The sound system was acting up, but Nathaniel Rose had a strategy for waiting until Soul Patch, the Traverse City roots-rock band, opened Northport’s 2022 Music in the Park series. In observance of his own 37th birthday, as well as the birthday of an associate and pal, Rose had carried along a 2010 Merlot.
Although this bottling was one of the first under the Nathaniel Rose Wine label and had been sold out for years, he scrounged up a couple of leftovers from his library.
“I was surprised at how young it showed,” Rose says. “I haven’t had that in forever.” When Soul Patch started their show, the audio mix remained on the murky side, but he was properly fortified and danced in front of the speakers. “It sounded great.”
Rose got his start in the wine industry in 2005 with $150 in the bank and “a decent pile of student debt.” He has since been playing the part of enfant terrible within the Michigan wine industry. The Leland native tailored his own degree program in Western Michigan University’s formidable biochemistry department and has worn pretty much every hat in the wine industry, from fieldhand to entrepreneur. “The only one I’m terrible at is accounting,” he notes.
Amassing a suite of winery equipment allowed Rose to become a winemaker and produce vintages at four startups. He always took a canny approach to his own ambitions: “I’ll come in with my own equipment. I’ll get you set up. I’ll make your wine — but I’m making my wine here, too.” Without his own tasting room, he kept aging and racking his wines, in the belief that Michigan products cannot be forced to market.
After hiring out for 13 years, Rose acquired an established vineyard and winery in 2018. Under the terms of the sale, he purchased 27 acres of land nestled against the north shoreline of Suttons Bay. He’s eyeing another 24 acres of land to acquire, as well. The first deal included an 1,800-square-foot production space and tasting room. With “quite the inventory” — and a land contract — he could fund further proceeds from out-of-the-box sales.
“This was no mistake, which vineyard I selected. My goal is, and continues to be, to try to map out what are Michigan’s grand cru sites for particular styles. It was very clear that this was one of the best, if not the best, site for Bordeaux-style reds.” It didn’t “hurt in that it already had vines well over 30 years in age.”
An interesting coincidence to mark is that both Suttons Bay and France’s glorious Bordeaux region sit along the 45th parallel of latitude, halfway between the equator and the North Pole.
If Rose seems to boast, consider his next delicious claim: “I have never crushed a grape not grown in the Mitten State.”
Even before he made the deal of the decade, the Traverse City Record-Eagle had noted his achievements in 2017: “Leelanau winemaker grabs eight awards in California.” His double-gold Syrah-Shiraz was fetching $85 per bottle. Yet Rose faces the same problem that affects so many in northwestern Michigan: housing. He lives out the growing season in a travel trailer amid his vineyard. After harvest, a six-month rental is easy to snag as rates fall off.
Housing isn’t the only challenge in the Michigan wine industry’s race ahead. Finding well-qualified employees and supporting their careers is another. There’s also the issue of fitting into the neighborhood. The road traffic and social activity that wineries bring to constrained areas like the Old Mission Peninsula have led to local restrictions.
Two years ago, Wineries of Old Mission Peninsula filed a federal lawsuit against Grand Traverse County’s Peninsula Township over limits on the hours of service and types of events hosted at the 11 Old Mission wineries. In June, a district court judge decreed many of the limitations unenforceable. Immediate effects of the ruling (beyond the resignations of the township’s attorney and supervisor) will find more wineries going ahead with plans to host “yoga in the vines” and to expand food menus in tasting rooms.
All indicators point to continued growth well beyond the vision of industry pioneers of the 1980s such as Chateau Chantal, a co-plaintiff in the lawsuit. For one thing, as Rose suggests, “We’re probably utilizing, honestly, less than 1 percent of plant-able land.” For another thing, the huge wine industry of California has matured and finds itself facing astronomical land costs, irrigation issues, and weather and wildfire events. For Michigan, the buffering effect of Lake Michigan and the sandy, loamy clay soil offer a winning combination — especially considering the enhancement of beautiful scenery.
Figures from a 2017 wine-industry study by John Dunham & Associates showed a statewide economic impact of $5.4 billion coming from 195 wineries, more than $426 million paid in state and local taxes, and $323 million in federal taxes. With 3,050 acres devoted to wine grapes — Riesling being the most prevalent — the industry fostered 28,000 jobs and $773 million in wages. The 1.6 million winery visits per year resulted in tourist spending of $252 million.
The Traverse Wine Coast has two branches, one on the Leelanau Peninsula, the other on the Old Mission Peninsula. Events at the wineries range from music performances to wine dinners. On Sundays through September, Bonobo Winery hosts “Bonobo on the Bay — A Wind Dancer Experience,” with two three-hour sails departing from Traverse City each afternoon.
