Petoskey is the newest part of wine country

Greg Tasker
Special to The Detroit News

When the Mackinaw Trail Winery began planting rows of grapevines amid the gently rolling hills along Route 131 south of Petoskey several years ago, a designated wine trail was not part of this inviting up north landscape of woods, lakes and rivers. 

But that is changing. 

A growing number of wineries are sprouting up in this land hugging Lake Michigan’s Little Traverse Bay, a region made famous by Ernest Hemingway's “The Nick Adams Stories,” complementing the idyllic scenery, postcard-perfect resort towns — Petoskey, Charlevoix and Harbor Springs — and outdoor pursuits that have made the region a vacation destination. 

Crooked Vine Vineyard and Winery is located east of Alanson on a hillside overlooking the Emmet County countryside.

What makes this wine region different from others in Michigan is that vintners here are not focused on European vinifera, the wine grapes most of us know: chardonnay, pinot noir and merlot. Instead, they’re primarily growing hybrids, mostly developed by American universities, to withstand the brutal winters of northern climates. 

It’s cold-hardy grapes such as Marquette, a red varietal, that the region is embracing and that are putting Petoskey on the Michigan wine map. Its characteristics can vary, depending on how it's made, but common flavor notes are red fruits, cherry and plum, and black pepper. 

Also helping to uncork the region’s potential is a change from the original trail name, as well as more aggressive marketing. The former name, Bay View Wine Trail, referring to Little Traverse Bay, didn’t quite resonate with a lot of people; almost any coastal area of Michigan boasts a bay view. Petoskey has name recognition. 

The region has grown to include 17 wineries (and more are on the way). They’re a collection of mostly small, family-owned wineries spread amid the bucolic countryside surrounding Petoskey. They run the gamut from mom-and-pop operations to farmers-turned-vintners to bigger producers like Mackinaw Trail.

Ralph Stabile, 55,  left, and son Dustin Stabile, 34, co-owners of Mackinaw Trail Winery in Petoskey, are seen in the barrel room Wednesday, Oct. 30, with a bottle of their signature Marquette red wine. 
Photography by John L. Russell

The region is especially breathtaking in the fall when the hardwood forests of maple and oaks erupt in fiery red and orange hues, and the harvest is underway. On Saturdays, tasting rooms are likely to be crowded; even more so at the handful of wineries that are part farm operations, offering pumpkins, apples, cider, doughnuts, and a host of outdoor activities. 

It’s a wine destination for the adventurous, as well as the curious. If you’re strictly a chardonnay or merlot drinker, this region might not satisfy your palate. But you will find hybrids that offer similar flavor profiles. Winemakers here describe the wines as a little brighter, with a little higher acid content to them. They can work the same magic — using oak barrels and other tricks — as other vintners do with famous European varieties. 

And if the wineries here are smaller and less polished than, say, those on the Old Mission or Leelanau peninsulas near Traverse City, the winemakers here are no less passionate or enthusiastic. Chances are, you’ll encounter the owner or winemaker (sometimes one and the same) behind the tasting room bar. Many tasting rooms are modest enterprises, some focusing solely on wine; other selling hard cider, craft beerand farm-grown produce. 

Ralph Stabile, co-owner of Mackinaw Trail Winery, checks fresh Petite Pearl grapes Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2019 at their processing facility. The grapes will be used to make a dry red wine. (Special to the Detroit News/John L. Russell)
Petoskey wine

Photography by John L. Russell

The hybrids grown here include Frontenac, Frontenac gris, Petite Pearl, La Crescent and Marquette. Marquette, a descendant of pinot noir, made its debut in 2006, after years of research at the University of Minnesota. Its named after Pere Marquette, the 17th-century Jesuit missionary who also spent considerable time in Michigan. 

“Marquette is putting northern Michigan on the map,” said Geoff Frey, the proprietor and winemaker at Crooked Vine Vineyard and Winery. 

A boutique winery, Crooked Vine is among the Michigan wineries growing Marquette. Frey, a former IT professional turned vintner, ages his Marquette for about a year in Hungarian oak. He concedes he doesn’t grow enough grapes in his 5-acre vineyard to age his Marquette any longer. He has to meet demand. 

