Winemaker takes helm at Tabor Hill Winery

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Thirty-eight years after starting his wine-making career at Tabor Hill Winery, Michigan winemaker Rick Moersch now owns the place.

Moersch’s southwest Michigan family business Entente Spirits, which operates Round Barn Winery, Free Run Cellars and Round Barn Public House, acquired Tabor Hill Winery, Michigan’s fourth largest winery, on May 23.

The move will more than double Moersch’s annual wine production and adds 25 acres of vineyards, Tabor Hill’s restaurant and three retail locations to Entente Spirits, the parent company of all four wineries. Tabor Hill is in Buchanan, which is near St. Joseph and the shores of Lake Michigan.

Chris Moersch, one of Rick’s sons and co-owner of Entente, said Tabor Hill alone produces 40,000 cases of wine a year. Buying the land, which totals 100 acres, will allow Moersch and his companies to produce another 20,000 cases.

“The purchase sets us up to continue to grow,” Chris Moersch said. “One of the reasons we did this was we were running out of production space for our winery. We were going to have to buy a space. So we reached out to the owners.”

The family did not disclose the price it paid in the deal, which takes the family business from 7,000 square feet of winery production to 30,000 square feet.

Chris Moersch said the 50-year-old Tabor Hill brand will continue. The only changes at Tabor Hills are cosmetic, he said, and include updates for furniture, lighting and landscaping.

Rick Moersch started his wine-making career at Tabor Hill. He was hired by Tabor Hill’s founder Len Olson in 1979 to run their wine lab.

Rick Moersch was promoted to head winemaker in 1981, the same year he and his wife Sherrie bought a 28-acre farm right next door to Tabor Hill, planting, growing and selling grapes to Tabor Hill. They opened Heart of the Vineyard winery (now Round Barn) on their farm in 1992.

Chris Moersch said the family’s business focus has been on hiring good people, celebrating innovation and stewardship, and figuring out how to grow as a company.

“What started with just our family 25 years ago has become a thriving group of unique businesses,” Chris Moersch said. “And as we reflect on our growth, we honor all the employees and customers who joined us on this journey and we recognize that without them, we wouldn't be here today.”

Sandra Silfven, the former wine writer at The Detroit News, said Tabor Hill was one of the upstart, forward-thinking wineries in the 1970s. It was one of the first to hold a restaurant license, she said.

“It has a tremendous history. It is a huge tourist attraction, with its restaurant,” Silfven said. “It’s a destination winery.”

Former Tabor Hill owner David Frederick Upton died in 2009. He was 87. Upton took possession of Tabor Hill in 1978, along with all its debts, and retooled the bankrupt winery, turning it into a model for the rest of the industry, Silfven said.

He also used his influence to give the wineries a voice in Lansing by pushing for the establishment of the Michigan Grape & Wine Industry Council in 1985.

During his tenure, Upton doubled the size of the estate vineyards and oversaw a $3-million renovation project.

According to the Michigan Wine Council, the state has 13,700 acres of vineyards, making the state the fourth largest for grape-growing.

About 2,850 acres are devoted to wine grapes, making Michigan fifth in wine grape production in the nation. The vineyard area has doubled over the last 10 years, the council’s website said.

Michigan's 121 commercial wineries bottle more than 2.3 million gallons of wine annually, making Michigan 10th in wine production. The vast majority of production is from Michigan-grown grapes.

Wineries attract more than 2 million visitors annually and the wine industry contributes $300 million annually to Michigan's economy.