In keeping with broader national trends, Michigan vintners are striving to be increasingly sustainable in their environmental, economic and employment practices. In wine country as unique as the Mitten’s, achieving sustainability in these categories is distinctly challenging.
From a viticultural perspective, one issue is producing a consistent crop each year, says Paolo Sabbatini, associate professor in Michigan State University’s department of horticulture.
“When you talk about sustainability for Michigan, it’s completely different, in my opinion, to any other industry that I know around the world because we have very specific issues in Michigan,” he says. “They’re mostly related to the weather in our climate.”
Weather-related concerns include winter vine injury and rot resulting from excessive fall rain. In the first case, one approach to minimizing cold-stress damage lies in “understanding how you can improve cold hardiness of grapevines from a physiological point of view,” says Sabbatini, who also researches “alternative varieties” that are less sensitive to rain.
Some Michigan vintners already grow cold-hardy grapes that are better equipped than some traditional varietals to endure Michigan’s often harsh winters.
“People are going to have to — us included — try to, in a sustainable fashion, grow more hybrids that are colder hardy that can survive this,” says Matthew Moersch, CEO of Moersch Hospitality Group, which owns Tabor Hill, Round Barn and Free Run Cellars. “They need less sprays. They take less manipulation. They don’t die as easily. So that’s more sustainable.”
Alternatives to Herbicides
The use of chemical sprays in the vineyards is another sustainability concern, and some wineries are cutting back. At WaterFire Vineyards in Kewadin, co-owner Chantal Lefebvre doesn’t use herbicides at all.
“That doesn’t mean we let everything grow crazy and wild. We do mow,” says Lefebvre, who has a background in environmental science. “But we are what’s called a no-till operation, so we don’t cultivate underneath the vines, and we … are very focused on building the microbiology of the soil.”
At his properties, Moersch also mows and abstains from using herbicides while following a host of other environmentally friendly practices.
“We focus very heavily on IPM (integrative pest management),” he says. “We recycle. We’ve really lowered our water usage, even though we have plenty of water in Michigan. We’ve put in the proper … wastewater treatment for our production facilities. We’ve gone to more LED lighting.”
Once wineries have implemented sustainable practices such as these, the next step is obtaining some type of certification to broadcast that commitment to conscientious consumers.
“It’s really hard to compete on a small scale when you’re competing with these very large corporations that own a lot of wine brands, and they can get that economy of scale that we can’t capture,” Lefebvre says. “So, being certified sustainable or having some kind of certification is one way in which we can differentiate ourselves.”
WaterFire Vineyards participates in California-based SIP (Sustainability in Practice) Certified. The rigorous accreditation program, which involves annual audits of participating establishments, covers sustainability practices in several areas, including water, energy and soil conservation; recycling; and social responsibility.
“The human side of it is really important, too,” Lefebvre says, “and one of the things I like a lot about it is they really require you to provide fair, living wages to your employees and to also provide them with continuing education opportunities. So, our staff is provided with a lot of opportunities every year, in particular in the winter when there’s not a lot going on, to attend conferences, do online training.
“That’s an important side of what we do in terms of being sustainable, and it helps us keep people around, too, and keep people engaged.”
On the Label
Locally, the Michigan Wine Collaborative’s Great Lakes Sustainable Wine Alliance is also developing its own sustainability certification program that verified wineries will be able to include on their wine labels. Moersch, who is the Alliance chair, views the label wording as a way to communicate with wine drinkers “the additional work that goes into making premium Michigan wine that’s in a sustainable method.”
The Alliance, which partners with MSU, 5 Lakes Energy, the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program and state and federal agricultural departments, also provides growers with resources to learn more about sustainability and even plans to offer guidance on chemical usage.
“We want them to practice IPM and safe handling and to protect the environment,” Moersch says, noting that the next phase for the Alliance is “working with the state to try to get more grants and funding for research.”
Ultimately, one of the major, inherent goals of these sustainability initiatives is the long-term preservation and growth of the Michigan wine industry.
“Essentially, in my opinion, being sustainable means that you are providing for not just this generation, but for future generations,” Lefebvre says. “So, we’re essentially creating a habitat, an environment — both in terms of our natural resources here and our human resources — so that we can have something significant to pass along to the next generation that’s not just been trashed.”