Learning Curve

Michigan’s viticulture and enology programs are powering the industry’s personnel. Here, three alums share what they appreciate about their in-state training.
Amy Birk, operations manager at Domaine Berrien Cellars, received her wine education from Lake Michigan College. Photo courtesy of Domaine Berrien

The space between vineyard dreams and harvest-time realities is, for some winemakers and viticulturists, a year or two of old-fashioned studies.

In Michigan, the eno-ambitious can choose from at least a couple of options: the viticulture program offered jointly by Michigan State University’s Institute of Agricultural Technology, Northwestern Michigan College, and the Viticulture and Enology Science and Technology Alliance, or Lake Michigan College’s wine and viticulture technology program.

Three homegrown winemakers — Amy Birk of Domaine Berrien Cellars; Jay Briggs of 45 North Vineyard & Winery; and newcomer Analisa Leppanen, who opened Golden Muse Winery last fall — say there were ups, downs, and surprises on their chosen career paths. But none would change a thing.

“It’s remarkable that we have these programs here,” Leppanen says. “It’s a boon for the region and is attracting people from all over the world.”

Here, these three professionals share how their educations prepared them for careers in the Michigan wine industry.

Amy Birk, Operations Manager
Domaine Berrien Cellars
Berrien Springs

Amy Birk wears all the hats at Domaine Berrien Cellars.

In a day, she switches from operations manager to winemaker, bookkeeper, tasting room manager, and farm financials tracker.

Birk’s day-to-day activities include doing just about anything at any time — and she likes it that way.

“This was too good of an opportunity to pass up,” says the St. Joseph native, who earned her bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Marquette University and her associate degree from Lake Michigan College’s wine and viticulture technology program in 2014.

Birk’s schooling — plus a three-year stint teaching operations and enology at LMC — prepared her for her multifaceted job, she says, especially her role working on wine analysis and fermentations.

“I get a kick out of yeast selection and babying the yeast; I joke that they’re my kids,” she says. “I even talk to them.”

Birk praises her two years of school at LMC, calling her time there “fantastic.”

“It’s the only teaching winery in the Midwest that has a full commercial winery attached to it, so it’s that full experience you get before going into a commercial winery,” she says.

In the years before and during her enrollment at LMC in Southwest Michigan, Birk worked at nearby Domaine Berrien Cellars for four and a half years. Upon graduation, she agreed to come on full time.

“One of the things I really liked was I knew I was going to be working here, with the fruit in the area and the climate that impacts it,” she says. “It was an ideal situation.”

When weighing the pros and cons of her enology education, Birk says she would have liked more information on West Coast-style wine production and how to produce wines from outside the region.

“But you can’t do that in a college setting,” she says. “And it hasn’t held me back in any way; I’m just an overly curious person.”

Although Birk’s earlier experience at Domaine Berrien Cellars prepared her in some ways for her current workload, the amount of seasonal activity on the 80-acre property has her on-site for 70 to 75 hours a week, “easily.”

The small operation consists of six full-time staff and five part-timers, who all work to get the 21 varieties of wine grapes off the vines and into the glasses in customers’ hands.

“We’re a very small operation,” Birk says. “Our tasting room overlooks the cellar. … We’re in a fishbowl.”

Since she graduated, Birk has seen major growth in the Michigan wine scene. She’s observed younger customers coming in and more people in their early 30s moving into winemaking and management roles.

Eventually, Birk would like to bring in an intern from the LMC program to work harvest at Domaine Berrien Cellars.

“You can learn a lot about growing 21 varieties of grapes,” she says.

Until then, Birk says she will continue running from pillar to post — even if it’s not the easiest thing to do sometimes.

“The hard part is balancing so many hats,” she says. “It’s just constantly jumping between all these responsibilities.

“But I guess I was ready for it.”

Learn more about Amy Birk at domaineberrien.com or follow her work on Instagram @domaineberriencellars.

