and Michigan. We don’t make big Chardonnays; our wines are lighter and fruitier. We don’t have to play second fiddle to anybody.”

The Michigan wine industry has grown significantly, increasing vineyard area by 60 percent in the last 10 years. From 20 wineries in the late 1990s to more than 70 today, Michigan wine is gaining attention and accolades. Michigan winemakers are well positioned because of the Great Lakes.

“We are cool-climate winemaking,” Shady Lanes Cellars winemaker Adam Satchwell said. Satchwell came to Michigan after stints at Kendall-Jackson in California and Benmarl Vineyards in New York. “We’re on the edge of viticulture insanity. You go a couple miles in any direction and you get away from all this water and it doesn’t work. Our potential centers on certain grapes, the aromatic whites. Riesling is our slam dunk. It’s one of the perfect places on the planet for that grape.”

Adam Satchwel discusses Michigan grape varieties.

The upper-state Leelanau Peninsula is where the significant growth is happening. The 45th parallel, shared with Burgundy and Oregon, is perhaps the reason Michigan wine growers are also planting plenty of Pinot Noir. Cabernet Franc is also popular.

“I do many of the same things with Pinot that I do with Riesling,” Satchwell said. “This is very, very intense wine with high aromatic presentation. The wines are intense in flavor and aromatics but because of the cool climate they tend to be pretty elegant at the same time. I think that’s how our area is going to be defined.”

Many of the newer wineries are smaller operations selling most of their wine from tasting rooms. And most enjoy the enviable problem of selling nearly all of the wine they produce.

Black Star Farm's Tasting Room

Recent investment in tasting rooms has created a boom in tourism and draws  more than 800,000 visitors annually. Something is going on in Michigan.

Don Coe, managing partner of Black Star Farms, as well as a member of Michigan’s Commission of Agriculture, and former president of Hiram Walker, said the wines are a reflection of the area.

“If you want to go to California, and want a beverage wine, have one of those high-alcohol, fruit bombs,” he said. “But if you drink them with food they don’t complement food, they over-power it. I drink two glasses of that stuff, my head falls in the mashed potatoes.

Don Coe

“If you went to Tuscany and asked for a bottle of Burgundy they’d hit you over the head as they ran you out of town. You go to Tuscany to drink the wines of the region, because they reflect the region’s character. That’s what we’re doing in Michigan.”

Coe’s business features a beautiful Inn, winery, restaurant, orchards, and horse farm operation. Black Star draws more than 90,000 visitors annually which supports his idea of Michigan wine’s future being agri-tourism. Northern Michigan, with Traverse City, offers music, theater, art, and food scene.

“Wine consumers are interested in the visual arts, performing arts, culinary arts, and the environment or outdoor recreation,” Coe explained. “It was a consumer-driven decision to get into the wine business here.”

Tony Lentych

Chateau Grand Traverse and Leelanau Cellars are much bigger producers (100,000 cases or more) with the same goals. “We’ve made an intentional effort to sell the region,” agreed Leelanau Cellars’ General Manager Tony Lentych. “This is Michigan’s wine coast. There are so many people in Chicago who drive up into the state and stop in southwest Michigan and think they’ve been to wine country. They need to come up and see this.”

But there are challenges that could limit Michigan’s potential. Coe talks about growing enough Michigan fruit to satisfy demand and the shortage of good labor. Already, many cherry orchards are being replanted to vineyards for profitability. Also, export over state lines may limit exposure. Michigan wines are found in a few border states, but in limited supply.

Lentych thinks the varied price of Michigan wine could also be a problem. “The biggest issue is going to be price point for a lot of people,” he said. “What do you say when someone wants an unoaked Chardonnay at $8 and you have an $18 bottle of Michigan wine? How do we compete?

“But if you’re selling them an experience they’ve already had, then they’ll tell the story to others.”

