State's Wine Industry Shows Good Growth

January 7, 2008
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LANSING — Michigan’s wine industry is growing by the case.

Between 2003 and 2006, wine grape acreage increased by 12 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Demand for wine — regional wines, in particular — is one reason for the growth, according to Liz Berger, operations manager for Chateau Chantal, a Traverse City winery.

“As more people learn about local wines, they’re seeking them out and purchasing them — not just at wineries but in grocery stores and restaurants,” she said.

Another reason for the increase is farmers switching from juice grapes to wine grapes, said Kait Lemon, tasting room manager for Lemon Creek Winery in Berrien Springs. A lot of vineyards had contracts to supply juice grapes to Welch’s, but those contracts are expiring, Lemon said, freeing the growers to switch.

“The wine industry is taking off and people are seeing that it’s financially viable to be in. With the lake-effect soil we have, it’s perfect for wine grapes,” she said.

David Creighton, promotion specialist with the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council, agrees. “Wine grapes are much more profitable. It’s pretty clear that if you can grow wine grapes, you’re financially better off,” he said.

According to the USDA report, about 1,800 acres are devoted to wine grapes, making Michigan the eighth largest state in terms of wine grape production.

Wine grapes are grown primarily in two areas: the southwest corner of the state, including Berrien and Van Buren counties, and the northwest, including Leelanau and Grand Traverse counties. These areas benefit from the lake-effect warming and moisture created by Lake Michigan, which protect the vines with snow in the winter, help the buds avoid frost damage in spring and extend the growing season.

However, warmer-than-normal temperatures have had a visible impact on grape production over the last few years in the northern part of the state, moving the harvest up a couple of weeks, Berger said.

Creighton said the changing weather isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “We need a little more warmth then we used to get to make really good red wine.”

And that’s exactly what’s been happening the last couple years, he said.

As the acreage increases, people have begun to recognize the growing areas as wine regions, which boosts tourism. About 50 wineries in the state attract more than 800,000 visitors annually, according to the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council.

“People are beginning to plan trips just to wineries, or if they’re in the region, they make sure they visit some wineries,” Berger said.

According to Creighton, wineries are reporting double-digit sales increases in their tasting rooms. With sales increasing faster than plantings, continued expansion of acreage is necessary, he said.

Lemon said, “We’re capable of growing grapes around here that are just as good as those in California. It’s just now being recognized.”

That quality is shown by the 744 medals Michigan wines won in 2007 at national and international competitions, according to the industry council.

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