Pouring it on: Wine industry growing in Michigan's 'Tip of the Mitt'
Jimmy Spencer, a partner in the Harbor Springs Winery at Pond Hill Farm, stands by a shelf displaying some of the wine varieties it produces. (Ryan Bentley/News-Review / June 27, 2012)
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.