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In Vino Veritas

Northern Michigan’s wine industry has come a long way in 35 years, and more growth is in the forecast — so long as property values and weather patterns don’t ruin the party

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Photograph by Nick Martines
Black Star Farms’ Don Coe and Chris Lopez have 10,000 cases of wine in storage

When Don Coe ran up against a local ordinance limiting the size of wineries in northern Michigan, he didn’t try to fight city hall. Instead, he leased a 76-acre fruit farm on a neighboring peninsula and started planting more Riesling and Pinot Noir grapes. “The demand was there, but we had a supply problem,” says Coe, managing partner of Black Star Farms in Suttons Bay, on the Leelanau Peninsula.

Since 1999, when Coe and his partner, Kerm Campbell, first established a stake in northern Michigan, their business has grown exponentially. Consider: last year revenue was $3.5 million, up from $200,000 a decade ago. In addition to producing more than 30 wines and spirits, Black Star Farms has introduced a creamery, a bed-and-breakfast inn, riding stables, a distillery, and dining options.

“It’s not like we opened our doors and people came running in,” says Coe, from one of two cellars he built into a hillside to store and age wines and cheeses. “It wasn’t easy. First, the wines have to be first-rate because you’re going up against France, Spain, Chile, and California. You also need great distribution and plenty of cooperation from Mother Nature.”

Given that the Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas are ideally suited for wine production — the bays of neighboring Lake Michigan keep grape vines from sprouting prematurely in the spring and stave off early frosts in the fall — weather may not seem like a big issue. But it is one of several variables — as well as ever-changing consumer tastes, labor and tax issues, and access to capital — that go into winemaking.

That Michigan’s $300-million wine industry is growing — sales volume rose, on average, 15 percent between 1995 and 2007 — is a testament to perseverance, luck, and dedication. And even as overall wine sales were flat last year, Michigan’s 65 commercial wineries still managed 5 percent growth, says Linda Jones, director of the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council in Lansing.

Northern Michigan’s wine country is anything but predictable. While the industry didn’t take root here until the 1970s, it has accelerated its quality and reach over the last decade. And although glaciers provided some excellent soil conditions, that may be the region’s only constant. Apart from weather, Michigan’s wineries must hold the line on cost hikes (the most popular price range is $10 to $15 a bottle), as there’s considerable competition from California — a glut of wine last summer saw lower prices at Costco and Whole Foods.

“Wine production is not for the faint of heart,” says Ed O’Keefe, founder and CEO of Chateau Grand Traverse on Old Mission Peninsula. “We’ve bucked the recession, but you have many other challenges. You really have to operate on all cylinders. You have to be an expert in agriculture, lobbying, retail, hospitality, manufacturing, distribution, legal matters, and expansion into other states.”

O’Keefe, whose two sons help him run the business, should know. After spending his early career as a federal narcotics agent, he developed and operated nursing homes all across metro Detroit. When he sold the business in 1973, he headed to Old Mission Peninsula and bought 55 acres of land overlooking East Grand Traverse Bay.

With a bay dominated by cherry farms, few people believed O’Keefe could make a go of it, especially after he spent a small fortune moving 1 million cubic feet of dirt to maximize the vineyard’s exposure to the southwestern horizon. Not only was Chateau Grand Traverse the first vineyard on the two peninsulas, it was arguably (and still is) one of the largest wine growers in the Midwest, with 120 acres under ownership and another 50 acres under lease that, together, generated 80,000 cases of wine last year.

“No one knew what Michigan wine was in the late ’70s,” O’Keefe recalls. “So I went on the road to California — really, anywhere I could find an audience. My big break came in 1979 when I got into the London Chop House. From there, it was steady pressure evenly applied. You just keep working away at it. I can tell you [that] the last six years have been great, and we’re looking at different distribution models that could really [help] the entire industry.”

Just as every picture tells a story, wine growers are often shaped by the industries they leave behind. For Robert and Nadine Begin, who married after serving the Archdiocese of Detroit as a pastor and a nun, the wine business almost seemed a spiritual calling. “I can’t tell you the pleasure we derive from producing wine,” says Robert, who was CEO of a construction-management company that served nine major cities from 1972 to 1983.

After production began in 1991 (it takes four to five years before vines are mature enough for winemaking), the Begins’ Chateau Chantal has grown into a year-round business. Last year, the vineyard produced 18,000 cases from 35 owned acres on Old Mission Peninsula, along with 32 leased acres from three neighboring farms.

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