You might already know Northern Michigan’s oldest commercial vineyards are celebrating 40 years this season, and you’ve likely heard about their wines being recognized on the world stage (this spring, Brys Estate brought home gold for its 2011 Gewurztraminer at London’s International Wine and Spirits Competition).
But what next? The Ticker asked local winemakers and industry pros to do some long-range forecasting. What will this wine region look like 20 years from today?
Suttons Bay vintner Larry Mawby, who planted his first vines in the early 1970s, doesn’t hesitate when asked to predict: three times as much acreage in vineyards and two times as many wineries across the entire area.
Michigan is the 5th largest grower of wine grapes in the nation. Of the more than 100 commercial wineries in the state, more than one third are located on the Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas. This region, however, is still considered an emerging wine market nationally, according to Linda Jones, executive director of the Michigan Grape & Wine Industry Council, and local winemaker Bryan Ulbrich agrees.
“We’re still in a state of experimentation,” says Ulbrich, winemaker/owner of Left Foot Charley in Traverse City, whose 2011 Dry Riesling just landed on the “Summer of Riesling” wine lists in a handful of Manhattan establishments. “And we’re still so young as a region. I look at Europe, where there are 900- and 1,000-year-old vineyards. We’re really just in the second generation of winemakers around here.”
In another 20 years, though, Ulbrich sees the signs of a mature region: one that knows its best potential and has honed in on the best grapes to grow and types of wine to produce.
When the Leelanau Peninsula Vintners Association was founded in 2000, there were ten wineries; today, there are 25 wineries on the wine trail. That single fact fuels association executive director Andy McFarlane’s prediction: “I think Leelanau will have 50 wineries,” says McFarlane, and it may not even take 20 years. “I’d be shocked if that didn’t happen.
But more grapes must come first. “We need 500 more acres of grapes to satisfy demand locally,” says Dan Matthies, owner of Chateau Fontaine in Lake Leelanau and also Peninsula Properties. Currently, there are about 680 acres of wine grapes growing in Leelanau County. “We need people to purchase property and grow grapes.”
Ulbrich sees the expansion vining east and south.
“I think the big boom is going to come in current non-appellation areas – into Antrim and Benzie and down to Manistee and Oceana counties, along the coast.”
Getting more premium grapes in the ground is extremely critical to the future success of northern Michigan’s wine region, adds Jones.
To that end, Dr. Paolo Sabbatini, a professor of horticulture at Michigan State University, has spent years researching Italian varietals that may thrive here. In fact, after five years of trials at MSU, two red varieties – teroldego and lagrein – were planted at Black Star Farms and Chateau Grand Traverse and are doing well.
But with more grapes in the ground and more wineries dotting the peninsulas, is there risk of too much of a good thing?
“I don’t see saturation being a huge issue,” says Mawby. “I do see “me too-ism” possibly becoming a problem … copying or a lack of original ideas.”
Adds Jones: “Wine is very personal. People want wine stories and successful wineries are really working on that experience. That’s how we’ll sustain growth.”
(NOTE: This is an excerpt from a larger story about the future of the region's wineries, appearing in the July Traverse City Business News).