For those who want to join the show, Black Star Farms, a 160-acre family-owned estate near Suttons Bay, presents open-mic nights. As a special Leelanau Peninsula feature on October weekdays — and quite a good bargain at $10 per person — The Hunt for the Reds of October delivers a complimentary pour at each of more than 20 participating wineries. Cabernet Francs, Merlots, and Pinot Noirs head the tasting menus.
The wine industry isn’t confined to the northwest. The Lake Michigan Shore Wine Trail is a collaboration of 15 wineries located in southwest Michigan, the region with 90 percent of Michigan’s vineyards. A small, family-owned stop on this wine trail is Cody Kresta Vineyard & Winery, near Mattawan, specialists in hand-crafted wines such as a Cabernet Franc ($40) from the outstanding 2018 vintage.
At the other end of the scale, St. Julian Winery, of Paw Paw, is the oldest and largest winery in the state. Having celebrated its centennial last year, St. Julian has expanded storage capacity to a total of 1.4 million gallons. The portfolio encompasses 150 products, including not only a vast array of wines but also spirits such as brandy. Nancie Oxley, vice president of winemaking, now in her 21st year at St. Julian, was Michigan’s first female winemaker. Her Sweet Nancie sparkling wine ($12.99) took a double-gold award in the 2019 Indy International Wine Competition at Purdue University, and has claimed other awards.
It takes the support of educational institutions to supply talent to the wine industry, but Michigan State University dropped its viticulture and enology program when Sam Simpson was a student there. “I was forced to get a finance degree,” Simpson says. Today, he perpetuates his family’s legacy at Good Harbor Vineyards, co-managed with his sister, Taylor, on the Leelanau Peninsula. Speaking of current trends and innovations leads Simpson to mention his company’s mobile bottling service, which helps smaller wineries achieve scale. Another trend is the drastic improvement in vineyard equipment. “For a long time, that equipment was pretty rudimentary,” he says. “They’ve really honed it.”
The third trend is the filling of the talent pipeline, and it shows in the quality of the wines. “Just being able to create careers for wine-focused professionals is one of the larger value propositions for our industry,” Simpson says. “And it’s really important that we’re able to recruit talent and hold onto it in the area.”
In response to the need for talent, Lake Michigan College started its Wine and Viticulture Technology program in 2015. LMC’s main campus in Benton Harbor is right in the heart of the Lake Michigan Shore American Viticulture Area. In 2019, LMC inaugurated the $7 million, 14,000-square-foot Welch Center for Wine and Viticulture, which was the result of philanthropic giving. Program patrons lured the founding director, Michael Moyer, from Walla Walla, Wash., where he had been teaching as well as working with former NFL quarterback Drew Bledsoe’s Doubleback winery and with the influential Figgins family.
Thinking Michigan’s production would be mostly fruit wines, Moyer demanded a recruitment carton of samples. The unexpected showcase included a Syrah, leading him to say, “Wow, if they can grow and ripen Syrah in southwest Michigan, they can do anything.”
The soup-to-nuts education at LMC has led to immediate successes. The roster of graduates includes a lot of high-aspiring types. Moyer runs through the list: the daughter of a grape grower, the founder of Chill Hill Winery, and the founder of the newly opened Golden Muse Winery. (Both wineries are in Baroda.)
Particularly intriguing are Mimmo and Elise Musumeci, masterminds of Ca’ Musu. Reflecting its owners’ individualism, this 70-acre property two miles south of Hart, in Oceana County, is all horse-powered courtesy of Buster, a rare 20-year-old Suffolk Punch draft horse. After buying the property in 2018, the Musumecis last year planted mildew-resistant Italian Fleurtai and Soreli grapes for dry sparkling wines, covering half the land. They told Michigan Wine Country they expect to open their winery and tasting room in 2024 or 2025.
Tractor fumes may ultimately be less tolerable than horse fumes, and besides, as the Ca’ Musu website says, Buster is “funny.” But biodiversity in farming and production of biodynamic wines turn out to be part of an international movement. Hearing about Ca’ Musu for the first time, Madeline Triffon says, “That’s something being done by a lot of people who are following biodynamic methods in Europe, and I can see why they would be inspired by that.”
In 1985, Triffon, also known as Detroit’s First Lady of Wine, became just the second woman in the world to earn the rank of Master Sommelier. She worked in some of Detroit’s top restaurants including The London Chop House and The Rattlesnake Club. Today she’s director of events for Plum Market, the upscale supermarket chain and food service provider based in Farmington Hills.
Recent visits to both the northwestern and southwestern production regions of Michigan have left Triffon with enduring enthusiasm and a stack of tasting notes. She finds talent and innovation everywhere. “You see Grüner Veltliner made by a lot of wineries — not just a couple. Then you see up-and-coming grapes being planted aggressively, such as Gamay, which is — at least the ones that I’ve tasted — very exciting indeed.”
