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Monroe — There was a time when this area was the center of Michigan’s wine-making world.

It was a long time ago, and it was an awfully small world at that point. But Monroe County is credited with being home to the first vineyard in the state — established by Joseph Sterling in 1863.

The River Raisin, which runs through the county, got its name from early French settlers who admired the plentiful grapes that grew along its banks.

More than 150 years later, Michigan continues to carve out it’s wine-making identity, but most of the action is elsewhere. Wineries along the state’s west coast garner most of the attention, with heavy production coming out the Traverse City and the southwest region down to the Ohio border.

On Sunday, officials and students with Monroe County Community College were doing their part to shift some of that focus back to Michigan’s starting point. For the second year in a row, the school’s Bacchus Society hosted its “Community Crush,” which allows local residents to bring in grapes picked from around the region to be crushed and de-stemmed by machine.

The grapes that grow locally are an opportunity for creativity many residents have due to the vines that have been in place for decades. Occasionally, those grapes find their way into a homemade bottle of wine.

Mike Russow, a 55-year-old Frenchtown resident, was among the first people through the door with a haul of purple Concord grapes, picked from a vine on the family property that has been in place for 70 years. Through trial and error, Russow has become something of an expert on home wine-making.

On Sunday, he took full advantage of MCCC’s machinery, coming away with buckets full of squashed grapes, minus their stems. They’re likely headed for a 10-gallon bourbon barrel he has at home.

“That’s a sweet batch right there,” he said.

In the midst of all the action, Kevin Thomas is trying educate everyone who walks through the door at the college’s West Technology Building. He is a certified executive chef as well as MCCC’s instructor of culinary arts, and his students are on-hand helping turn grapes into mush.

“The State of Michigan is doing so many cool things with wines now..., “ he said. “For many years, Michigan wines were thought of as just these inexpensive sweet wines ... But overt the last three decades, we’ve been able to put out some world class wines ... because the vintners and winegrowers in Michigan are really starting to understand the types of grapes they can grow.”

And it’s important for this region to be a part of that.

“We’re trying to bring the wine industry back to the County of Monroe...,” Thomas said. That could take some doing, since he believes the county currently has only one commercial wine producer, J. Trees Cellars, based in Tecumseh.

So for now, Monroe County’s wine profile comes more from the odd bottle or two produced here and there by its local residents. That includes Newport neighbors Debbie Kennedy and Janice Thomas, who came through the door Sunday with two baskets.

“I thought I had enough for wine today, but don’t think so (anymore),” Kennedy said. “So I’ll probably just make some jam - Christmas presents.”

When she does have enough on-hand, Kennedy’s grapes often wind up in a wine bottle.

JLynch@detroitnews.com

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