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Michigan Wine Co. to open tasting room -- virtually

Greg Tasker
Special to The Detroit News

The hurdles to opening a winery are many, but a global pandemic is typically not one of them.

Nonetheless, the owners of Michigan Wine Co. are going forward with a long-planned opening of their tasting room. But instead of physically opening the doors of their 2,332-square-foot winery near Douglas in southwestern Michigan, they’re hosting a virtual opening at 6 p.m. Friday.

“While we’re a little disappointed that we can’t begin to plan any sort of ‘physical’ opening celebration, we’re really looking forward to sharing a glass of wine with you and giving a virtual tour of the winery and vineyard,” said Joe Krajkiewcz, who owns the winery with his wife, Erica.

Joe and Erica Krajkiewcz, the owners of Michigan Wine Co. are going forward with a long-planned opening of their tasting room. But instead of physically opening the doors of their 2,332-square-foot winery near Douglas in southwestern Michigan, theyÕre hosting a virtual opening at 6 p.m. Friday.

The opening will be streamed live on the winery’s Facebook and Instagram profiles.

While many wineries in Michigan and across the country have embraced virtual tastings and events to drum up business and remain connected to their customers during the coronavirus-related shutdowns, holding a virtual opening for a new winery is unusual.

“There are so many cold case studies of how people succeed in this business, even in terms of our new virtual pandemic reality, but I have not heard of a (virtual opening) before,” said Tim Hanni, a West Coast-based wine industry business consultant and lecturer who also teaches courses in the business of making and selling wine.

The Krajkiewczs’ dilemma is not uncommon in these unusual times, Hanni said, noting he has students who are facing similar situations with their businesses. While there are challenges in the industry, both globally and domestically, disruptions in the traditional supply chain and business norms present new opportunities as well.

Joe and Erica Krajkiewcz, the owners of Michigan Wine Co. are going forward with a long-planned opening of their tasting room. But instead of physically opening the doors of their 2,332-square-foot winery near Douglas in southwestern Michigan, theyÕre hosting a virtual opening at 6 p.m. Friday.

“In all my teaching in anything about wine, I value critical thinking. If people can be innovative, step back and look at new ways to do things, such as a virtual opening, there are opportunities to be had,” said Hanni, president of Wine Business Education LLC.  “This is a time when new brands are built.”

The Krajkiewczs began planning their winery four years ago, buying an eight-acre tract, an overgrown field that had once been an orchard, near Douglas. The couple planted three acres of grapes -- riesling, Cayuga White and Traminette -- the following year, harvesting their first vintage last fall.

Construction of their processing facility and contemporary tasting room, which features a horseshoe-shaped bar and a large rollup door that opens up to a patio and adjacent vineyard, began in 2018. The entrance is an oversized door with a Michigan cutout from steel, designed and made by Joe.

Michigan’s stay-at-home order has slowed the finishing construction touches in the 750-square-foot tasting room, including installing the bar top, ordered just before the state shut down. But the couple recently completed  hand bottling and labeling of about 800 cases of wine and hard cider. Their main estate varietal is riesling.

The Krajkiewczs had planned to open the first weekend of May, coinciding with the start of Michigan Wine Month. 

“If we weren’t overcoming a few hurdles along the way over the last couple months, we could have been there,” Joe said. “We can’t get the tasting room finished but it’s kind of moot at this point since we can’t do tastings.”

 They’re not alone, obviously. Many wineries across the state have been closed for tastings but have been offering curbside pickups. Some have pushed online sales and discounted or free shipping to bolster business, with varying degrees of success, said David Miller, president of the Michigan Wine Collaborative and owner of White Pine Winery in St. Joseph.

 “This has helped but many people are financially strapped … Our business model is direct to consumer sales through our tasting room and wine club. Those have taken a big hit and we don’t see returning to pre–Covid normal any time soon,” Miller said.

 It’s definitely a difficult time to open a business. One of the initiatives the Michigan Wine Co. pursued was obtaining a shipping license; the winery has shipped wine to customers in Michigan and 38 states.

“The virtual opening and shipping license were not in our original plans, but it’s not the first hurdle we’ve encountered since we started out four years ago,” Joe said. “I’m very happy we did add the shipping to reach more customers.”

The couple stepped into the wine industry with no background in wine. Joe works full time as a manufacturing engineer; Erica is a middle school physical education teacher.

  “No one drank wine in my house when I was growing up,” he said. “My wife exposed me to wine and it started to grow on me. I do freelance art work on the side, sculpture and painting. It was kind of a joke that I was going to figure out how to make wine. People joke about wine being a liquid art, but there really is a certain artistry to it.”

Not unlike other aspiring winemakers, Joe got his start making wine from kits. He bought juice locally but eventually decided to grow his own grapes, planting a half acre of vines at his father’s home in Freesoil, about 100 miles north. That led the couple to seek out more acreage for a vineyard, settling on land near Douglas, an area the couple was familiar with because Joe had displayed his art at a local gallery.

“It’s a big elephant to start a winery,” he said. “It’s gone slowly over the last four years, marking off small milestones along the way, from first planting to starting a building, to having electricity. It’s been rewarding to work through this as a couple. It’s one of those things I look at with a little pride. We’ve made it this far. We’re excited to be here.”   

The tasting room menu includes 10 wines and three hard ciders. The most unusual offering is a dry-hopped wine, believed to be one of the first of its kind in Michigan. It’s a semi-dry white made from Seyval Blanc, with whole cones of Citra hops added near the end of fermentation.

The Michigan Wine Co. is situated about a mile from Lake Michigan in the Fennville American Viticultural Area , one of five designated wine-growing regions in the state. The Michigan Wine Co. is part of a cluster of wineries and cideries in the Fennville appellation. Michigan has more than 150 wineries, with a handful opening each year.

Choosing Michigan Wine Co. as the brand name was inspired by the buy local trend and the couple’s desire to promote Michigan wines.

 “One thing that was key to us was using Michigan as part of our name,” Joe said. “Buying local first gets tossed around a lot, but for us it was really key. We’re trying to promote Michigan wines first and that’s what we’re about. We thought this is either a simple name that covers all that or it’s so far-fetched that no one will like it. The reception has been good.”

Despite the growth in the Michigan wine industry, hurdles endure for both aspiring and promising winemakers. Among them is misperceptions about the quality of Michigan wines, both red and white.

“The biggest challenge winemakers face is the incorrect idea that Michigan can’t make quality wine, that kind of negative association,” Hanni said. “My experience with the types of grapes they’re growing and the passion of the people there, there are terrific wines in Michigan. The biggest challenge is changing consumer attitudes, even in their own state.”

During Friday’s virtual tour, Joe and Erica will take turns holding the camera. Joe hopes to update on construction and what the couple hopes to achieve at their microwinery.

“It’s difficult to tell our whole story without being able to share it in person,” Joe said. “But it’s an opportunity to do something different. There are a lot of people who have supported us who wanted to be here with us when we opened. Since they can't be, we thought it was a good way to connect with everyone.”

Virtual Opening Michigan Wine Co.

6 p.m. Friday (May 22)

Facebook and Instagram profiles

Hosts: Joe and Erica Krajkiewcz