Triffon says she observes a “collaborative spirit” and finds the industry “upward-moving in terms of recognizing that farming techniques are essential to making world-class wine.” On Aug. 25-26, Michigan State University Extension was set to host a conference for the Michigan wine and grape industry in Traverse City. “Dirt to Glass 2022: Elevating Michigan Wine from the Ground Up” is the first-ever meeting of its kind.
Amanda Danielson, also a sommelier and a partner in Trattoria Stella in Traverse City, is involved in the conference. “We’re there — we’re making wine that’s that good,” Danielson says in a promotional video. “The idea is that we make more of it … and circle back to the farming and the importance of that farming, to increase the amount of Michigan-grown fruit that’s being made into these world-class Michigan wines.”
Additional boosts to wine education and industry collaboration are found in various forms. MSU’s Institute of Agriculture Technology is a partner in the Viticulture and Enology Science and Technology Alliance. VESTA, as it’s known, brings together faculty gleaned from disparate universities, community colleges, and industry specialists throughout the country for either a certificate program or associate’s degree in viticulture, enology, or wine business ownership.
Students affiliate with a home institution to complete online courses and gain hands-on field experience. MSU has partnered in VESTA with Southwestern Michigan College in Dowagiac and Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City.
Besides the educational opportunities, further support comes from the Michigan Wine Collaborative, a nonprofit organization that enhances sustainability and economic well-being within the industry. Board members come from vineyards and wineries statewide, but also from industry, restaurants, and tourism. Bob Utter represents southeastern Michigan on the MWC board. A mechanical engineer for more than 35 years, Utter developed a love of wine while living and working in France. Upon his return, he studied viticulture and enology through VESTA, and in 2011 opened Flying Otter Winery near Adrian.
Another board member is Peter King III, an accountant by day, winemaker in his basement by night. His father, Peter King II, grew a few grapes in the backyard and made his own wine. When King III was 19 years old, he said, “Hey dad, why don’t you show me how to do it?” And then he kept in practice.
Homegrown industry player Drew Ryan Wines — “Drew Ryan” is a combination of middle names — came together in 2015 when Merrick Steele and Matthew Jones, who were King’s classmates at Southfield High School, sampled the contents of a 60-gallon French-oak barrel. King remembers that Steele and Jones put down their glasses and said, “‘Let’s get together and sell it.’ I’d never thought twice about it. That’s how we ended up forming Drew Ryan and making wine together.”
While Nathaniel Rose Wine is staking out grand cru sites in the northwest, Drew Ryan Wines now has 32 vines of Cab Franc on a lot along Manistique Street just south of East Jefferson Avenue. In their self-funded effort, they plan in 2023 to build a winery and tasting room. They’ll continue to buy grapes from southwestern Michigan, but Detroiters should look for local production of rosé. “We feel that Michigan can compete with any region in the world when it comes to sparkling wines and rosé.” To expand the volume, it would be possible to become a “custom-crush” client, but King says, “I’m pretty passionate about making wine. If I don’t have my hands in it, it’s no fun.”
And consider his bold 10-year plan: “We will be one of the premier urban wineries in the city of Detroit, and we should be one of the leading producers of sparkling wines and rosé.”
On their ribbon farms along the Detroit River, the early French settlers soon figured out how to grow wine grapes. Even before those first vines matured, wild grapes along the River Raisin — La Rivière aux Raisins, or The River with Grapes, in Monroe County — sustained brandy production. As today’s industry booms, the essential value of wine re-establishes itself. Wine is a source of delight, but it only comes about after people have invested their fortunes and their souls.
Bear in mind at 3:30 a.m. on a November morning after Thanksgiving, with the temperature in the mid-teens, the Chateau Chantal harvesting crew will be on Old Mission Peninsula likely fighting through a gale to bring in well-frozen Riesling grapes for Ice Wine ($90 per bottle). Estate hospitality director Brian Lillie says, “It’s truly what we consider liquid gold in the tasting room.”
All of which poses a question about industry scale: Away from the West Coast, what other state produces such a panoply of wines, in such abundance, as Michigan?
A Marketing Splash
Jennifer Lake, founder and creative director of Brand Tonic, a Traverse City design studio, represents clients from the wine, tourism, food and beverage, and nonprofit sectors. She shares her insights about the evolution of the wine industry in northern Michigan in recent years, and what winemakers need to do to stay ahead.
DB: What changes have you seen over the past 15 years in the wine industry?
JL: I’ve been following how the wines are improving, and I believe these vineyards are having to get more savvy in their labeling and packaging. The labels on the shelf, they need to pop out now. A lot of people are drawn just to labels. What I like to do is tell people, if you’re going to work with us, we’re making sure those things align with your brand’s message and we pull that label into a cohesive story.
