Ryan Bentley (231) 439-9342 - email@example.com
6:59 AM PDT, June 27, 2012
PETOSKEY -- As some see it, a wine industry's time may be arriving in Michigan's Tip of the Mitt region.
Three wineries have begun operating around Emmet and Cheboygan counties in recent years, and a handful of others are in planning and development stages nearby. Winery operators, along with dozens of area grape growers, have formed an association to work together on shared interests, with members having planted about 12,000 grape vines in the region.
"A lot of our members are retired or semi-retired, they're just looking for some supplemental income," said Straits Area Grape Growers Association president Greg Whittaker. "Other people are looking to make a job out of it."
Some in the association see wine production as a potential draw for tourism in the area, and at least one promoter of that industry agrees.
"The art of making wine, it all has a good story and a good attraction to it," said Peter Fitzsimons, executive director of the Petoskey Area Visitors Bureau. "The Traverse City area has proven that over the past 40 years."
Areas around Grand Traverse Bay, including the Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas, have secured positions among Michigan's top wine regions in the past few decades. The industry is also well-established in southwestern Michigan.
But recently, Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council executive director Linda Jones noted that wineries also have been opening in parts of the state not traditionally known for that type of business, such as Alpena, Jackson and Port Huron.
"With the right decisions about what kind of business model you want to have, there are opportunities for the wine industry in every county of the state," she added.
Like some other agriculture-related businesses, the wine industry bucked the difficult trends that much of Michigan's economy faced during the past decade.
Jones said consumers' preferences are evolving when it comes to alcoholic drinks, and this appears to be helping wine businesses grow.
"There's generally an increase in per-capita wine consumption in the country," she said.
At the same time, consumption of beer has been leveling off, Jones added, although microbrewed varieties have continued growing in popularity.
Jones said consumers recently have been showing more interest in food and beverages that are produced close to home, perhaps boosting in-state interest in Michigan wines. Jimmy Spencer, a partner in the Harbor Springs Winery at Pond Hill Farm that opened last year, sees this trend potentially helping the state's wineries and agricultural businesses as well.
"People are a lot more interested in where their food comes from now," he said. "People are more interested in supporting local, buying local."
The winery at Pond Hill Farm, located north of Harbor Springs along M-119, is a venture involving the farm's co-owners -- Spencer, his wife, Marci, and his mother, Sharon -- as well as part-time local residents Jim and Kim Palmer. It offers tasting daily.
For now, the winery is sourcing fruit from Leelanau County and producing much of its wine at a custom crush facility there. But a vineyard was planted at Pond Hill -- which also features a popular farm market -- in 2011, and the operators plan to ramp up on-site grape sourcing and wine production over the next few years.
"I'm really excited for what this has done for our business in the past year as far as bringing in a different clientele," Spencer said.
During the fiscal year concluding Sept. 30, 2011, the Grape and Wine Industry Council recognized 11 new wineries as "new producers of Michigan wine," bringing the state's total to 86. By early 2012, 91 wineries were present in Michigan.
The council also reported that sales of Michigan wines in the state rose 12 percent in 2010, while total wine sales increased 4 percent. Michigan wine sales have outpaced total wine sales for the past 10 years, doubling the Michigan wineries' market share to 6.5 percent.
Jones believes the region around Petoskey and the Straits of Mackinac is well-positioned to share in the industry growth.
"With the amount of tourism traffic to that area in the summer, it would be a logical place to have a little nucleus of wineries," she said.
For the industry to gain a firm foothold, Jones said one key step will be identifying which grapes can best thrive in the local environment.
Getting grapes to grow
Grape varieties within the Vitis vinifera species -- Merlot, Shiraz, Pinot Grigio and Riesling, to name a few -- are incorporated in the majority of the world's wines. They're produced in well-known wine regions, such as those of California and Europe, and can also be found growing in some Michigan locales.
But in the part of the state north of the 45th parallel, the limited cold tolerance of vinifera grape varieties can make them challenging to produce.
At Pleasantview Vineyards near Harbor Springs -- which became the area's first winery when it opened about six years ago -- vintner Jerry Perrone has found another category of grape he says is well-suited to the local climate and soils, and offers disease resistance.
"All the grapes that I put in the ground are American cold-hardy varietals," he said.
Grapes in this classification vary in color, and can bring a wide range of flavor profiles to wines, Perrone noted.
"We go from super sweet to super dry in whites, blushes and red," he said.
The cold-hardy grape varieties embraced by some growers locally and elsewhere in the northern tier of states carry names such as Marquette, Edelweiss, King of the North and Frontenac.
For now, wines produced with Northern Michigan-grown American grapes legally can't incorporate the grape names in their labels, as is commonly seen with vinifera wines, Perrone noted.
