When most people think of “Michigan wine country,” they likely picture the wine trails near Traverse City or vineyards in rural Southwest Michigan. But the wine scene is also growing in an unexpected place, and it’s including people from diverse backgrounds who might not have been represented in the industry before. From vintners and brands to sellers and sommeliers, a community of wine lovers is working hard to put “Detroit wine country” on the map.
House of Pure Vin
Walk into this sleek, modern wine shop on Woodward Avenue, and you’ll be greeted by a “Library Wall,” where bottles nest in recycled shipping tubes, spanning the globe as they wrap around the store. For owner Regina Gaines, it all starts with Michigan.
Gaines says she loves introducing people to homegrown favorites from Rove Estate, Wyncroft Marland, Laurentide Winery, and Nathaniel Rose. She also shines a spotlight on Black- and women-owned brands.
According to “Terroir Noir: 2020 Study of Black Wine Entrepreneurs,” African Americans make up more than 10% of wine consumers in the U.S., but Black-owned wineries constitute less than 1% of wineries in the country. Gaines hopes to change that.
Through tastings, seminars, and trips, House of Pure Vin has helped build the wine market in Detroit from the pavement up.
“We do everything we can to support winemakers and give them exposure, especially minorities,” Gaines says.
Dr. LaToya Thompson says she achieved a personal dream when she landed a spot on House of Pure Vin’s “Wall of Fame.” A sports physical therapist by trade, Thompson pursued her passion for wine by creating her own label. After sourcing grapes and partnering with a winery to carry out her specifications, she launched her Opulence Cabernet and Pinot Grigio with a tasting party at House of Pure Vin and sold out in 45 minutes. Thompson is working with Great Lakes Wine & Spirits to make her wine available to a wider audience, but she says she felt it was important to start in Detroit.
“I want to be part of the movement,” she says. “I want to be more involved in making sure Michigan wine is inclusive and diversified.”
Detroit scored its very own winery when Detroit Vineyards opened in the former Stroh’s Ice Cream factory on Gratiot Avenue in May 2019. The site boasts a tasting room, wine bar, and 8,000-square-foot production facility where a variety of Michigan grapes are crushed, pressed, fermented, aged, and bottled.
Detroit Vineyards’ Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc have proved to be popular, and the 2020 Blau (Blaufränkisch), 2020 Frais (Cabernet Franc), and 2018 Emcee (a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc) won Gold in the Michigan Wine Collaborative’s 2021 Judgement of Michigan. Winemaker and General Manager Chris Southern says people are surprised the wine is made right on-site.
“It’s definitely still difficult for the consumer to get their head around,” he says. “They think we’re a wine bar or buying bulk wine, but this is a legit winery.”
Drew Ryan Wines
As Detroit Vineyards racks up accolades, a trio of Detroit winemakers are working to add not just another winery to the Detroit landscape but a vineyard as well. Longtime friends and business partners Peter King, Matthew Jones, and Merrick Steele produce small batches under their label, Drew Ryan Wines, which they share at boutique tastings throughout the city. This past spring, they planted Cabernet in the ground on Detroit’s East Side, off of a canal on the Detroit River. As they wait for the vines to mature, they’ll continue to get their grapes from growers throughout Michigan.
King, who learned winemaking from his father, says they hope to open a tasting room in Detroit and eventually compete on a national scale.
“We want to show that Detroit is able to produce quality wines,” King says.
Wine 4 Da Ppl
Sommelier Randall Coats, founder of Wine 4 Da Ppl, heard buzz about Detroit’s growing wine culture while working at City Winery in Brooklyn, New York, and he moved home to be part of it. Now, he curates events that pair wine with food and cannabis, helps develop wine lists for restaurants, and hosts a podcast about wine.
He says Detroit’s new generation of aficionados — including entrepreneurs such as Ping Ho, owner and founder of The Royce, a Detroit wine shop and bar — is creating approachable spaces.
“They’re removing all the pretension from the wine experience,” he says. “They’re part of a wine revolution, going their own way and charting their own course.”
According to Emily Dockery, executive director of the Michigan Wine Collaborative, urban dwellers are removed from the agricultural landscape and may not realize that the state produces numerous wine grapes and ranks sixth in the nation in terms of total wine production, according to The National Association of American Wineries.
“We’re really trying to bring a piece of Michigan wine country to the city and create an emotional connection,” Dockery says.
In order to foster relationships with buyers, restaurant owners, and sommeliers, the Collaborative hosted the Judgement of Michigan wine evaluation in 2021. Detroiters Gaines, Ho, and Coats all served as judges.
“It’s a first step to extend an invitation with people in the city who have the influence to create trends and promote Michigan wine,” Dockery says.
At House of Pure Vin, Gaines has seen wine education at work firsthand. In the six years her wine shop has been open, her customers have grown from drinking sweet wines to developing more complex palates. But she also knows that Detroiters take their wine with a serving of blue-collar sensibility.
“We’re straightforward here,” she says. “Don’t talk down to us. Get to the point. Tell me why I like this, how I can identify it on the menu. That’s all I really want to know.
This article originally appeared in the 2022 Michigan Wine Country magazine.