Michigan wineries on the increase

February 27, 2012
| By Pete Daly |
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Not everybody at the 2012 Michigan Grape & Wine Conference at the Amway Grand Plaza last week is an active participant in the Michigan wine industry. Gary and Michelle Slykhouse were there to absorb as much as they could — not wine, but information on how to start a winery.

The couple both work full time at “day jobs” — he’s a civil engineer and she’s an administrative analyst for the city of Grand Rapids — but they hope to open a small winery at their Alpine Township home on 8 Mile near Fruit Ridge Road in about three years, according to Michelle. A winemaker owned the property before them and his small winery and vineyard is still there, she said. They’ve even got a name ready: Alpine Ridge Wine.

The Slykhouse family hopes to be real winemakers someday, and they are not alone.

The wine industry in Michigan “continues to grow,” said Karel Bush, a promotion specialist for the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council, which put on the conference and is a program of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. One of the things fueling the growth is an interest and awareness by consumers of the Michigan wine industry, said Bush, and restaurant patrons increasingly asking for Michigan wines.

Although the Michigan Liquor Control Commission has issued about 140 licenses for wine production, that also includes brew pubs and what Bush called “make-your-own places.” She said the council recognizes and helps promote 91 wineries that are considered as supporting Michigan agriculture by predominantly using Michigan grapes or fruits. Last year, there were 81: “We’ve added to our list,” she said.

Of those 10 additions, probably five are new wineries; the others have been in the business but previously were not involved in promotion of the Michigan grape and wine industry.

Bush said 1.2 million gallons of wine are produced in Michigan each year, but it is difficult to put a dollar value on that because there is a wide variety of pricing in Michigan wines.

Some Michigan wineries cannot grow any larger, she said, because there aren’t enough wine grapes produced in the state, so one goal of the council is to encourage investment in vineyards.

There are about 2,500 acres of wine grapes under cultivation in Michigan, compared to 15,000 acres of juice grapes. Ninety-five percent of Michigan juice grapes, almost all of which are grown in the southwest corner of the state, are bought by Welch’s, the grape juice giant that has been in the business since 1869 and is based in Concord, Mass.

Bush said there is a “huge difference” between juice grapes and wine grapes. The juice grapes are native American species — Concord and Niagara — first found on the East Coast, and only a small amount of wine is made from them.

Most wine, however, is from vinifera grapes native to Europe and southwestern Asia — “absolutely a different species.” Hybrid grape varieties also have been developed for the wine industry.

Compared to juice grapes, “wine grapes are much more labor intensive,” said Bush, and much more “temperamental” when it comes to variations in climate and temperature.

Vineyard owners try to improve the flavor of their grapes by removing some of the grapes and leaves from the vines to focus the plant’s energy into the remaining fruit, according to Bush.

“It takes a lot of vineyard management in order to grow good wine grapes,” she said, adding that with wine grapes, “you get a lot more money per acre. However, with juice grapes, you can grow more on an acre.”

Bush noted that Michigan’s production of so many varieties of fruit increases the options for wine — so much so that some Michigan wineries don’t even make wine from grapes.

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