Meet the Winemakers: Steve Ziolkowski

The co-owner of Rose Valley Winery gets inventive in the cellar
Photo courtesy of Steve Ziolkowski

When Steve and Jamie Ziolkowski moved to northeastern Michigan from the Detroit area in 2001, they were looking to find peace and relaxation — not a winery to run. But after starting work at Rose Valley Winery in Rose City, they were soon won over by co-founders Adam and Nancy Kolodziejski, who finally convinced them to buy the winery in 2017.

Today, Jamie manages the tasting room, while Steve handles all the production, using the winemaking skills he learned from Adam Kolodziejski, his mentor.

Here, Steve tells Michigan Wine Country about his winemaking style and what it’s like to be a vintner in northeastern Michigan.

What would you say is the most interesting or unusual wine you make?
Believe it or not, it’s the maple wine I [make] out of maple syrup. I have two versions of it: One’s called Cousin Ben, and the story behind that is my wife had her ancestry [done] and found out she’s related to Ben Franklin about nine generations back. So I said, “We’ve got to call a wine Cousin Ben.” So Cousin Ben is a straight maple wine, really sweet, almost like an ice wine. And then I take a version of that and I put it in a bourbon barrel and I bourbon age it for about nine months, and we call that Nectar of the Woods, and that one’s really cool tasting, kind of like a butterscotch wine.

And then I make a really cool rhubarb wine that’s out of rhubarb grown locally. I do a couple spiced wines — [including] Bad Apple, which is a spiced apple wine. It’s cinnamon allspice, really tasty. We call it a “liquid Grandma’s apple pie” wine. So those are some of the unique ones.

What’s your favorite wine that you make?
My pageant line is “I like them all.” But I gear towards drier ones. I have a dry red called Ausable River Rouge right now, which is a blend of St. Croix and Marquette, which is a really good dry red. And then on the white side, I like one we call Grousehaven, which is named after a lake — that’s a [Vignoles blend]. But actually, the rhubarb is real tasty, too, so it just depends on your mood.

Are there any particular challenges of making wine in northeastern Michigan?
The main predominant grapes grown here are cold-hardy grapes, and the challenge with those is a lot of times they have a lot of acidity to them, so you have to either do a lot of blending or aging or neutralizing, however you want to say it, so that the acid gets in check. You’ve just got to learn how to do things, and that way you can kind of mellow out the wine. I would say that’s the biggest challenge, along with ripening of the grape and getting it as sweet as you can before you pick it because, again, if your grape is low in sugar, it’s going to be higher in acid. So that’s a pretty big challenge.

How would you describe your winemaking style in three words?
Traditional, small-batch, unique.

What do you wish people knew about Michigan wine?
I would say that for sure, Michigan whites are competitive with anybody in the country. And don’t be afraid to try the reds. A lot of Michigan dry reds and semidry reds are really outstanding, and [people] need to be open to trying [them].

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