Fruitful Beginnings

Michigan vintners are making the most of weather swings this harvest season
Rudy Shafer, winemaker at Dablon Vineyards and Winery, notes that harvest was off to a late start this year because of the hot weather. Photo courtesy of Dablon Vineyards

The year 2023 has shaped up to be an interesting one for winemakers across the state. Despite inclement weather, this year’s harvest has been plentiful for several vineyards in Michigan, and harvesters are optimistic about their current crops.

“We are a younger winery, but this is the second-largest crop we’ve ever had,” says Douglas Oberst, owner of 12 Corners Vineyards in Benton Harbor. The winery took home a “Best of Category” award at the 2023 Michigan Governor’s Cup for its ice wine and has high hopes for this year’s grapes.

Nancie Oxley, the vice president of winemaking at St. Julian in Paw Paw, also raved about the abundant harvest: “As of Friday [Oct. 6], we had over 2,000 tons of Michigan shore-grown fruit in the door.”

These vineyards’ triumphs did not come without the natural highs and lows of the harvest season. Steady downpours, employee shortages, and a late start to the growing season have taken winemakers on a wild ride this year, but in rising to the challenge, Michigan winemakers are reaping the benefits of a successful vintage.

Better Late Than Never
Atypical weather earlier in the year has meant a delayed harvest this fall.

“We’re about a week behind last year’s harvest,” says Rudy Shafer, winemaker at Baroda’s Dablon Vineyards and Winery. “We had a warm summer with quite a few days between 80 and 90 degrees. When it gets that hot, our vines go into conservation mode and don’t photosynthesize as well.”

The summer heat, coupled with a late, cold spring a few months prior, put a damper on the start of the harvest season for Bob Utter, co-owner at Flying Otter Winery in Adrian.

“It was a tough year overall,” he says. “The harvest started about three weeks later than normal. We had a slightly lower yield than what’s typical for us. The weather just would not cooperate for us.”

Rain, Rain, Go Away
The first week of October brought heavy rainfall this harvest season, leaving many winemakers keeping a close eye on their crops as well as the local weather station. Katrina Roy, co-owner of Westview Orchards in Washington, notes that Michigan State University’s Enviroweather station and data have been invaluable to the harvesting process: “These resources allow us to efficiently treat our orchards and vegetable fields for diseases.”

Shady Lane Cellar’s vineyard on a foggy day. Photo by Beryl Striewski, courtesy of Shady Lane Cellars

Upstate in Suttons Bay, Kasey Wierzba, Shady Lane Cellars’ executive winemaker and general manager, notes that while the cold snap accompanying the rain may have made harvesting less pleasant for workers, it has actually helped the winemakers.

“The cold makes it difficult for people doing the harvesting, but it’s nice when the fruits come a little colder,” Wierzba says. “It gives us more control and freedom to experiment with them.”

She lauds the power of fermentation to remedy the effects of less-than-ideal weather. “We can always make a beautiful product, even if the grapes have to withstand not-ideal circumstances,” she says.

The early-fall damp proved to be a hurdle for the team at Flying Otter. “The terrible weather we had just before the harvest — where there were these high temperatures and a heavy dew every night — those conditions can be tough on nearly ripe grapes, dealing with wetness on top of the heat,” Utter says. “This created some problems for our reds.”

It’s a waiting game for the folks at St. Julian, where Oxley and her team are doing their best to exercise patience. “You have to make a decision on whether to pick early and try to get everything in before the rain, or you can let it hang a little longer,” she says. “We’re in Michigan, and we know that it rains; the weather is always changing. We’re confident in the decision to let some of our grapes continue to hang and harvest later to still have a great vintage.”

It Takes a Village
Many wineries rely on an increase in employees and volunteers during the harvest season to ensure a smooth transition. Lee Lutes, head winemaker and managing member at Black Star Farms, shares that staffing can make or break a harvest.

“As for staff, we had some challenges earlier in the year with turnover and some moving to new positions,” he says. “We were fortunate to find good, interested, hardworking people to fill various roles, but that easily could’ve become our greatest challenge coming into the harvest.”

Over at Flying Otter, Utter invites volunteers to assist with the harvest via social media and newsletters. “We’re always anxious to have more people harvest so we can get it done as quickly as possible,” he says. “While we don’t get a large influx of volunteers, we invite the people who do show up to celebrate with us with a harvest dinner.”

Fruits of Their Labor
In spite of the rocky start and relentless rain, many winemakers are highly optimistic about their wines, and some are branching out with their creations.

Shafer has high hopes for Dablon Vineyards’ grapes, shown here. Photo courtesy of Dablon Vineyards

Shafer mentions that while the Dablon team members are creating a lot of the winery’s standard yearly wines, they are also experimenting. “We’re making a new rosé with a grape called Arandell, and we’ve also been playing around with natural fermentation with

some of our orange Traminette,” he says. “They’ve got some great aromas, and we’re interested to see how it turns out.”

Just under 20 miles away at 12 Corners, Oberst and his team are using Aromella, a winter-hardy white hybrid grape, in their Beach Cottage Bubbles carbonated wine.

While Flying Otter’s reds are still on the skins, Utter notes “beautiful smells from our Marquette and Frontenac.” Despite a lower yield for his harvest, he anticipates some excellent creations for the winery.

Kasey Wierzba (left), executive winemaker and general manager, and Maddie Vint, assistant winemaker, raise a glass at Shady Lane Cellars. Photo by Beryl Striewski, courtesy of Shady Lane Cellars

In northwestern Michigan, Wierzba shares her excitement over Shady Lane Cellars’ Gewürztraminer. “It’s such an underdog variety,” she says. “We pick it before the fruit starts expressing and developing any sort of rose-petal aromatic. It makes a … fruit-forward wine with hints of papaya and star fruit, with underlying sweet citrus and lychee. It’s going to be a long and cool fermentation process, so I’m excited to be able to show it off.”

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