The Straits Area Grape Growers Association is seeking a federal American Viticultural Area designation for the region that will allow more flexibility for labeling of local wines. For now, Pleasantview Vineyards uses fairly generic label names for its various wine styles, such as super dry red and white ice wine.
With Perrone noting that American varietals deliver a taste experience different from vinifera wines, he offers educational sessions in conjunction with tastings at Pleasantview Vineyards.
Using grapes sourced from its own vines and those of other growers, Pleasantview Vineyards has been producing 800 to 1,000 cases of wine annually in recent years. With this year's grape crop shaping up as "good to excellent," Perrone expects wine output of about 1,200 to 1,300 cases this year. He's in the process of enlarging his facility, and anticipates Pleasantview will gradually ramp up production to about 5,000 cases annually within the next five years or so.
Pleasantview produces about 20 wine labels, which are sold on site as well as at numerous restaurants, supermarkets and liquor stores around Michigan.
Whittaker, the Straits Area Grape Growers Association president, grows American grape varieties as well, and noted that the wines produced from these tend to be tarter and crisper than those that incorporate vinifera grapes.
Some growers haven't entirely ruled out vinifera grape production as a possibility locally. At Pond Hill Farm -- where the vineyard is situated along a south-facing slope with significant exposure to sunlight -- Spencer said his analysis of weather data suggests that type of grape could be workable, and the operators have planted some vinifera vines along with cold-hardy hybrids.
An educated approach
Along with operating his winery, Perrone teaches about viticulture (the processes and science of grape growing) and enology (the science and study of wine and winemaking) as an adjunct instructor at North Central Michigan College.
After offering workshops on this subject matter, the community college in Petoskey recently established associate degree and one-year certificate programs focused on these fields of study.
"The overwhelming interest is what pushed it over to the degree side," said Pete Olson, associate dean of health, business and technology at North Central.
With wineries established in Northern Michigan and restaurants also offering potential wine-related career opportunities, Helen Leithauser, business training coordinator at the college, said local interest in wines has begun to include a professional dimension rather than simply being a hobby.
"More farms are looking at grape growing and wine making," she said. "We've definitely had an interest in that area."
About a dozen students were enrolled in the viticulture/enology's introductory-level class that recently concluded, with a couple of other students recently involved in internships in the field. Staff expect the degree program will graduate its first students in 2013.
Members of the Straits Area Grape Growers Association believe cooperation can help their various grape and wine ventures advance.
"Whenever a member comes up with some new interesting information, we send it out to the membership to share it," said association president Greg Whittaker.
Whittaker's interest in viticulture blossomed when he took a workshop on the subject at North Central, and he's planted a 1,600-vine vineyard near Wolverine. Currently growing hay and working as a logging contractor, he hopes grapes and wine might provide him with the basis for a full-time job in the future.
The association, with about 40 members, purchases vineyard poles in bulk, allowing members to benefit from quantity discounts. Plans are in the works to promote a "wine trail" route for visitors to local wineries.
By seeking the American Viticultural Area designation for the "Tip of the Mitt" region -- including Emmet, Charlevoix and Cheboygan counties, and the portions of Otsego and Antrim counties north of the 45th parallel -- Whittaker said the association hopes to enhance the value of local grapes and wine.
While wineries currently are just a small fraction of the way toward the goal, the Straits Area Grape Growers Association hopes local wine output will reach 100,000 cases annually within a few years time -- and continue to grow from that point.
"The sky's the limit, basically," Whittaker said.
Ralph Stabile, whose Mackinaw Trail Winery opened in the Upper Peninsula town of Manistique in 2004, also sees growth potential for the wine industry around Petoskey.
"We've got the growing environment," he said. "You've got a beautiful destination as it is in Petoskey."
In its first few years, Mackinaw Trail has relied on grapes purchased from established vineyards to produce its wine, which is available at sites such as a downtown Petoskey tasting room. This year, the winery will begin developing a 30-acre site along U.S. 131 South near Williams Road in Bear Creek Township. It will include space to grow grapes and fruit, as well as for wine production and tasting.
For more information about the Straits Area Grape Growers Association, write the group at 201 W. Mitchell St., Suite 182, Petoskey, Mich. 49770 or email Whittaker at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michigan has more than 14,000 acres devoted to grape growing; 2,000 of those are devoted to wine grapes. As of early 2012, there were 91 Michigan wineries drawing more than 1 million visitors annually. The industry affects more than 5,000 jobs in Michigan, with a payroll upwards of $190 million. The total estimated impact on Michigan's economy is $790 million.
Source: Michigan Grape & Wine Industry Council figures cited in Michigan State University report
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