Mighty fine wines available on Pioneer Wine Trail

Greg Tasker
The Detroit News

Tecumseh, Michigan

After driving about an hour, zig-zagging westerly from the Detroit suburbs, past expansive farms and rural roads dotted with homes big and small, I arrive at my first stop on the Pioneer Wine Trail, a collection of small wineries scattered across a broad swath of southeast Michigan.

As I step into Pentamere Winery, housed in a storefront along Tecumseh’s main street, it occurs to me that I haven’t passed a single field rippled with rows of grapevines. It could be because my first stop is an urban winery, loosely defined in Michigan as an off-farm winery. Pentamere draws its grapes from Michigan and states in the Great Lakes watershed.

But, later, as I venture from winery to winery, I understand that the Pioneer Wine Trail is not your typical oenophile destination, with clusters of wineries crowded along the route and stupendous views around the bend. Instead, it’s a handful of primarily family operations scattered amid farm land, small towns and cities. It’s no less charming or inviting, and the vintners are producing quality wines.

And it’s a far less traveled trail than others in Michigan.

“I think it’s a matter of just time and tradition,” says Bob Utter, owner and winemaker of the Flying Otter Winery in Adrian. “On the west side and the northwest, they have (American Viticultural Areas) and because of lake effect, they grow mostly vinifera — the noble French wine grapes. In this part of the state, we don’t have the benefit of lake effect, and we grow varieties that are less known.”

Most of the wineries along the trail are hosting a Holiday Open House this weekend, offering guests special dips and crackers or chips, paired with their wines. The event is free and other tastings — for a nominal fee — are available as well.

It’s the last big collective event of the season among Michigan’s wineries.

The wineries along the Pioneer Trail (the designation is inspired by the early grape and winegrowers in southeast Michigan before Prohibition) are too spread out to visit all of them in a day — the area stretches from Tecumseh, southwest of Ann Arbor, to the Lansing area. I manage just four. Some wineries have limited hours in the late fall and winter; still, it’s a great time to visit. You’ll find plenty of time to chat with staff about the wines, and, with the harvest over, you might run into winemakers or owners.

Here’s a sampling of what I discovered:

Pentamere Winery

Small but vibrant, Tecumseh appealed to the four owners behind Pentamere Winery, which began operations in 2001. The shop on Chicago Boulevard houses a first-floor tasting room and the shelves are stocked with wine accessories and gourmet food products.

When the owners renovated the late-19th century building, they opened up a section of the floor so guests can see the bottling process in the cellar. Wine is fermented on the premises; Pentamere, which means five lakes, can bottle just six bottles at a time. Its wines are named after ships that have sunk in the Great Lakes.

“All our bottling is done manually,” says Susan Serafin, who helps run Pentamere and owns a gourmet food shop, Dip Stix and Stuff, located within the tasting room. “We’re a little winery.”

Try: Monks Haven Merlot (2012). Surprise find among southeastern Michigan wineries; dark fruit flavors with smooth finish. Or Midnight Plum, a sweet wine with ripe plum flavor, almost like a port.

Cherry Creek Cellars Brooklyn

There is no Cherry Creek cascading by the tasting room, a 19th-century schoolhouse on U.S. 12, once the main route between Detroit and Chicago. John and Denise Burtka embraced the easy-to-remember name after their original choice faced obstacles.

The 1870 schoolhouse, known as Woodstock No. 2, is the real thing, complete with the original wood floors and ceiling. Even the original school bell is intact, and you’re welcome — encouraged, really — to give it a ring. Cherry Creek’s premium wine label, Lynn Aleksandr, is a combination of the middle names of the couple’s daughter and son.

“We make some very good red wines,” says Denise, noting the vinifera grapes come Berrien Couty in southwest Michigan. The couple grows hybrids on six acres next to the schoolhouse. “People are always surprised, but I also like to say we have something for everyone.”

Try: 2012 Lynn Aleksandr Cabernet Franc: Released just six weeks ago, it is a balanced red with notes of red fruit and tobacco.

Sandhill Crane Vineyards — Jackson

Named after a nearby sanctuary for sandhill cranes, the family-owned vineyard is the culmination of a father’s wine-making hobby and a daughter-turned-winemaker, Holly Balansag. The five-acres of grapes surrounding the tasting room and cafe grow French and American hybrids. Other grapes come from vineyards along Lake Michigan.

“It’s taken us awhile to get the word out that we’re here,” says Chris Bryant, who calls herself “a wine slinger,” staffing the tasting room bar. “We’re just off 94 and not far from Detroit, but we’re still out in the country. It’s a relaxing, fun place to be.”

Don’t be surprised if you see those namesake cranes after you leave the tasting room and return to the trail.

Try: 2013 Pinot Noir: Gold Medal Winner, Great Lakes Wine Competition 2015. Full bodied with strawberry and black currant flavors.

Chateau Aeronautique Winery — Jackson

The aviation theme is not just by chance. It turns out a private, grass runway for an airport community lies just outside the original 10-seat tasting room. A larger tasting room, dominated by a bar made of glass and French oak barrels, opened in February, furthering the ambitions of winemaker and owner Lorenzo Lizarralde, a commercial pilot.

Lizarralde is fond of the French style of wine making, especially evident in his unfiltered reds. Chateau Aeronautique purchase its grapes from the state’s west side, but is developing a 26-acre site in the Irish Hills for a second tasting room, vineyards and event center.

“A lot of people are not aware that Michigan has wineries beyond the west side of the state,” says Sandy Brown, tasting room manager. “People are really surprised about how good our red wines can be. They’re very distinctive.”

Try: 2013 Pinot Gris, nice and fruity. Or 2012 Aviatrix Crimson, a smooth blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot.

Greg Tasker is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.

Holiday Open House

Pioneer Wine Trail

11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sat., noon-5 p.m. Sun.


Other participating wineries: J. Trees Cellars; Black Fire Winery; Sleeping Bear Winery; and Burgdorf’s Winery.