“We don’t have a surplus. We sell out every year,” he says. 

Protective netting is removed from grape vines Wednesday, Oct. 30, at the Mackinaw Trail Winery south of Petoskey. The netting protects the vines and grapes from birds and deer who love to graze on the plants.

While many customers don’t recognize Marquette or other hybrids, Frey believes education is part of the process. Banners of some hybrids hang in his humble tasting room, near the bar, serving as a talking point with customers, who come from all over — the Upper Peninsula, Grand Rapids, Detroit, Chicago, Indiana and Ohio. 

Visit Crooked Vine and you’ll hear not only about these varietals but also the stories behind the winery’s unique labels. Sample his Barrel Back Red, made from Noiret, another hybrid, and he’ll share the grape’s origins (developed by New York’s Cornell University), and a little history of the label, which pays tribute to the craftsmanship of wooden boats. 

“I like to say it’s similar to cabernet sauvignon,” he explains, noting the Noiret is aged in French oak. “It’s the kind of wine you would have with a big steak.” 

Crooked Vine Vineyard and Winery is located east of Alanson on a hillside overlooking the Emmet County countryside.

The winemakers here might seem like they’re on the fringe of Michigan’s wine map, but they’re making a splash in some well-known wine contests, including the Michigan Wine Competition. In two of the last three years, a Marquette wine was chosen as the best of class in the dry red category. One of the winning wineries was from southeastern Michigan; the other was from the Petoskey Wine Region: Walloon Lake Winery. 

A former produce farm, Walloon Lake Winery is now a full-fledged winery, located not far from the shores of Walloon Lake, the summer home of the Hemingway family (nods to Hemingway are not uncommon among the wineries). 

Though the winery’s North Arm Noir, its Marquette winner from 2017, still gets some attention, the most popular wine at the family-owned winery is its End of the Pike Peach. 

Craig Russell, standing left, and Dustin Stabile, winemaker at Mackinaw Trail Winery, pour crushed grapes into a machine to separate the juices from the Riesling grape pulp Wednesday, Oct. 30.

“It’s just fun to drink,” explains Britta Dennis, one of the winery’s owners and business manager. “It’s like mimosa in a glass. It’s light, peachy and sparkling.” 

While customers do stumble over hybrid names, many are curious about them.

“I think they’re surprised to find out about them and they want to learn more about them,” she says. “I think sometimes they’re surprised at how good they taste. They don’t come in with preconceived notions about them. They just don’t know them.” 

The Petoskey area is part of a distinctive wine-growing region: Tip of the Mitt. It’s the most recent American Viticultural Area in Michigan, stretching from just south of Charlevoix to the Straits of Mackinac and east to Alpena. The Tip of the Mitt has a distinctive climate and soil, different than appellations in southwest Michigan and the Traverse City area. 

The spacious tasting room at the Mackinaw Trail Winery offers guests room to enjoy the wine and relax.

“The growing conditions are tough here,” says Dustin Stabile, head of production of Mackinaw Trail Winery, one of the first wineries to recognize the region’s potential. “We don’t have the growing days like they do in other parts of the state. Our winters are much more harsh. One way to adapt is to be very selective about the grapes we’re growing. I’ll never be growing cabernet sauvignon in the Tip of the Mitt.” 

Mackinaw Trail Winery and Brewery, which traces its roots to the Upper Peninsula, is the largest winery in the region and opened its tasting room and state-of-the-art winery on 30 acres along Route 131 in 2013. Mackinaw produces a variety of hybrids, including Marquette, Frontenac, Petite Pearl and La Crescent, as well as craft beers and hard cider. All of them are available for tasting in the spacious tasting room. 

What Stabile and other winemakers here have found is that customers are interested in buying local, buying wine made from estate-grown grapes and trying new varietals. 

“Many people want to try something other than merlot, cabernet sauvignon or chardonnay. People are getting more adventurous with their taste profiles,” says Stabile, who first started working with Marquette in 2011. “I don’t think there is a winery up here that doesn’t have Marquette on its wine list. We need to separate ourselves from other regions and showcase what we’re doing.”

Greg Tasker is a Michigan-based freelance writer.