A Budding Wine Industry … in Michigan?

A Budding Wine Industry … in Michigan?

Michigan, Leelanau Peninsula, Traverse City, Willow Vineyards

SourceJeff Greenberg/UIG via Getty Images
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Why you should care

Because there’s more to great American wine than California. 

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Imagine strolling through a lush vineyard that sits on the Northern Hemisphere’s 45th parallel, the halfway point between the equator and the North Pole, where a perfect storm of sun angle, altitude and climate patterns helps produce some of the most pristine grape varietals. This circle of latitude travels through vineyards in Italy’s Piedmont region and across the Rhone Valley and Bordeaux in France, casting the ideal conditions for grape growing. Surprisingly, this vineyard is not in any of those places, but instead is situated on the Leelanau Peninsula, the “little finger” of the mitten-shaped state of Michigan.

If you’re interested in visiting the next up-and-coming wine destination, you might want to take a tour through the Great Lakes State, where some 124 commercial wineries drawing from more than 2,700 acres of vineyards produce 2.5 million gallons of wine a year, says the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council. In the fifth-largest wine-producing state in the U.S., you’ll find standouts like riesling, gewurztraminer and cabernet franc. The native Michigan varietals? Concord and Niagara grapes. But unlike on the West Coast, where you can’t find a glass of riesling for under $15, Michigan’s wine typically costs $10 to $12 a glass.

The young people that are working in Detroit now are experiencing wine on a different level.

Jason Pasko, Vertical Detroit

Local businesses are opening up to champion the local grape. Throughout Michigan, winery tasting rooms are growing in popularity — a testament to the quality of wine in the region, says Ron Snider, co-owner of Hudsonville Winery in Hudsonville, Michigan. “We’re seeing at least half a dozen new wineries opening every year, for the past several years now,” he says. “It’s been pretty steady.”

Even in the heart of downtown Detroit, wine shops and wine bars are sprouting up to bring the vineyard experience to the city. Jason Pasko, general manager of Vertical Detroit, a restaurant and wine bar in Detroit, says that within the past year, he’s seen at least three wine shops open within three blocks of Vertical. Even with the added competition, he says business at the bar is booming.

“The young people that are working in Detroit now are experiencing wine on a different level than the city’s seen in the recent past,” he says.

The House of Pure Vin, a 2,900-square-foot retail wine shop also in downtown Detroit (and, yes, one of Vertical Detroit’s neighbors), is likewise growing. Co-founder Regina Gaines says the store’s claim to fame might just be its decision to call on master sommelier Claudia Tyagi to carefully select wines from around the world, with a heavy focus on regional vintages. The wine boutique also works to introduce more wine lovers to Michigan varietals with regional-centric wine tastings and educational courses.

“My inspiration for the House of Pure Vin was the fact that the local wine industry was growing,” admits Gaines, whose concept attracted the attention of TechTown’s Retail Boot Camp, an initiative backed by JPMorgan Chase & Co. that supports entrepreneurial ideas with big potential.

Of course, Michigan’s still a far cry from being recognized as a top wine destination. In distressed neighborhoods like Detroit, for example, it’s particularly challenging to bring wine-related small business ideas to fruition, in part because access to funding and affordable retail space tends to stand in the way. And although many regional vineyards benefit from ideal grape-growing conditions, it isn’t always easy for locals to get away on leisurely trips to enjoy them.

Still, the local wine scene’s increasing demand, along with a growing number of wine shops and bars (not to mention the benefits of that 45th parallel), could someday put Michigan’s wine industry on the map for international recognition. Until then, we’ll raise a glass and toast: to good wine and the region’s promising future.