Jay Briggs, winemaker at 45 North Vineyard & Winery, in the cellar with one of his wines. Photo by Tom Balazs

Jay Briggs, Winemaker
45 North Vineyard & Winery
Lake Leelanau

There was a time when Jay Briggs, winemaker for 45 North Vineyard & Winery, was “doing nothing … and less.”

“I was just hanging out, brewing a lot of beer,” says Briggs of his time during the early 2000s in East Lansing.

Although his beer-brewing passion didn’t pan out, a series of events led Briggs to Dr. Gordon Stanley Howell Jr.’s highly acclaimed enology and viticulture program at Michigan State University.

The hands-on, rigorous training Briggs received there included a spring break week spent pruning vines at one of the university’s research plots.

Although he had to leave the program halfway through, Briggs continues to rely on the training he received through the late Howell.

“Stan Howell was the viticultural mind in the country for decades, which very few people can say about any professor they might have had,” says Briggs, who oversees the production of 45 North’s many award-winning wines.

During his brief time with Howell, Briggs learned the ins and outs of vineyard management and commercial production — except for a few key skills, which quickly became apparent.

“The biggest hurdle I had coming into this field was equipment operation,” says Briggs, who landed a job managing Shady Lane Cellars’ vineyard in Suttons Bay after leaving the MSU program in 2004. “I was handed the keys [to the tractor] and told, ‘Go harvest.’”

A lot has changed since those early days of figuring out how to operate heavy machinery. Looking back at the unorthodox path he took, Briggs says he would tell young people considering his field to go abroad and work.

“You are not only well rounded, but you become a well-rounded winemaker,” he says. “You get a different feel for how things work.”

For aspiring enology and viticulture students, Briggs suggests doing what he did back in the day: “Find wines you like. Find out who is making those wines. Make friends with those people and get into their cellars as much as you can.”

Find Jay Briggs at fortyfivenorth.com or follow @45northwinery on Instagram.

Analisa Leppanen, owner
Golden Muse Winery

Analisa Leppanen may be the new kid on the block, but it’s a block she’s been around in some way, shape, or form for years.

Owner Analisa Leppanen serves a customer at Golden Muse Winery, whose design is an ode to Paris’ Golden Age. Photo by Suzette Newman

The professional flamenco dancer, college professor, art historian, and museum curator reinvented herself after a revelation in 2016 that prompted her to leave Chicago and start fresh in Southwest Michigan.

She had learned about Lake Michigan College’s wine and viticulture technology program in a trade publication. After attending one of program director Michael Moyer’s classes, Leppanen was “drawn into the program.”

“It makes a big difference who your teacher is; [Moyer] is the perfect combination of strict, staying on task, but with compassion,” says Leppanen, who wrote a business plan while at LMC that evolved into Golden Muse, her downtown Baroda winery/art gallery.

Golden Muse — which opened its doors last fall — is an ode to Paris’ Belle Époque, or Golden Age, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is also the culmination of Leppanen’s passion for teaching, art, and entertainment.

Housed in a former machine shop, the newly renovated production facility, tasting room, and gallery features art Leppanen and her mother had in storage from a jointly owned Chicago art gallery they ran more than 20 years ago.

The combination of art and wine has led to a completely new experience for wine tourists, she says.

“I knew people would enjoy it, but I wasn’t prepared for how moved they would be,” says Leppanen, who along with her mom and co-workers wears steampunk/Moulin Rouge fashions as an ode to that era.

As the winery grows, Leppanen reflects on the “remarkable” education she received at LMC.

“I went to school with people from Japan and Germany; I worked alongside professionals driving in from Chicago,” says Leppanen, who has included a small stage in her winery for potential live shows.

“I might even get up there and flamenco dance. Who knows?”

Read more about Analisa Leppanen’s journey at goldenmusewinery.com or follow her on Instagram @goldenmusewinery.

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