State wineries say it’s a great year for grapes

Greg Tasker, The Detroit News
Cabernet Franc grapes await harvesting at Chateau Chantal on the Old Mission Penninsula near Traverse city on Friday, Oct 21, 2016. (Dale G. Young/The Detroit News.)

Berrien Springs-- On an apple-crisp morning in late October, Jeff Lemon presides over the harvest of grapes at the family’s expansive farm, where rows and rows of well-tended vines stretch like waves across the gently rolling landscape east of the Lake Michigan shoreline.

A crew of four workers run a mechanical harvester and a tractor that pulls a trailer stacked with wooden bins, plodding amid vines teeming with cabernet franc, one of two dozen varietals grown on a farm that’s been in the family since the mid-19th century. The harvester straddles the vines, its metal rods vibrating and shaking loose clusters of blue-black grapes onto a series of conveyor belts that route them into the bins.

This is far from Lemon’s first fall morning in the family’s southwest Michigan vineyards, but his sense of relief about the season is as palpable as the ripened grapes perfuming the air. The past two falls, there were so little fruit among some varietals that the grapes were picked by hand; the harvests were just 10 percent to 20 percent of normal. Heartier grapes fared much better.

“I am happy. We’ve had a great growing year,” says Lemon, who runs the 170-acre farm and Lemon Creek Winery with his brother, Tim. “The summer was pretty hot. The rain didn’t come until mid-August but we’re pretty excited. There’s been better vintages but overall the quality of fruit is good and, in some cases, excellent.”

It’s a sentiment winemakers share across the state, from Paw Paw to Petoskey. A milder winter and an unusually warm and sunny summer produced the best crop in Michigan in three years. And while the frequent rain this fall has hindered harvesting efforts, vintners remain enthusiastic.

“Anybody I’ve interacted with for any reason, they’re very excited about what they’re working with,” says Lee Lutes, head winemaker at Black Star Farms near Traverse City. “Some of that enthusiasm is the fact that we have fruit again — some of it is the quality, and some of it is exceptional. I think we are going to see some fantastic wines come out of this vintage.”

Frigid winters contributed to dismal harvests the past two falls. In 2014, Michigan winemakers lost a majority of their crops to the extreme cold. And last year, up to 75 percent of the wine crop was decimated because of winter, a late spring and, in northern Michigan, a late-summer hail storm. Many wineries were forced to supplement their vintages with grapes and juice bought from out-of-state growers.

“Winemakers are very excited about the harvest this year,” said Karel Bush, executive director of the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council. “After that second brutal winter, some vineyards had to buy from elsewhere and that made it very difficult for them, especially if their business model is to be an estate winery. You have to be open, you have bills to pay, staff to pay, so you had to buy grapes and juice from elsewhere. This year, they’re delighted to have their own crop to work with.”

Chateau Chantal’s vineyards on the Old Mission Peninsula near Traverse City typically produces about 18,000 cases of wine a year. Chateau Chantal supplemented its wine-making operation last year with grapes from Washington. Still, the winery managed to harvest enough grapes to retain some of its Old Mission appellations, such as with its dry riesling, though far smaller quantities were produced.

It’s good news for an industry that continues to grow and is winning accolades for both white and red varietals, most notably chardonnay, riesling, cabernet franc and pinot noir. Home to more than 120 wineries, Michigan ranks 10th in the nation in production, producing more than 2.5 million gallons a year — a number expected to be reached again this year. And wineries, with their ever-expanding tasting rooms and activities, have become a big business across the state, attracting more than 2 million visitors a year.

Like other wineries on Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas near Traverse City, Chateau Chantal supplemented its wine-making operation last year with grapes from Washington state. Still, the winery, also known for its spectacular views of Grand Traverse Bay, managed to harvest enough grapes to retain some of its Old Mission appellations, such as with its dry riesling, though far smaller quantities were produced.

“It’s certainly looking much better this year,” said Marie-Chantal Dalese, president and CEO of the winery, which typically produces about 18,000 cases of wine a year. “We’ve been lucky to have such a warm year. The rain has slowed us down a bit but we’re holding tight. We certainly aren’t seeing spectacular quantity but the quality is great. Everyone working outside has a grin on their face because there are grapes out there.”

Frequent rain this fall has disrupted picking schedules and raised concerns about vine rot.

“We’ve had some challenges the last couple of weeks with rain,” said Lutes of Black Star Farms, which grows a variety of grapes on 150 acres on Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas and produces about 30,000 cases of wine annually. “Rain always makes it challenging. It creates some delays with picking and additional pressure on the fruit in terms of deterioration, but overall, it’s been a beautiful growing season.”

At Bowers Harbor Vineyards on the Old Mission Peninsula, the harvest on its 25-acre estate and vineyards around the region is expected to continue this week, with workers picking the last of the reds. The winery has harvested high yields of chardonnay and pinot grigio, one of its most notable varietals.

“We’re seeing yields that are incredible, and the fruit is high quality — some of the best we’ve seen in 25 years of producing wines,” said Justin Leshinsky, director of sales at the winery, which expects to produce about 17,000 cases of wine this year. “The last two seasons were a write-off for us. We grew more leaves than grapes. In our first two harvests this year of pinot noir and chardonnay, we harvested more than we did the two previous summers combined.”

Greg Tasker is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.