Michigan Wine Industry Slowly Grows, Brings Capital and Tourism to the State

As a wine producing state, Michigan is both a powerhouse and a pigmy.

With nearly 3,000 acres devoted to wine grapes, Michigan ranks fifth in the nation, trailing California, Washington, Oregon and New York. But in an industry dominated by West Coast wineries, the state produces just 0.3 percent of the nation’s wine.

In 2015, Michigan’s wine industry – farming, manufacturing and tourism – contributed more than $300 million to the state’s economy. Until upended by two frigid winters, production of grape wines had been increasing each year, as has the number of wineries, according to the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council.

The quality of Michigan wines, most notably its Rieslings and sparkling wines, is gaining notoriety in a very competitive marketplace.

There are more than 120 wineries in the state, most of them located within 25 miles of Lake Michigan in four federally approved viticulture areas: Lake Michigan Shores and Fennville, both located in the southwest corner of the state; Old Mission Peninsula in Grand Traverse Bay; and the Leelanau Peninsula.

Most produce wines from vinifera grapes, the traditional European stock. But wines are also made from native grapes like Concord and Niagara, as well as from hybrids developed from vinifera and native varieties.

In the next few years, consumers are likely to see more wines from these hybrid grapes, which are better adapted to Michigan’s often harsh climate. The bitterly cold winters of 2014 and 2015 severely damaged vines, in turn reducing wine grape output from 7,600 tons in 2013 to 2,600 tons in 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The shortage forced many wineries to import grape juice, often from the state of Washington.

Yet despite its climate, the state has a long history of wine making. Authors Sharon Kegerreis and Lorri Hathaway found references to wine making by French explorers in 1679. Grapes grew wildly along the Detroit River, and by the early 1700s a vineyard was established at Fort Ponchartrain du Détroit. Kegerreis and Hathaway noted that a Michigan wine industry succeeded in and around Monroe County until Prohibition. It started up again after repeal of the amendment.

Today, Michigan ranks 10th among all states in wine production at 2.5 million gallons. It is up 65 percent in the last five years, according to the Industry Council.

Executive Director, Karel Bush, says growers and producers are optimistic, seeing recovery from past winters’ damage.

“Vines are budding as they should. But quality and quantity all depend on the growing season,” said Bush.

Success for Michigan wineries requires a balance between production and promotion. Because most Michigan wineries are small, they lack the economies of scale available to large well-established producers, said Dan McCole, an associate professor in Michigan State University’s Department of Community Sustainability.

While the per bottle cost for a large winery is about $4, the cost per bottle for small wineries is closer to $12, he said. He added that despite higher costs, small wineries that populate Michigan could be quite successful and profitable.

“There is definitely a market for people who want to visit wineries, and local is better. These wineries sell all of the wine that they can produce out of their tasting rooms,” McCole said.

He and his colleagues in the MSU Department of Community Sustainability specialize in marketing, branding and tasting room studies with cold hardy wines especially suited to the Michigan climate.

Their survey of wine tasting visitors in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota found that 90 percent of wineries in those states sold half of their wine in their tasting rooms. Their success is based on service, the price and quality of wines and the overall setting.

The 50:50 ratio holds true for Burgdorf’s Winery in Haslett, said Dave Burgdorf, who has operated the business since 2005 with his wife Deb.

Burgdorf’s produces 3,500 to 4,000 12-bottle cases of wine annually – dry whites and rosés, semi-sweet and sweet whites, dry reds, semi-sweet and sweet reds, blushes and fruit wines, many of them award winning.

All of the wine is made from Michigan grapes, most of them grown, pruned and harvested to Burgdorf’s specifications in vineyards in the state’s southwest wine region. Burgdorf wines are sold throughout the state and hand-delivered to retailers by Dave Burgdorf. Like other small wine makers, the Burgdorfs are hands-on owner-operators, pressing grapes, fermenting the juice, bottling, distributing and promoting their products.

Burgdorf’s tasting room in Haslett draws a wide spectrum of visitors and has become a destination tourist attraction in mid-Michigan.
“We’re not in a tourist zone or along a tourist track like along the lake or in Frankenmuth. We don’t get walk-ins,” Burgdorf said.

But they do get repeat visitors. “When people find us they come back all the time.”

Burgdorf said Michigan wines have unique characteristics and can occupy a unique niche. The industry’s embrace of cold hardy wine grapes will accentuate these Michigan characteristics.

“We will have a big wall to climb,” Burgdorf said. “But it will be good to have some new flavors of wine. If you want a wine to be like one from France or California, I tell people to go buy that.”

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Mickey Hirten

Mickey Hirten

Mickey Hirten is an award winning writer and editor. He has been executive editor of the Lansing State Journal, the Burlington Free Press in Vermont, and was the financial editor and a columnist for the Baltimore Evening Sun. He is the current president of the Michigan Press Association. His wife, Maureen Hirten, is director of the Capital Area District Library.