Changing Opinions ‘One Sip at a Time’

Longtime Michigan wine superfan Steve Salisbury gives his tasting tips
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Steve Salisbury and his wife, Wei Wang, at the family homestead outside of Baroda. Photo courtesy of Steve Salisbury

Steve Salisbury knows a thing or two about Southwest Michigan wine country. His family grew grapes there in the 1970s and ran a wine supply store. In 1973, he went to work for regional wine pioneer Leonard Olson before joining a winery across the Indiana border. He switched career paths a couple of years later, but he’s back to his roots now: He lives with his wife, Wei Wang, on the old family homestead outside of Baroda and runs a podcast about Michigan wines, conducts private wine tastings, and works at two local tasting rooms.

All that to say, Salisbury is a seasoned Michigan wine superfan.

“Michigan makes great wine that I believe is underappreciated by much of the wine world,” he says via email to Michigan Wine Country. “The whites are fantastic — crisp, fruity, and refreshing — while the reds are tantalizing and fruit forward. In recent years, I’ve become more fond of Michigan rosé. Such a broad variety of simply amazing wines. My personal mission is to help spread the word and change opinions ‘one sip at a time.’”

Michigan Wine Country corresponded with Salisbury to learn more about his experience in the industry and get his tips for having a good wine tasting experience.

Can you tell me about your background in the Michigan wine industry? How did you get into Michigan wine?
Our family farm included, at peak, 15 acres of grapes, most of which we sold to home winemakers in the 1970s and early 1980s. We crushed and pressed fruit for these winemakers and equipped them through our extensive wine supply store. In 1973, I started working at Tabor Hill Winery for founder Leonard Olson. In the two years I was there, I held a variety of positions, from “cellar rat” responsible for cleaning barrels and tanks, to running the bottling line, and finally leading tastings in the tasting room and conducting winery tours. From there I spent about two years working for Carl Banholzer at Banholzer Winecellars in Rolling Prairie, Indiana, just across the state line. At Banholzer Winecellars, I was the cellar master and assistant winemaker. In 1976, my rosé took first place in an Indiana statewide wine competition.

In 1977, I left the industry and pursued a corporate career, ultimately becoming a consultant specializing in organizational development, large-scale change, and culture. I’ve recently returned to the industry to become a promoter of our great Michigan wines. I run a podcast called If Vines Could Talk focused on Michigan wines, run social media by the same name, conduct private wine tastings, give talks about our industry and history, and I work at two tasting rooms in the area.

Salisbury (left) hosts a “Wine at the Vineyard” event.

What does an ideal wine tasting look like to you?
There are a couple of scenarios. One is a small, intimate group of four friends enjoying a good glass of Michigan wine with a well-prepared and well-paired meal and good conversation. The other scenario is something I do every month called “Wine at the Vineyard.” During the summer months, we hold this event on my property, which includes about 10 acres of grapes. About 25 people, most from the industry, attend regularly. We all share a bottle of wine, some easy snacks, and great conversation. We enjoy each other’s company while savoring the beautiful vineyard views.

Have you had any particularly memorable experiences while visiting any of Michigan’s wineries?
Generally speaking, because of my role promoting our wines, I often have the opportunity to have in-depth conversation with the winemakers when I visit their tasting rooms. These rich conversations are always memorable because they are so generous with their time and so willing to educate me further on the various elements of winemaking, from terroir to label design.

What are some of your favorite Michigan wines?
My favorite red is Cabernet Franc. I think Michigan has just the perfect climate to produce fantastic expressions of this undervalued wine. I love a good Sauvignon Blanc. For three years running, a Lake Michigan Shore AVA [American Viticultural Area] Sauvignon Blanc was my favorite Michigan wine for the year. Rhône white varieties and Alsatian varieties are also among the wines I prefer.

What are your recommendations and tips for other people interested in visiting Michigan tasting rooms?
The DO’s: Do plan to have a fun time. Do plan a good meal before, during, and after. Do have an open mind, particularly if you don’t have much experience with Michigan wine. We are a cool-climate region, so don’t expect big, bold, jammy reds or austere, buttery whites.

The DON’Ts: The standard stuff — don’t wear perfume or cologne, as that interferes with the tasting experience. Don’t try to jam too many tasting rooms in a day. Don’t dismiss a tasting room because of what you hear others say — check it out for yourself. And don’t oversample or move too fast. Take time to savor the experience and enjoy the product. I also recommend leaving the children and pets behind. Most tasting rooms don’t mind either, but they can be distracting.

Don’t have time to check out all the wineries you’d like to? In the Detroit area, you’ll find Michigan by the Bottle has a wide variety of well-made Michigan wines. In the southwest part of the state, there’s Local Pour in Sawyer, an all-Michigan tasting room specializing in Michigan wines and other libations.

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