DB: For Circa Estate Winery of Lake Leelanau, you created flavor buttons?
JL: For the collateral materials we did, one thing I loved was these little buttons at the winery. You could pick your flavor relative to a wine note: “I’m spicy” or “I’m buttery.” I would see (people) all over Traverse City wearing these buttons. That part of the whole packaging piece was fun. They allowed us to try some different things.
DB: How do you address the needs of Chateau Chantal?
JL: We’ve been working with them for the past year and a half to change over their labels, and they’re just in production now. We went through this branding process with them to help understand who they are, what makes them different — and that experience for the customer who arrives at their place and tastes their wines. They wanted something a little more systematic. So, we went through their 30-some labels. When they’re all on the shelf together, you know the winery they’re coming from.
DB: Off the wine trail, you did some buzzy stuff for Iron Fish Distillery of Thompsonville.
JL: We wanted to have these angles, and this way it came together, in this artistic form. It’s almost scientific. The shimmery fish you see, the paper’s not straight. Paper and the techniques you can use with printers for labels really enhance and bring things out.
Wines for the Times
DB: On the way to the pool party, what bubbly would you bring?
MT: BOS Wine Methode Agricole, Elk Rapids.
Attention natural wine fans. Here’s a “pet-nat” style bubbly with a fantastic aroma, like walking through a rose garden. It’s a gently sparkling wine made from a surprising blend of Valvin Muscat, Chardonnay, and Gewürztraminer. Winemaker Dave Bos is pushing the envelope Up North with sustainable winegrowing practices and champions “Michigan leading the green way.”
DB: How about for a dressy party?
MT: bigLITTLE C-3 Pinot Brut, Leelanau Peninsula
Bring this out when a non-vintage champagne is needed. It delivers elegant quality while making you chuckle at the name. Beautifully crisp and cleansing, with tiny bubbles. Made from the three Pinot varieties (Gris, Blanc, and Noir) grown in their Leelanau Peninsula vineyard. Owner and winemaker Mike Laing learned sparkling winemaking working alongside Larry Mawby — no better mentor for the category.
DB: What Michigan wines would you take to the beach?
MT: Left Foot Charley Pinot Blanc 2019, Old Mission Peninsula
Gently dry white, sleek, and pretty. As good a Pinot Blanc as you’ll have from anywhere. Will happily take the place of un-oaked Chardonnay or Pinot Grigio. From the deft hands of Bryan Ulbrich, one of Michigan’s star winemakers. (Just ask his colleagues.)
Shady Lane Grüner Veltliner 2020, Leelanau Peninsula
Move over, Austria! Northern Michigan is growing plenty of a grape variety that manages our climate well. This “Grüvie” has its signature ginger spice on the nose and palate, and it’s dry with a lush, easy texture. Winemaker Kasey Wierzba also makes fine Blaufränkisch, a red eastern European variety.
DB: What Michigan wine will impress wine geeks and newbies alike?
MT: Modales Dry Riesling “Herman Farm” 2020, Fennville
An ambassador for how good Michigan dry Riesling can be — beautiful peachy aromas, with Riesling’s signature fruity-tart flavor and a rich mouthfeel. Quite rich, bringing to mind German trocken Rieslings. Made in Fennville in southwest Michigan wine country, with
a warmer, longer growing season. Keep your eye on winemaker Andrew Backlin.
DB: How about tailgating at a football game?
MT: Mari Totus Porcus 2018, Old Mission Peninsula
Yes, “Whole Hog.” A playful, utterly delicious dry blend of Gewürztraminer, Riesling, and Pinot Gris. Sean O’Keefe made his reputation crafting gorgeous dry Riesling but is equally successful at creative, tasty red and white blends. And bubbles — don’t miss Mari’s “Simplicissimus,” a sparkling Riesling. The label shows O’Keefe lugging his corgi.
DB: What white and red wines would pleasantly surprise Thanksgiving guests?
MT: Bel Lago Pinot Noir 2018, Leelanau Peninsula
One sniff tells you this Pinot is the real deal — layered, complex, with ripe strawberry fruit and clove spice. And the flavors follow through, with a very long finish. Balanced and showy, this wine could easily be the most consistent example of quality Pinot Noir in the state. Bel Lago was one of the first producers to champion “the heartbreak grape” — try growing it — in Michigan, planting specific Burgundy clones.
Black Star Farms Arcturos Cabernet Franc, 2019 Michigan
Here’s one for people who insist on looking for rich reds in cool growing regions. Has Cab Franc’s lovely aroma of dark berry fruit, violets, fresh ground coffee, and herbs. Medium-bodied with smooth tannins. Can dance easily with roast chicken, a lamb chop, or grilled salmon.