It isn’t easy making fine wine north of the 45th Parallel.
For those vineyards that try, it’s all about finding and using hardier grape varieties … with a little chutzpah sprinkled in.
More than 50 vineyards exist north of the 45th, known for being halfway to the North Pole. These wineries are sprinkled from Ellsworth, to Harbor Springs, all the way up to the Straits of Mackinac.
To attract more oenophiles, wineries like Cellars of Royal Farm, Harbor Springs Vineyards & Winery, and Mackinaw Trail Winery have formed the Northwest Michigan Bay View Wine Trail.
The trail winds through Indian River, Alanson, Harbor Springs, and Petoskey.
“There are new varieties for northern climates,” said Linda Jones, the executive director of the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council. That means more opportunities for grape growers and winemakers.
Jones says traditionally four counties have accounted for 90 percent of the state’s wine grapes: Berrien, Van Buren, Leelanau and Grand Traverse.
But that is changing as Michigan and 12 other states band together to develop hardier new strains in what’s called the Northern Grapes Project.
They are developing grapes such as Frontenac, Frontenac Gris, Marquette, and La Crescent. Those are among the grapes being planted in vineyards for winemaking.
Among the wineries of the most northerly part of the Lower Peninsula, the best known may be Mackinaw Trail Winery, owned and run by the Stabile family. Originally one of the few vineyards in the Upper Peninsula, it now boasts operations in Mackinaw City, Petoskey, and Manistique.
Krista Stabile manages tasting rooms and local events. Her father, a native Sicilian, learned the ropes from his father and grandfather. Now Stabile’s brother, Dustin, is the family winemaker.
Though the winery became operational in 2004, this family has been crafting wines for four generations.
In addition, both Dustin Stabile and his father Ralph Stabile teach others the ins and outs of the industry at North Central Michigan College in Petoskey.
Located five miles north of Harbor Springs on M-119, Harbor Springs Winery and Vineyards at Pond Hill Farm is an all-encompassing farm and vineyard excursion. In addition to the vineyard and tasting room, visitors can enjoy the on-site bistro restaurant. It is also a micro-brewery, farm store, and working farm, complete with livestock, including ducklings and pigs.
Benjamin Dark manages the tasting room, vineyard and brewery. He says one of the best and best-selling wines is the Regatta Red Blend, which is grown in a silica sand dune.
“It’s crisp and clear,” he said. “Usually only the whites are so crisp.”
Sid VanValkenburgh of Seasons of the North Winery in Indian River also decided to put his years of home winemaking experience to work. He and wife Rachel teamed up with her parents, Mike and Brenda Passino, to create the winery.
VanValkenburgh and his father-in-law took the courses at North Central Michigan College and then pooled their expertise.
“He’s the farmer and I’m the winemaker,” he said. “It’s fun. You meet all kinds of people.”
Crooked Vine Vineyard and Winery of Alanson is the dream of another husbandand-wife team, Geoff and Gail Frey. Geoff is a former distributor for Gallo wine in Ohio.
A career change brought him to California, so he familiarized himself with the wines of Napa Valley. In Michigan postretirement, he took classes at North Central Michigan College, and then built his own winery in Indian River.
“I talked to a lot of people in Traverse City before starting up here,” said Frey. “We decided two people with part-time help could do five acres.”
Frey subsequently planted 2,000 vines last spring. He also bought grapes from southern Michigan and produced six wines: Two reds, two whites and two fruit wines.
“The feedback from hotels and restaurants is they love it,” Frey said.
Jones says the Michigan wine industry continues to grow and receive praise from throughout the wine world.
Michigan wines earn many prestigious awards annually at several national and international competitions, such as Riverside, San Francisco Chronicle, Dallas Morning News, Long Beach, Indy International, Tasters Guild, Great Lakes, and others, earning a total of 176 gold medals in 2013.
The area’s growing visibility and prestige have been recognized by the industry in competitions as well as in the press, by such entities as Midwest Wine Press and others.
“There is a big future ahead for Michigan wines,” wrote Dan Berger, a syndicated wine columnist from Santa Rosa, Calif., on the Michigan Wine Council website. “Out on the West Coast, you can’t find a good Riesling for under $15. Here they cost $10 to $12.
Nobody makes Riesling with this much style for this amount of money.”
That’s echoed by Tom Stevenson, author of “The New Sotheby’s Encyclopedia of Wine.”
“I was 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,” he said.
The growth of the industry throughout the state, and the continued development of cool hardy grapes that are able to withstand the rigors of Northern Michigan winters, promise that will continue to be the case.
One of the engaging aspects of the industry is that, like its counterpart on the microbrewing side, those in it see one another as friends and partners, rather than competitors.
“It’s not competition, it’s cooperation,” says Stabile. “With California, it’s a competition. With Chateau Chantal, it’s not. We’re all concerned with getting Michigan higher.”