Each year, when sap starts to flow in the sugar maples in the Petoskey area, Christi and Todd Petersen begin the arduous process of turning it into maple syrup — and then into wine.
In 2011, when the couple were first transforming their backyard hobby of making maple syrup with their kids into a business, they could hardly have imagined that just a few years later, they’d also own their own maple winery.
Today, Maple Moon Sugarbush & Winery offers 11 wines made from maple syrup — some blended with grape varieties and some with other fruits — and two maple hard ciders, in addition to a variety of maple syrups and other maple products.
The Petoskey winery’s property encompasses 80 acres, including 28 acres of sugar maples, which are opened up to guests during events throughout the season. Every February, the Petersens celebrate their business’s anniversary with a Wineshoeing event. Visitors take to the woods on snowshoes before touring the sugar bush and production facilities and warming up inside with a bowl of chili and a glass of wine. (This year’s event takes place on Feb. 25. For more information, visit Maple Moon’s Facebook page.)
Here, Christi Petersen tells Michigan Wine Country about Maple Moon’s kid-friendly events, making maple syrup, and her favorite maple wine.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: When does the process of making maple syrup take place?
A: It’s all weather dependent — it will differ on where the sugar bush is located — but normally you start tapping your trees [in] late February in the Petoskey area, and then the sap flow is usually in March, and it usually ends late April. … Normally [the season] can be four to eight weeks, but that doesn’t mean you’re producing the whole time. That means that there are some frozen days that you have off. But when the weather cooperates and the sap flows, you work. … What I mean by that is that we need the warm days to go above freezing and we need the nights to go below freezing, and that causes a pressure on the trunk of the tree, which causes it to start to draw the water up from the earth, and with it come the vitamins and minerals from the soil and the sugar that it had saved from the previous summer. That’s what we’re collecting.
Q: What is the process like to turn that sap into syrup and then into wine?
A: As a business, actually, during syrup season, because it’s just my husband and me, we will make syrup only, because it takes 18-hour days pretty much every day of the week. It’s a full-time job for the two of us. And so it’s later that we make it into wine. My husband doesn’t want me to give away trade secrets, so the best I can tell you is that the yeast eats the sugar in the maple rather than eating the sugar in the grapes. Because it’s the same process — the yeast is eating sugar — it’s just you’re starting with a different base.
Q: Why did you decide to start making maple wine?
A: I know this sounds like such a generic answer to so many people, but it was [a] God intervention. There was another winemaker who became fascinated with what we were doing and asked to come take a tour. And we got done with giving him a tour, and he looked at us and he was just absolutely fascinated, and he goes, “You know, we can help you make this into wine!” And we’re like, “We know, because our friend already does it,” because we had a friend who was a hobbyist who was making wine out of maple syrup. … But after this guy made this statement, we prayed about it more. … So we worked with him. And it took a while, because it’s not a grape and it’s not the same properties. It’s a unique liquid in and of itself. So after about a year of playing with it and learning how to make it into the best base wine that we knew how to do, we became America’s first maple winery. And we knew that because our federal license confirmed it.
Q: You also make quite a few wines with maple and other fruits. How are those made?
A: Those are all Michigan fruits that we do not produce ourselves. As a matter of fact, right now, we’re waiting because we couldn’t get a Michigan fruit for one of our wines, and we said, “Nope, rather than outsourcing to another state, we’re going to wait until we can get it.” We start with the same base maple wine and then we add the fruits. So the fermentation is maple; the fruit is an additive. And it’s pure and natural and all from Michigan.
Q: What’s your favorite wine that you make?
A: My favorite is the Early Spring Reserve. It is a dry maple wine that’s put on oak and sits on oak for about four to six months, and I love it. It drinks like a red, and because it’s so earthy, it’s so beautiful on the palate. It’s just so easy to drink. So that’s my personal favorite; however, the customers’ personal favorite is our Maple Gold, and that is the one where we’ve added bourbon to it, and it’s on the sweeter side because we’ve added maple syrup back in to sweeten it, because obviously once it’s done fermenting, it’s dry. So we have to add maple syrup back in if we want to sweeten it back up.
Q: Could you tell me a little about your sugar bush tours?
A: Absolutely. It’s quite often me giving the tours, sometimes my husband, sometimes one of our kids. But it’s all family who give the tour because we know the most about the business. … We will end with showing them where we make the wine, but the majority of the tour is taking you from the trees outside to the final product and how we go about doing that. It takes about an hour usually. Some people are very inquisitive and ask a lot of questions and it takes longer, but that’s fine, too, because we like questions.
Q: Are those tours kid friendly?
A: I’m a former teacher, so I’m quick to gear it to kids if I have a family come, because we’ve had multiple families over the years come and take the tour, and the kids are just as fascinated as the adults. So usually, if we know kids are coming, my daughter or I will do the tour because we’re just more geared towards kids. But absolutely, kids are [welcome].
Q: You also have a tree tapping event in the spring. What does that entail?
A: We’re in an area that has more sugar maples per acre than anywhere in Vermont, and most people in Michigan don’t realize that. So it’s really fun for me to teach people how to tap their own sugar maple trees because they’re everywhere in our region, … but what I’m really teaching them is how to drill properly, how to set the spile, what to look for, where to tap, when to tap, so … they can go back and do their own tapping if they care to. A lot of people aren’t really going back and doing their own tapping, I find. A lot of people just love learning, and they love coming out and figuring out how it’s done.
We take them into the woods, … and we take them out to a tree — well, multiple trees — that we left purposely untapped for that reason, and we even let them tap their own … after their lesson. And again, I’m a teacher, so it’s just fun to see the joy in their face when they tap their first maple tree, and it’s really fun if we get the ideal day, which … would be sunny and warm enough that the sap starts flowing out as soon as they tap it.
Q: Could you also tell me about your Kids Day event?
A: Again, I’m a teacher, so I love opening things up [to kids]. I’ve done a lot of school tours as well, but Kids Day is geared towards families coming out. … We really walk the woods; we learn more about the woods than just the maple trees. … They get to ask me questions. Then I do give them a mini-tour of how it’s done, and then they get to try it. Maple syrup as it gets darker gets more flavorful, so I give them the samples of the lighter syrup and the darker syrup. They get to have pancakes or waffles depending on what we decide that time. And there’s a coloring contest, and the winner, they get to come back and get a free bottle of syrup. It’s super fun.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
A: People assume that all our wines are sweet, but they actually range from dry to sweet. And we did do a couple of red wines to make sure that we could please every palate, but in those red wines, we’ve blended in dry maple wine so that there’s maple in everything, but you don’t always know that there’s maple in it. So even my dry maple wine that I told you is my favorite, if I handed that to you, you would not know you were drinking a maple wine. I had one guy say it reminded him of his favorite wine from Italy, and I found that fascinating because it’s not at all a grape.
But the point is, people assume that they’re going to get this cloyingly sweet wine, and that’s not the case at all. And we’ve done that for those who want it — it’s a dessert wine — but most of the wines are not that way, and people are always shocked to find that “Wow, I really like these!”