State wine festivals right setting for taste-bud bliss

Greg Tasker
The Detroit News

More than a dozen wineries from the Leelanau Peninsula will be pouring red and white varietals into the glasses of eager hands at the Leland Wine & Food Festival this weekend.

Sample plates of some of the best culinary creations and a craft beer stand (for nonwine drinkers, of course) will be part of the mix at the annual festival, planted just yards from the glimmering waters of Lake Michigan.

While it may be business as usual at the state’s oldest wine festival, it’s anything but in the state’s burgeoning wine industry. Wine tastings have become the norm at all kinds of festivals, and winemakers continue to expand and evolve their operations.

More and more acres of varietals are being planted, tasting rooms are being expanded or revamped, new wineries are taking root, and increasingly, wineries are offering more sophisticated activities and events, aimed at enhancing the wine-tasting experience in the Great Lakes State.

“Wine tasting has become huge, and we have lots of wine festivals all across the state,” says Sue Bila, president of the Michigan Festivals & Events Association, a nonprofit group that supports and promotes festivals and fairs across the state.

“What is interesting is that wine — and beer — tastings have become a big part of a lot of other festivals. You’re seeing more and more beverage tents with wine tastings. That’s where the big consumption is. It’s really taken off.”

Wine festivals from Northport to Bridgman and from Mackinaw City to Jackson are drawing more enthusiasts because of a greater consumer awareness of Michigan wines, as well as the appeal of being outdoors in picturesque settings and food offerings (often locally sourced) and food and wine pairings.

“The whole experience is the draw. People are looking for more experiences all the time, and they love to be outdoors,” says Karel Bush, program manager for the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council. “One of the main reasons the industry has really boomed in the last five to 10 years is consumer awareness of Michigan wines. For a long time, people didn’t realize Michigan had so many wineries and that those wineries are making quality wines that are winning awards all over the country.”

In the recent Finger Lakes International Wine Competition, several Michigan wineries won gold, silver and bronze medals for their white and red varietals and blends. They include Tabor Hill Winery, Leelanau Wine Cellars, Lemon Creek Winery and Cody Kresta Vineyard and Winery.

“The quality of Michigan wines has grown exponentially,” says Michael Schafer, a wine sommelier who promotes a “humorous and fun” approach to education as the Wine Counselor. “We are producing world-class wines. The quality of Michigan wines and the rise in the number of festivals are occurring simultaneously and feeding each other.”

Just six years ago, Michigan counted 71 commercial wineries. Today, there are about 120 and they can be found all over the state, from the far wooded reaches of the Upper Peninsula to the rolling farmland of the Lower Peninsula. Wine production has grown from 1.4 million gallons in 2010 to 2.6 million gallons in 2015.

Several factors are driving the growth and garnering Michigan more attention. As Schafer points out, the quality of Michigan wines has improved tremendously as vintners have learned which varietals grow best in the state’s cool climate. Their businesses also have become more sophisticated with social marketing and event planning. And Pure Michigan, the state’s well-known marketing campaign, has helped with its popular commercials and tourism promotions.

Schafer also has observed another interesting social phenomenon: millennials. Unlike their baby boomer counterparts, millennials are much more open to exploration and trying new things. They’re not fixated on classic wines from a particular country, such as France. They’ll show up at a tasting room or a festival, use their phone to snap a picture of a label and look up the varietal, and read about it while sipping away.

“Technology has revolutionized what people are doing and what they’re willing to do,” Schafer says.

The last head count on the number of visitors to Michigan wineries was estimated about 2 million a year (in 2013). Anecdotally, tasting room managers and owners will tell you tourist numbers are on the rise, and their venues are often packed from spring to fall. Festivals also are seeing a growing number of visitors.

Some wineries like Sandhill Crane Vineyards near Jackson, on southeast Michigan’s Pioneer Wine Trail, have attracted more guests with a variety of wine-related activities, including Yoga + Wine, Paint & Sip, and a Wine & Wool Festival.

The Lake Michigan Shore Wine Festival expects upward of 4,000 visitors at its beachside festival next weekend. Kathy Sturm, executive administrator of the Lake Michigan Shore Wine Trail, says interest in the 20 wineries along the route and the festival has grown over the past decade, thanks to better promotion. New tasting rooms have sprouted up in beach towns along the Lake Michigan coast.

A surge in visitors prompted Chateau Aeronautique Winery outside of Jackson to transform its boutique gazebo-style tasting room into much larger space. Additionally, the winery, which began operation just seven years ago, is opening a second tasting room on 22 acres about 40 minutes from its home base in the Irish Hills near Brooklyn.

“Wine is on the upswing and we needed more space to accommodate our guests,” says Sandy Brown, Chateau Aeronautique’s tasting room manager, adding plans also call for the new site to host wedding and large wine-related events.

As the industry continues to grow, festival organizers and winemakers are striving to improve the overall wine-tasting experience, moving beyond the traditional tasting excursions from winery to winery.

Now in its eighth year, the Traverse City Wine and Art Festival is revamping is focus to concentrate on wine and locally grown food. Organizers have tapped winemakers to lead educational sessions, added behind-the-booth varietal tours, and sessions in which regional wines are paired with cheese, desserts and other local fare.

“We’re getting back down to the earth and what has been going on here a long time,” says Lorri Hathaway, the festival’s executive director. “We are focused on the quality of the wine-tasting experience as opposed to selling as many tickets as we can. We want people to know what they’re drinking in their glass.”

On the Leelanau Peninsula, where two new wineries have opened in the past year, the effort to enhance the wine-tasting experience also is being embraced.

Verterra Winery, which opened a tasting room in Leland just five years ago and has participated in the Leland Wine Festival ever since, is an example of a Michigan vintner bolstering its offerings. The winery just opened a new tasting room at its Swede Road vineyards, northeast of its Leland venue.

The site has already hosted weddings and owner Paul Hamelin plans to use the location for specialized events, including wine and cheese pairings, a fall barbecue coupled with the release of new wines and other activities. They’ll include the opportunity to spend time in the surrounding vineyards, which sit on the highest ridge on the northern part of the peninsula with stunning view of Grand Traverse Bay and Lake Michigan.

“The evolution of wineries has helped create a more in-depth experience at vineyards,” Hamelin says. “Historically, wineries here have said come and visit and do five wineries. If you’ve ever traveled to Europe or the West Coast, the more interesting experience is when you get to spend time in the vineyards with the owner or winemaker, or have food, dinner or weddings in the vineyards.

“That’s where you spend more time and deeper experience and more enjoyment of wineries. That’s the experience we’re after.”

Greg Tasker is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.

Michigan Wine Festivals

A selection of upcoming wine festivals around the state:

Leland Wine & Food Festival


Lake Michigan Shore Wine Festival

June 18

Festival of the Sun

June 25

Old Town, Lansing

Traverse City Wine & Art Festival

June 25

Waterfront Wine Festival

June 25

Harbor Springs

Wine on the Water Festival

July 16

Suttons Bay

Tawas Uncork’d

Aug. 6

Northport Wine Festival

Aug. 13

St. Joseph Wine Festival & Art Auction

Sept. 24