While their tasting rooms remain closed, Michigan wineries are celebrating the holidays in creative ways this year.
At the Inn at Black Star Farms in Suttons Bay, the staff reimagined a beloved annual tradition — brunch with Santa — as a drive-thru visit with the jolly old elf Dec. 12. Normally, the multigenerational event is held in the inn’s large banquet room with coloring stations for the kids and a buffet.
“This year, we had to come up with something else so that we could continue the tradition, because it wasn’t something that I wanted to just stop hosting this year,” says Sherri Campbell Fenton, managing owner. “We decided that, especially now, everybody, including kids, needs a little help and something to look forward to, and why not bring Santa in for that? So, somebody on our team had a great idea to have a drive-thru Santa, and it worked really well.”
Through open car windows, kids shared their wish lists with the face-shield-wearing Santa stationed in front of the inn while a Black Star employee loaded holiday brunch into popped trunks. All in all, BSF staff greeted — and fed — about 160 people, Fenton says.
“That was an exciting number because it was close to what we would have been able to fit into our banquet room, … so it was nice to see the number keep up,” she says.
That same weekend in Southwest Michigan, Domaine Berrien Cellars hosted its inaugural two-day outdoor holiday market featuring vendors from local businesses, a giant tree lighting, bonfires and more. The event, meant to be reminiscent of an old-fashioned German Christmas market, “really put people in the Christmas spirit,” says winery co-owner Katie Maurer.
Domaine Berrien served hot chocolate, mulled wine and other vino, while local vendors sold knitted items, chocolate, jewelry, artwork and more at spread-out booths.
While this year’s event was thrown together quickly — in a couple of weeks, from concept to execution — Maurer already has ideas for potential additions next year, including an ugly sweater contest and pictures with Santa.
Boathouse Vineyards in Lake Leelanau has a long covered porch, for which it purchased clear “porch drops” and radiant gas-fired heaters to enable outdoor winter service.
“Customers love it,” says Boathouse Vineyards’ owner Dave Albert.
Other wineries — such as Lawton Ridge in Kalamazoo — are also teaming up with local businesses during the holiday season and beyond. At Lawton Ridge, shoppers can customize gift baskets with wine and related accessories, as well as a variety of other locally sourced products, including chocolate, maple syrup, pasta, candles and more.
“What we’re emphasizing is that let’s make it custom for you and whoever you’re giving it to,” says winery co-owner Crick Haltom.
At Hickory Creek Winery in Buchanan, virtual guided tastings, which took off during the spring shutdown, have become a popular activity for holiday parties, including both family gatherings and corporate events. Recently, owner and winemaker Adam McBride has been averaging about one virtual guided tasting a day, typically with larger groups of 10 to 15.
“I think it’s a creative way that people have taken our little Zoom tasting format and made it their own and made a gathering for themselves out of it,” he says. “Many of us may be kind of ‘Zoomed out’ — it’s still really nice to get on and do something fun. Wine always makes things better, I find, so when you get a bunch of people together and you get some wine going and we have a shared experience, it’s a lot of fun.”
The holidays this year have also been an opportunity for Becca Sonday, Lake Michigan College’s wine program assistant working at the Lake Michigan Vintners winery, to get creative with retail. Using a laser cutter in the college’s Fab Lab and modified designs of calendars already made at the lab, Sonday has been crafting Christmas-tree-shaped advent and “12 days of Christmas” calendars to hold the winery’s sampler bottles. The roughly 12-by-17-inch birchwood calendars, with customizable 50 mL wine bottle selections, have been available for sale at the winery and via LMV’s online store.
“Like many of our best things, our customers asked for it,” Sonday says. “Especially this year, everyone I know is decorating a little bit more at home for the holidays because we’re trying to make a really cozy space since we’re all kind of trapped at home, and so it just worked really well.”
Although having a temporarily closed tasting room presents its own challenges, Sonday has had more time to work on other projects as a result. In fact, she describes the extra time as “fundamental” for getting the calendar project off the ground.
“Being forced to be creative is good,” she laughs. “I don’t know that I could have developed this and have been doing the hospitality side at the same time. Now I can have these things work together because I’ve got everything in place.”
To learn more about different holiday initiatives and promotions going on at wineries around the state, visit michiganwinecountry.com.