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After a long, cool and wet growing season, the harvest of wine grapes across Michigan's hundreds of acres of vineyards is finally over. 

While winemakers have high hopes of producing stellar wines from lighter-than-usual crops, there's no question the 2019 growing season was far from ideal, and, in some areas, downright awful.

“We pushed things right into the snow of November,” said Kasey Wierzba, winemaker at Shady Lane Cellars, a boutique winery near Suttons Bay on the Leelanau Peninsula, where the harvest began in early October and continued this week, with the handpicking of riesling on the 53-acre estate.

“The harvest was a little cold, a little wet. We’re always dealing with something. There is never a perfect situation.”

It’s been far from perfect for most wineries. The year began with a polar vortex in late January, damaging vines in southwestern Michigan. A cool, wet spring delayed the growing season, and a shorter summer and a cool, wet fall hindered ripening.

Wierzba, who has been the winemaker at Shady Lane since 2013, estimates the winery harvested about 20% fewer tons of grapes this fall. Typically, Shady Lane, which also grows grapes on a separate tract elsewhere on the peninsula, produces about 170 to 180 tons; more than half of the grapes, including the riesling picked this week, are sold to other wineries.

“That’s a big hit when you were expecting more. We didn’t have any frost incidents or cold damage,” said Wierzba, whose Shady Lane Cellars 2017 Semi-Dry Estate Riesling and Shady Lane Cellars 2017 Gruner Veltliner recently won gold medals in the 2019 San Francisco International Wine Competition.

“The spring was cold and wet and everything was pushed back two weeks, and that held as a trend for the year. We were holding on until the bitter end.”

Across the state, many wineries experienced a less bountiful harvest than in previous years. While there are no official government reports available about the annual wine grape crop in Michigan, many wineries harvested far fewer grapes.

In southwestern Michigan, many growers lost all or nearly all of their vinifera — familiar grapes such as merlot, cabernet franc, chardonnay and riesling — because of the polar vortex. Some hybrid grapes also sustained damage.

“Many southwest wineries will have no choice but to purchase out of state fruit or wine to have something to sell for the 2019 vintage vinifera,” said David Miller,  a winemaker and president of the Michigan Wine Collaborative, a nonprofit organization created to sustain and promote the industry. “Smaller wineries like mine have begun purchasing extra fruit and bottling extra wine in good years in anticipation of short vintages like 2019.”

Miller’s White Pine Winery was among those in southwestern Michigan to lose vinifera grapes from his vineyards in Van Buren and Berrien counties. Miller has purchased pinot gris and chardonnay from northern Michigan growers to have 2019 wines in his tasting room.

“Most Michigan wineries are all about making wine from Michigan fruit. That is what makes us special,” he said.

Despite weather-related hardships, Michigan’s wine industry continues to grow. Most of the state’s wine grapes are grown within 25 miles of Lake Michigan, where its waters have a moderating effect. Recently, however, wineries have begun sprouting up in other areas, including Metro Detroit and the Upper Peninsula. At last count, there were more than 150 wineries in the state, and that number is expected to continue to grow.

Michigan vintners bottle more than 3 million gallons of wine each year, ranking the state among the top producers in the country, but far behind the likes of California, Oregon and Washington. Production in Michigan increased nearly 50% between 2013 and 2017. The most commonly grown grapes in Michigan are vinifera; hybrids, however, are becoming the choice of many new wineries because they can survive harsh winters.

A recent study by the Michigan Craft Beverage Council showed the wine industry has had a $5.4 billion economic impact on the state — a figure that includes business with wholesalers, retailers, restaurants and bars and tourism spending. About 1.7 million people visit the state's wineries each year, contributing more than $252 million in tourism dollars.

The harvest

“As usual, there was a little bit of good news and a little bit of bad news,” said William Schopf, owner of Dablon Winery and Vineyard near Baroda in southwestern Michigan.   

That corner of the state was hit especially hard by a polar vortex in late January, with Dablon recording temperatures of 20 to 25 below zero in its vineyards. Fortunately, learning from previous polar vortexes, Dablon’s vines survived the frigid temperatures. The winery lays down two extra canes at the base of each vine and after harvest, staples them to the ground and covers them with straw — and, hopefully, snow.

Dablon, which grows mostly red wine grapes — cabernet sauvignon, malbec, merlot, cabernet franc, pinot noir and syrah, to name a few — harvested 70% of its normal crop, far better than after the polar vortexes earlier this decade when the winery lost 90% of the crop. Schopf said the winery harvested less than 100 tons of fruit from its 45 acres this year.

“We had a lighter harvest than usual, but considering that a lot of our neighbors lost all of their vinifera this winter, I think we did all right,” said Schopf, a Chicago businessman who, recognizing Michigan’s potential to produce quality wine, began planting vineyards in 2009. Dablon produces about 10,000 cases a year.

At the nearby Karma Vista Vineyards in Coloma, owner Joe Herman estimates he harvested about half of the 150 tons he normally would from his 50 acres of wine grapes, which include chardonnay, riesling, pinot noir, merlot and syrah. He also grows juice grapes, peaches and cherries. He lost his peach crop this year.

“It was a short, sweet season. We had far fewer grapes,” said Herman, whose family has been in the farming business for more than 170 years. He began growing wine grapes in 1998.  “We had to wait on everything — a lot of stuff was running late because of the late spring.”

Wineries growing hybrid grapes fared better. They included Youngblood Vineyard in Macomb County and Mackinaw Trail Winery near Petoskey.

“The only way to have a vineyard in Metro Detroit is to have cold-hardy grapes,” said Jessica Youngblood, who owns Youngblood Vineyard with her husband, Dave. The winery grows Marquette, a red varietal, and other hybrids.

The Youngbloods wrapped up the harvest on their 25-acre vineyard in September, with the help of 250 volunteers over four weekends. Although the harvest went well, producing about 18 tons of fruit, Jessica Youngblood acknowledged 2019 was a difficult year.

“It was a struggle. There was increased bird pressure from the previous year,” she said, noting many local farms did not plant crops because of the cold, wet spring, making the vineyard a food target. “We had a lot of rain and flooding as well.”

At Mackinaw Trail Winery, Dustin Stabile, head of production at the family-owned winery, said 2019 proved “an extremely tough growing season.”

His own 15-acre vineyard, where he grows Marquette, Petite Pearl and other hybrids, did well, but he had trouble securing wine grapes from other sources, especially from commercial growers in southwestern Michigan. Between his vineyard and others, Mackinaw Trail typically works with about 200 tons of grapes each year — that number was about half this season.

“We had our biggest harvest ever on our own estate. It was a good year for me, but we couldn’t get good weather,” he said, adding that picking started about two weeks later. “More or less when you’re making wine in Michigan, very rarely do you get the perfect growing season.”

2019 vintage

Despite the less-than-stellar growing year, there will be plenty of 2019 vintage wines on the shelves in tasting rooms and retailers across the state. Reds from 2019 might be less common, however, especially from some parts of the state.

“We’re not going to see the rich tropical flavors and aromatics that we saw with our white wines in 2016,” acknowledged Shady Lane’s Wierzba. “But we will have really nice white wines. We’re going to get some really nice cooler season flavors and aromatics.”

Despite hard-hit vineyards and lighter crops, some “good to excellent wine” will also come out of southwest Michigan, as well, Miller said.

“I heard that pinot noir Up North is good, too. So there are some bright spots in the story for the 2019 harvest in Michigan,” he said.

Greg Tasker is a Michigan-based freelance writer. Reach him at gregetasker@gmail.com.

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