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Raise your glass to Michigan wines in 2020

By Greg Tasker
Special to The Detroit News

 As we begin the New Year, let’s look back at 2019, and with a flute of Michigan-produced bubbly in hand, toast some of the good things that happened in the state’s thriving wine industry.

We’ll toast the good news, ponder the not-so-good and leave the glasses on the table as we mull some of the lingering hurdles before the industry.

While many Michigan wineries fared well in major wine competitions in 2019, this list is aimed at events or developments that have a broader impact on the industry as a whole.

A huge variation in color is visible in the Rose wines awaiting tasting. There were 31 rose wines entered in the competition as judges work their way through Michigan wines during the annual Michigan wine competition held at MSU's Kellogg Center on Tuesday, July 31, 2018.

Let’s toast:

🍷 The Michigan Wine Collaborative and Michigan State University’s School of Hospitality Business. The new partnership, announced in early 2019, saved two of the wine industry’s most important annual events: a wine competition and a public reception celebrating the medal winners.

Both events were in jeopardy because of changes to the primary sponsor, the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council, a long-time supporter of the industry. The panel was reconfigured and now has a broader role of also supporting the craft beer, spirits, and hard-cider industries. That means less marketing money and other support for wineries. While not every winery participates in the competition, the annual event is a barometer of the variety and quality of wines being produced in Michigan and serves as a great marketing tool. Customers take notice of awards.

The reception, held at the Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center in East Lansing, allows the public to sample the award-winning wines and mingle with vintners, winery owners, and others in the industry. In a nutshell, both are great marketing tools. Helping with the events are the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center.

🍷 The wineries that submitted wines for review by Wine Enthusiast magazine. In a watershed moment for the industry, the national publication this summer rated an unprecedented number of Michigan wines, with most of them being awarded scores of 87-91 (out of a possible 100 points).

Those ratings are noteworthy because they place Traverse City area wines on par with those produced in acclaimed wine-growing regions, including New Zealand, Washington, Oregon and Spain. The July issue included the largest collection of ratings of Michigan wines published in a national magazine. In all, 65 wines achieved those ratings, with most of the wines being produced along the Traverse Wine Coast.

Earning accolades were familiar varietals, including chardonnay, riesling, pinot grigio, pinot noir, merlot and cabernet franc. Lesser-known grapes, such as as auxerrois, earned nods as well. For a complete list of wineries and winners, visit: winemag.com and search ‘Michigan.’

🍷 The growing number of wineries and the improving quality of wines. The number of wineries across the state continues to grow, now hovering about 150 and more on the way. Around the end of the last decade, there were about 100 wineries in Michigan. In the past decade, the vineyard area in the state has doubled, with more than 3,050 acres of wine grapes planted. Wineries are sprouting up in previously overlooked regions, including southeastern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula. Expansion comes along with ever-improving quality in red and white varietals, thanks to maturing vines, and vintners having learned which grapes to plant, vineyard management and wine-making techniques. More university-trained oenologists (art of wine making) are coming to various regions.

🍷 The Petoskey Wine Region. Just a few years ago, only a handful of wineries existed in the bucolic countryside surrounding the resort town in northwestern Michigan. Today, there are 17 wineries and more in the planning stages. The area has emerged as a wine destination for several reasons: The creation of a wine trail, the Petoskey Wine Region (with 13 participating wineries); marketing efforts; the establishment of the state’s fifth American Viticultural Area -- Tip of the Mitten, which includes the region; and vintners embracing cold-hardy grapes like the Marquette and other hybrids. They struggle to grow vinifera in the region, though some winemakers are making attempts. The wineries here run the gamut from mom-and-pop operations to farmers-turned-vintners to bigger producers. The region is another draw for the state’s growing wine tourism industry.

🍷 More national attention. Two of Michigan’s wine regions received some press this year from national publications. The Leelanau Peninsula, one of five appellations in Michigan, was voted second best wine region in the United States in annual poll by USA Today, losing to the Finger Lakes Region of New York State. The newspaper asked a panel of wine expert to pick their favorite AVAs and wine regions, and readers voted from a list of 20 nominees. The Leelanau Peninsula, just west of Traverse City, is home to nearly 30 wineries; the region ranked third in the poll in 2018. Southwest Michigan was named one of “20 Best Places to Go in 2020” by Conde Nast Traveler. Among the reasons cited were the region’s wineries helping elevate Michigan wines, including Fenn Valley Vineyards, one of the state’s oldest wineries, and nearby Modales Wines, one of the newest.

🍷 Mobile bottling and canning lines allow new and established wineries to bring more and varied products to market. And because the wineries do not have to invest in that kind of machinery, they can spend money to help their businesses grow in other ways. In the past year, a mobile bottling line operated by Harbor Hill Fruit Farms in Leelanau County has been making the rounds among wineries in northern Michigan and beyond. Mobile bottling lines have been available in other states; this is a first for Michigan. It’s an indication of the industry’s growth. 

Judges keep track of the paperwork on each wine as they work their way through dry white Michigan wines during the annual Michigan wine competition held at MSU's Kellogg Center on Tuesday, July 31, 2018.  (Dale G.Young/Detroit News) 2018.

To toast or not to toast?

The 2019 harvest. For many Michigan wineries, 2019 was a challenging growing year. The difficulties began in January with a Polar Vortex, which damaged vines in southwestern Michigan and left some wineries without vinifera. A cool, wet spring delayed the growing season, and a shorter summer and a cool, wet fall hindered ripening. While the harvest was less bountiful, tasting rooms across the state will have plenty of wines from 2019. Many vintners are expecting wonderful, aromatic white wines to be released in the new year. While red grapes didn’t fare as well (though there are exceptions), many vintners will use their crops to make rose and sparkling wines. 

Hold your glasses

Restaurant wine menus.  Despite growing recognition of Michigan wines, hurdles remain. Among them is convincing more restaurants to serve Michigan wines or a larger selection of state-produced wines. Peruse menus in even thriving wine regions, such as the Traverse Wine Coast and the Lake Michigan Shore AVA, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a varied selection. You’re most likely to find styles of riesling, semi-dry wines and not much else. It’s a shame; the spectrum of wines being produced across the state is much broader. Marie-Chantal Dalese, president and CEO of Chateau Chantal Winery and Inn on Old Mission Peninsula near Traverse City, believes there is a tremendous untapped potential for wine producers and wine consumption in Michigan. “I think there is a lot of work in our own backyard. Many restaurants in the state don’t even serve Michigan wines,” she told me in an interview last fall. “There is no other wine region in the world where that would happen.”

Wine retailers. Some retailers, such as Plum Market in the Detroit-Ann Arbor area and boutique wine shops, carry laudable selections of Michigan wines and are often advocates for the industry. Gaps, however, persist, feeding misperceptions about Michigan wines in general.

During a recent visit to an established gourmet grocer and wine retailer in Metro Detroit, I was surprised by an encounter with a wine salesman. As he led me to the Michigan selection, he turned to me, whispering, “Michigan can only do riesling.”  The selection, which he confided had been reduced to half of its former display, focused primarily on fruit and sweet wines by bigger producers.  He was unaware of other varietals doing well, including pinot blanc, gewurztraminer and pinot noir, to name a few. It seems a no-brainer to not only have a broader selection of regional wines but also to make sure your staff is well-versed in what’s happening across the state, so you can share -- enthusiastically -- with your customers. 

Greg Tasker is a Traverse City-based freelance writer who writes frequently about Michigan's wine industry.  He also works part-time at a winery on the Leelanau Peninsula. Reach him at gregetasker@gmail.com.