Pinot Blanc at Left Foot Charley

The challenge on price point was best illustrated during a tasting room visit to what has to be one of the funkiest wineries in the midwest. Left Foot Charley, on the grounds of an old mental health hospital, has an urban/industrial decor in its tasting room. Their dry Pinot Blanc ($18) was stunning with its finesse. The winery has won considerable accolades for its pricey Reislings. Therein lies Michigan’s challenge. Several Michigan wineries can craft sweet and dry Rieslings to challenge any region. But will wine drinkers plunk down $35 for Michigan wine when the same cash would buy some of Germany or the Alsace region’s better bottles?

But Michigan wine producers emphasize they can grow business significantly within their own borders and grow in the midwest as more visitors come to the state. This is what Coe believes is the key: convincing wine consumers to come to Michigan tasting rooms. (Editor’s note: For more details of the tasting rooms that Howard visited, check out his summary on Grape Sense.)

“We’re destination wineries,” he insisted. “We have the attractions and it’s reachable from Chicago, Indianapolis, Louisville, and the other major midwestern cities. You don’t have to go to the west coast. Visitors get to be a part of a developing wine culture.”

Howard HewittHoward W. Hewitt is a former career journalist who writes a bi-weekly newspaper column in Indiana. he also writes about value wine on his blog, Grape Sense – A Glass Half Full.

22 Responses

  1. Ryan Reichert

    I have to say, being from Ohio I saw much of the same situation. There is definitely the opportunity to grow excellent vinifera, and it’s not all sweet swill, but the cost of the finished product can’t compete with other major wine markets. Regardless, I’m a firm believer that as consumers the only thing we can do is make an effort to support these emerging regions to help them improve their quality and get to a point that their wines are even better and more affordable.

  2. Erika Szymanski

    Delighted to read this article, Howard, as I was delighted to try my first MI wine a month or so ago. Living in Washington, I can’t imagine myself specficially searching out Michigan wine, but the “drink local” idea goes far beyond the trendy “eat local” movement, I think, and for good reason. You highlighted both how people appreciate visiting wineries in their own region for the sheer fun of it, and I know I always love meeting the people responsible for a wine I enjoy. I’ll even pay extra for the privelege sometimes.

    A major issue in Michigan’s image and credibility that you completely ignored is the region’s historical and continuing reliance on Vinifera-Lambrusca (French-American) hybrid and pure-bred Lambrusca varietals. A lot of debate on this, of course, but most oenophiles still maintain that Viniferas make categorically better wine. On the other hand, a lot of consumers enjoy their flavors. I’d enjoy your thoughts on how Michigan’s past and future success depends — positively or negatively — on their share in hybrids.

  3. Rachel North

    Howard, love the depth of your article on Michigan wines and thought that if your readers were looking for a great trip, can help them find the wine trails, hotels, restaurants, art galleries, beaches and ski resorts to make their trip a vacation, regardless of the season they choose. And we even have a few additional videos, like this video tour of Good Neighbor Organic Vineyard and Winery in Leelanau County, Northern Michigan’s first and only totally Certified Organic Vineyard

    Northern Michigan’s food, wine and microbreweries are attracting a great deal of attention lately, and there’s even more to fall in love with once you get here.

  4. Howard

    Erika, thanks for your comments. It was a terrific visit. My background is in the newspaper business. Ryan even had to encourage me to write a little blog-like-opinion at the bottom of this piece. I tend to write for a broader audience than just oenophiles. I think there is a trap in wine writing to narrow the focus too much and chase away the casual drinker. I could have spent more time on vinifera issues, but I don’t think that reads well to casual wine drinkers. And, I’m not as well versed as many others would be. I’m good at interviewing and telling balanced stories – I hope at least! At the same time, I think anyone writing in wine has some responsibility to help educate. So its just a difference in approach.

  5. Erika Szymanski

    Howard, I can see and appreciate your point about avoiding interminable — or, heaven forbid, frightening — debates over the pros and cons of vinifera-vs-hybrid in this sort of article. Goodness knows I’m more than a bit biased! Still, I did think it was interesting that you make exclusive mention of vinifera varietals in the article when such a large portion of Michigan’s wine industry is comprised of hybrids or Lambruscas. For myself, I hope that Michigan wineries can contribute to the education of non-oenophiles by sparking their interest and providing them a range of options to explore.

    Diversity in wine styles. Diversity in writing styles. Different objects, but both to good purpose.

