Michigan wineries diversify to stay fresh
While their central focus remains on wines, region’s vintners see importance of appealing to a wider crowd.
Big and small winemakers in the region have something in common: The need to stay relevant as Michigan’s beverage industry grows.
In West Michigan, Cascade Winery co-owner Bob Bonga sees his business boosted by the growth in popularity of ciders, fruit wines of all kinds and meads, as well as the proliferation of breweries.
More breweries are realizing that, with customers who come in groups, there are always a couple people who don’t like beer, so they need to have a wine license. Many of them carry wines from Michigan wineries, such as Cascade.
Cascade Winery, 4665 Broadmoor Ave. SE in Grand Rapids, produced 18,000 gallons of wine in 2016, up from about 11,000 in 2015. In addition to producing wines, ciders and meads, the location also has a brewery.
Bonga said the road runs both ways when it comes to diversification.
“Wineries are getting brewery and distillery licenses — everyone is crossing over to have a diverse mix of offerings in their tasting room. If you come with a friend of yours, they may not like wine, so we also have beer,” he said.
The seven-employee winery, established in 2002, offers eight beers, from lighter cream ales to heavier stouts, and its most popular seller is the Peanut Butter Porter.
Bonga said he has noticed a shift in the kind of wines that appeal to the younger generation — “fruit-forward” wines that may not have been as popular as full-bodied reds years ago.
But he said understanding and respecting the customer’s tastes is paramount. He learned from the leadership at “hugely successful” St. Julian Winery it’s not about the kinds of wines you want to make; it’s about where the market is.
“David Braganini (former president of St. Julian Winery) before he passed, he would say, ‘Make it for the customer,’” Bonga said.
This holds true for one of Michigan’s larger wineries, as well.
Chateau Grand Traverse, on the Old Mission Peninsula north of Traverse City, was one of northern Michigan’s first wineries, according to owner Edward O’Keefe.
Since it was founded in 1974, the winery mostly has specialized in growing European varietal grapes, such as riesling, as opposed to concord grapes or hybrids, a cross between American and European vines.
But it also has branched out to producing cherry wines and blends of cherry wines, sourced from cherries grown in the region.
“The quality of any type of fruit that comes out of Michigan is superb,” O’Keefe said, noting the climate produces fruits with high acidity, which allows for “explosive flavor.”
Chateau Grand Traverse, 12239 Center Road in Traverse City, an operation with 37 employees, produced about 250,000 gallons of wine in both 2015 and 2016. O’Keefe said he was impressed production remained steady after two extremely harsh winters and difficult growing seasons in northern Michigan.
He agreed with Bonga that one of the trends he has seen in Michigan is customers favoring fruity wines.
“(The No. 1 trend) is the types of red wine being produced in Michigan tend to be lighter in style and fruitier, much more European. ... I do see a trend of people going toward the lighter style reds.
“And No. 2, blends are really apparent in trends. A lot of wineries are blending more than one kind of fruit to make a wine. High-quality fruit wines are making a showing, too. The cherry wines are going up in popularity.”
Like Bonga, he said the main thing to keep in mind as a vintner, both in production and in the tasting room, is that it’s about putting the customer’s preferences first.
“When people ask, ‘What’s the best wine you make?’ I say, ‘The wine you like best,’” O’Keefe said.
In northern Michigan, wineries are branching out beyond winemaking in surprising ways to stay on par with their many competitors.
O’Keefe said there has been a shift from merely providing tastings toward also offering informative and scenic tours — and an entertainment “experience.”
“A lot of wineries are doing hiking trails, snowshoes, mountain biking — all sorts of other activities that lead to an experience,” he said.
“We offer wine tasting and, during the warmer months, an outside patio with music and a weekly event called Wine Down Wednesdays from 5-7:30 on Wednesday nights,” he said.
“We also have yoga in the vineyard during the key summer months. And we have an inn — six rooms that people rent as they go on their wine tours of the area. Our winery offers a pretty complete wine experience.”
O’Keefe said the Michigan wine industry is far and above what it was when it first began four decades ago. While California still leads the field in production, Michigan has been internationally recognized for the quality of its wines.
“The biggest change I’ve seen is credibility,” he said. “Nobody really judges us anymore — ‘Michigan, you make wine?’ — virtually all the northern Michigan wineries have won international awards. It’s not a novelty; it’s a legitimate thing.”