Fifty years ago this June, Fenn Valley Vineyards was born. The 150-acre fruit farm that founder Bill Welsch purchased near Fennville in 1973 had all the characteristics he was looking for in his future vineyard: It was the right distance from Lake Michigan, it had the right soil type, and the topography was ideal. Over the next few years, Welsch converted the farm to a vineyard, and over the next few decades, it became the winery it is today.
Vice President Brian Lesperance has been with the winery since 2012, and in that time, he’s helped usher the winery into a new age. Here, he tells Michigan Wine Country about the winery’s past, present, and future and what it’s like to have reached that 50-year milestone.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
In general, how does it feel for Fenn Valley to be celebrating 50 years?
A little surreal, to be perfectly honest. I remember the 40th like it was yesterday, and that felt like we’d been doing this for a long time. We’re super grateful for the community that’s supported us here and more broadly in the Michigan wine industry. This has been quite the ride, and we’re happy to be part of such a great environment here in Michigan for winemaking and grape growing.
Do you have any special events or wine releases planned for the anniversary this year?
Absolutely. We have four anniversary-edition wines coming out this year. Three of them we sneak-peeked in April, and then the fourth one is going to come out towards the end of the year as a sparkling wine for the holiday season. We have a Sauvignon Blanc, a semidry Riesling, a Cabernet Sauvignon, and a dry sparkler. All are going to be put in a special 50th-anniversary label that help[s] tell our story.
And then as far as events, we’re trying to weave this into all of our events. We have so many customers and partners and people that we just couldn’t do it all in one shot, so elements of all our normal events are going to have a 50th-anniversary spin to them. In addition to that, we have our wine festival on June 24. That will have an extra-special slant to it because that is kind of our annual celebration loosely affiliated with our actual anniversary.
Could you tell me a little bit about how the winery was founded 50 years ago?
It was really a father-son project. Doug and Bill Welsch made wine as hobbyists and owned some farmland out in Illinois, so they were familiar with agriculture but not wine grapes, and so they combined those two passions and started looking all over the Midwest for a good place to do this sort of thing. [They] looked at a lot of topography data, what else was being planted in the area, and tried to find a spot that made sense. The soil type, the topography, [and] proximity [to Lake] Michigan all came together to make this a pretty special spot. They acquired the first parcel in June of 1973, and we slowly acquired some adjacent properties to put us at our 240 acres now. At the time, it was a fruit farm, so it took a few years to work the fruit farm back into wine grapes. And then of course, it takes a while to make wine after that, so it took a few years to get Michigan-grown grape wine out on the market. In between that time, they made wines out of some of the fruits that were on the farm: peaches and cherries and apples.
And it’s just been an evolution ever since. Every year, we try to learn something new, we try to take on some new projects, we try to continually learn as a team. It was pretty humble beginnings to be sure, as we were getting started, and now we’ve got about 65 employees between here and the tasting room in Saugatuck. Doug’s still around and involved, and from his point of view, it’s been interesting to see how things have grown so much. In the last 20 to 30 years, the industry has really taken off with obviously way more wineries. The region is known for winemaking; people come this way from all over the place to experience wine country, so it’s been a pretty cool ride maybe the last quarter-century or so.
In your time at the winery, what accomplishment are you most proud of that you or the winery has achieved?
For us, it’s been a lot of different things for sure. We’re very direct to consumer, so our model is very much [to] bring people out to the winery [and] have them experience the farm — that’s something that we’re really proud of, and so we’ve really doubled down to keep the vineyards more accessible. We’ve added a lot of experiences that customers can take advantage of that bring them out into the vineyards. We have vineyard picnics, where people can go out in the middle of the vineyards and actually have a catered activity with wine and food and really immerse themselves in what we think is the most unique part of our story, which is how we connected the vineyards with production here in Fennville.
And then just personally, I’ve spent a lot of my energy over the last 10 years moving us into the digital age, making those experiences for customers to book online, removing as much friction as I can between what we offer and what customers want to sign up for. That’s been really gratifying — to see people see these new activities that we offer and actually book them and have a great time. It’s also fun and gratifying for us as a company, and for me personally, because wine is usually part of folks’ celebrations. It’s really fun to help people plan wines for their weddings, or plan wines for their family reunions, or make custom labels for their anniversaries. It’s neat to be part of something that is usually associated with a celebration or relaxation.
What are you at Fenn Valley most proud of that the winery has accomplished over its lifetime?
Our ability now to be on the leading edge of making wines that folks never thought we could make in our region. I was just actually talking to some folks this morning about dry reds and how Michigan’s making some incredible dry reds. Our climate is a lot closer to Bordeaux than a lot of folks realize, and so we have the heat units to do it, but we also struggle because it’s humid along the lake, and so we have to manage that. And so the ability for us to have learned how to build trellis systems that work for our climate and the grapes we want to grow, and then how to translate that good fruit into high-quality dry red wines, … we’re exceptionally proud of our ability to do that now, do it consistently, and really start to build that into the Michigan wine brand. Product lines are always going to be the center of what we do here, and we’ve always done a really good job with your dry, aromatic wines. This climate’s perfect for those. But to really push ourselves to become pretty darn good at making the dry reds, too, is something that we’re really proud of.
What would you say have been the greatest challenges for the winery in the last 50 years?
The challenge is always selling wine. We joke about this all the time, but making wine is a heck of a lot easier than selling sometimes. You’re competing, first of all, for people’s recreation spend, and when you’re going after that discretionary part of folks’ budgets, you’re always going to be working for that. We want to build customers for life, so we try to delight customers every time they walk in the door. That’s a daily challenge. You’re always trying to cater to a wide variety of wine drinkers, to a wide variety of experience expectations, and so that’s the biggest challenge. And it will always be, I think, as we continue forward. More wineries is actually good. It’s not really a competition in Michigan, which is awesome. I think we still need more high-quality wineries to draw from outside of the Midwest, which is the ultimate goal.
Looking toward the future, what’s on the horizon for the winery? What are you looking forward to?
I’m very much looking forward to seeing how the industry continues to evolve the wines that we can make here. I see new varietals go into the ground, both on the traditional vinifera side and the hybrid and super cold-hardy hybrid side. Most wine regions are in one vein or the other: They’re either known for super cold-hardy hybrids or hybrids, or they’re known for vinifera wines — your more classic European style and European varietals. We can do both here, and different parts of the state are better for one or the other. It’s going to be really fascinating to see how we can piece this together as a coherent story. We’re doing some of that — the Cool Is Hot campaign that we’ve launched as a state, as an industry, within the last couple months, which is anchored by TasteMichigan.org, is a really good step in trying to tell a real story about how all these different grapes can be made into fantastic wines of all different styles.