  6. Ryan Reichert

    Erika/Howard – it is an interesting subject the use of labrusca varieties in the midwest. Coming from Ohio, I have to assert that we owe a lot to those native species. Without them there’d likely be no wine industry whatsoever after the crippling effects of Prohibition.

    Additionally, I think the winemakers in those parts are really focused on bringing some quality vinifera to the “wine table” as it were. So while I think the labrusca varieties are important historically—and certainly can be well made or not, and should be judged as such rather than compared to vinifera—I think this is why you hear a lot more about the Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, etc being supported.

    Also, I’d be curious to get statistics on grapes being grown now and their use. My thoughts are that while labrusca may still be the most widely planted, that a good lot of these are being used for juice, not wine. Erika, do you know what the most produced wine varietal is in the state?

  7. Erika Szymanski

    Ryan, your short paragraph beginning “Additionally…” is perhaps the finest brief encapsulations of a reasonable framework for approaching hybrids that I’ve encountered. Thank you for sharing it.

    Taken directly from the official Michigan Wine website (

    “…the classic European varieties such as Chardonnay, Riesling (the most widely planted white), Pinot Noir (the most widely planted red), Pinot Grigio/Gris and Cabernet Franc; about 65% of Michigan’s wine grapes are vinifera. Since 1997, 90% of the new plantings in Michigan have been vinifera varieties…about 35% of Michigan’s wine grapes are hybrids… About 3% of Michigan’s wine is made from these varieties.

  8. Lance Hill

    Great piece on Michigan Wines. I am blessed to have been born and raised in the Grand Traverse Region. Wine is definitely a booming business here and it is great to see the area gaining exposure.

    My wife and I frequent many of the tasting rooms in the area including Left Foot Charley’s and Shady Lane. I think the drink local concept is great and I try to do the same anytime we travel.

    Thank you for shining a little light on the great area I live in.

  9. Ryan Reichert

    Erika – thanks, I’m glad you understand/appreciate my POV. I’ve certainly had my share of bad Concord to know what it’s like when made well! 😀 Cheers!

  10. Bryan Ulbrich

    Howard – Well stated article. This area is as dynamic as any in the industry and the growth is exciting. As owner of one of the wineries mentioned (LFC) within the issue of pricing, its important to point out that most Michigan Rieslings range in the $12-$20 range. The $35 Riesling at LFC was a Single Vineyard library release of 20 cases and therefore not really in the typical market model for most wines. However, it is interesting that that wine is sold out and we have a waiting list and are selling futures options on the 2010 vintage. There definately are consumers who recognize our value.

    I agree that if Michigan wines are trying to compete nationally in the $4-$15 market we will have a very rough challenge. The viable vineyard land is so limited in this area. And expensive too. Compare our land base to some far off vineyard factory in the western deserts Rows stretch for miles, perhaps never seeing human hands. It is cheap to produce these grapes with machines. The wines produced from Northern Michigan vineyards are often no larger than 2 acres and farmed by their owners. You can’t take people out of the terroir equation and expect the same level of complexity in the wine. LFC and most of my collegues are not trying to be the next Central Coast or even Napa. We are trying to be Old Mission and Leelanau Peninsulas. Our terroir driven wines are extremely limited and for those lucky enough to be able to procure them there are some tremendous values – particularily in the $15-$22 price range.
    I hope we can meet next time you visit. We should do a cellar raid and see how well these wines age too. But that’s another discussion.
    Bryan Ulbrich
    Lef Foot Charley

  11. Howard

    Bryan, you are right .. that is one point I should have made clearer right at that particular comment. If you go to the link at bottom of story which re-directs reader to my blog, you’ll see a bit of a review of the wineries I visited – including price points. I loved your tasting room. I got there about the time the place was opening. I’ll definitely drop you a line in advance on my next visit to set something up. By the way, I’m blown away by your Pinot Blanc!

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  13. Gail Kretchman

    There is only one thing that will influence the price of our wonderful Michigan wines – more people drinking them!
    My husband and I have belonged to several wine clubs in California and are now abandoning them for the delightful Michigan wines.
    Gail Kretchman

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