Midwest tries to overcome reputation for low-quality wines

Wally Maurer raises the wine glass to his nose, closes his eyes and inhales deeply. “MmmMmmMmm,” the goateed winemaker moans and takes a sip of his 2008 Crown of Cabernet aged in a French oak barrel.

“Blueberries, cherries … cider … a little vanilla,” he declares after spitting the sample into a drain.

Upstairs, at Domaine Berrien Cellars’ tasting room in Berrien Springs, Mich., customers are lined up at the cylindrical bar for free tastes of up to five of Maurer’s 18 wines, including Pinot Noir, Lemberger, Pinot Grigio, Merlot and Syrah.

Most walk out with a bottle or two, pledging to come back for more. Many are repeaters who have brought along vacationing friends and relatives.

Still, Maurer and other Midwestern winemakers struggle to shake off perceptions that their wine is of low quality.

“The hardest thing is letting people know about the wide variety of Michigan wine, its tremendous quality and that it’s not all sweet,” said Tony Peterson, owner of Contessa Wine Cellars in Coloma, Mich., a boutique winery perched atop rolling green hills.

Prohibition killed off most winemaking in the United States, and when it ended in 1933 Americans demanded what was popular then: sweet wines. Midwestern wineries responded by cranking up sweet wine production. Although they have ventured into dry and semidry wines, the sweet wine label has stuck.

Key, Peterson and others said, is luring tourists and locals into their tasting rooms, where the wineries make the bulk of their sales.

“Our focus is to sell to people four to five hours from us,” said Peterson, who produces about 2,800 cases, or 33,600 bottles, of wine a year.

Few small and boutique-size wineries attempt to distribute outside Michigan.

But some Michigan wines are popping up in Chicago restaurants.

“The quality of [regional] wine is a lot better than almost 10 years ago,” said Steve Tindle, wine and spirits director at Shaw’s Crab House in Chicago. He said he features a small selection of regional wines, including a Cabernet Franc reserve from the Lynfred Winery in Roselle, Ill., and a Pinot Gris from Hickory Creek Winery in Baroda, Mich.

Still, Tindle said customers rarely order the wine, but when they do, they are pleasantly surprised.

“It’s still an industry that’s evolving and up and coming,” he said.

Michigan boasts 100 wineries, up from 73 in 2005. Many of the wines are copies of those made in northern France and southern Germany because the weather in southwest Michigan, winemakers said, allows them to grow grapes from Europe’s Alsace wine region.

In the regions where winemakers cannot grow those grapes or where the supply of grapes is limited, wineries have turned to grapes from California, Oregon and Washington.

Such is the case at Lynfred Winery. Marketing Director Christina Anderson-Heller said the winery labels most of its 30,000 cases of wine a year, or about 360,000 bottles, “American” because they are made with out-of-state grapes. In response, she says she gets the occasional “It’s not really local” speech from customers.

“We try to buy as many Illinois grapes as we can, but a lot of vineyards don’t produce as much for us,” Anderson-Heller said, adding that the product is local because it is made in the state.

To avoid buying out-of-state grapes, some winemakers have settled in better growing regions.

Doug Welsch moved to Michigan from Mokena, Ill., in 1973 to pursue his winemaking hobby because he couldn’t grow the grapes he wanted in his native state. The hobby, he says, “got out of hand” and today his Fenn Valley Vineyards & Wine Cellar in Fennville, Mich., produces 45 wines from 17 varieties of grapes grown on his 245-acre farm or purchased from local farmers.

Fenn Valley is among a dozen wineries that have banded together to market “Lake Michigan Shore Wine Country.” They have published a “wine trail map,” which also includes ads from local restaurants and shops. In addition, signs direct travelers to area wineries, and there are bus tours.

Welsch doesn’t stop there. He sponsors monthly events at his winery such as cookouts, dinners and tours. During the summer tourist season, he teaches visitors about grapes in his vineyard. In the winter, he leads them down a narrow spiral staircase into his wine cellar, where he ages his wines in French oak barrels.

“I never dreamed I would be an entertainer,” Welsch said.

It apparently is paying off because his wine production has risen roughly fourfold to between 11,000 and 12,000 cases of wine a year, during the last 20 years.

At Domaine Berrien Cellars, Maurer markets his wines as hand-crafted — “The old-world style,” he said. They are aged in $1,000 oak barrels and with the finest of his grapes growing right outside his door.

Maurer’s wine production started as a hobby in the late 1980s and became a full-time business in the early 2000s. He now produces about 4,500 cases of wine a year, or about 54,000 bottles.

His land tends to be a little warmer, he said, which allows him to grow more than 20 kinds of grapes, including Merlot, Syrah and Chardonnay.

As the vineyard foreman and two other men trim shoots and cut grape clusters to balance the vine — a process called hedging, which is important to increase the sweetness of the fruit — Maurer talks about the importance of leaving enough leaves on certain areas to allow for shade so that the fruit is not overexposed to sunlight.

“They are all like my children,” he said, and his attention to detail has yielded good results.

So far, he is proudest of his Crown of Cabernet, which he calls “The crown jewel of our cellar.” It is a blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, petit verdot and malbec, all grown at his farm.

A few months ago, Maurer said a distributor wanted to sell the Crown of Cabernet in Chicago. Maurer said he didn’t think twice about getting a permit to export the wine, and it’s now listed with Cabernet Sauvignons from California at the Marriott hotel on Michigan Avenue. It sells for $8 a glass or $32 a bottle.

“My mission,” Maurer said, “is to make Michigan famous.”