The History of Michigan Wine

The industry has come a long way in 150 years
St. Julian is the oldest continuously operating winery in the state. Photo courtesy of St. Julian Winery

The Michigan wine scene is booming. That’s not just our opinion at Michigan Wine Country — the numbers back it up. The state is home to nearly 200 wineries, and the total economic impact of the industry is more than $6.33 billion. Wineries around the state regularly rack up awards in major competitions, further cementing Michigan as a winemaking region to be taken seriously.

This has all taken a long time, and the road to a thriving wine scene has been full of obstacles. Over the past 150 years, the Michigan industry has experienced ups and downs and marked a lot of milestones.

Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac planted grapevines back in 1702 at his settlement that would later become Detroit, but the industry didn’t begin in earnest until the mid-1800s. Inspired by grapevines along the River Raisin in southeastern Michigan, Joseph Sterling planted a vineyard in Monroe County in 1863 and opened the first winery in 1868. Others followed, and an industry emerged with enough production to rank third behind California and New York. Success continued for decades until a statewide ban on alcohol in 1918 and national Prohibition in 1920 shut down the industry.

When the repeal hit in 1933, Michigan proved to be ideal for wine production; it had surviving vineyards that had been used by Welch’s, ample sugar growing in the state, and an alcohol industry that had never ceased in Detroit. Several entrepreneurs jumped at the opportunity, opening wineries in Southeast Michigan and putting the state squarely in third place again for wine production, a spot it would hold for decades.

At the time, consumer preferences were for sweeter-style wines, and the native grapes offered just that. Tastes began to shift, though, with an increasing demand for drier styles as World War II servicemen brought back European influence. Michigan wineries didn’t act fast enough to replace their vineyards, and eventually, many went out of business. Most of the others shut down after a change in state law in 1972 made it financially challenging to survive.

As wineries were closing, new ones were opening with modern vineyards to satisfy the taste for drier styles. The 1980s brought a surge of new wineries and the establishment of four American Viticultural Areas. Since then, the industry has exploded as new wineries continue to open and the state’s vino racks up prestigious awards, garnering national and international attention and earning Michigan its place as a top wine region.

Michigan Wine Timeline

1863: Joseph Sterling plants the first commercial vineyard. Five years later, he opens Pointe Aux Peaux Wine Co. in Monroe County.

1868: A.B. Jones plants vineyards in Lawton that help attract Welch’s to the region during Prohibition, a pivotal milestone for the industry.

Late 1800s: Michigan ranks third for production behind California and New York.

1918: Michigan’s ban on alcohol goes into effect, and the legal wine industry immediately ceases.

1920: Prohibition bans alcohol on a national level.

1933: Michigan is the first state to ratify the repeal of Prohibition, and wineries start to open in the Detroit area.

St. Julian’s founder Mariano Meconi holds up one of his first vintages in the 1920s. Photo courtesy of St. Julian Winery

1934: Border City Wine Cellars relocates from Windsor, Ontario, to Detroit and changes its name to Meconi Wine Co., later moving to Paw Paw and changing its name to the Italian Wine Co. and then St. Julian Winery. Today, St. Julian is Michigan’s oldest continuously operating winery.

1938: The state’s winemakers establish the Michigan Wine Institute to support the growth of
the wine industry through promotion, research, and lobbying efforts.

1940s: A strong wine industry is established in Southwest Michigan, where most of the state’s wineries relocate to be closer to the vineyards near Lake Michigan. Consumer preferences are evolving from sweet to dry because of the influence of World War II soldiers returning home from Europe.

1950: The state of Michigan eliminates a $5,000 licensing fee and allows wineries to produce wines with a higher alcohol content. This change classifies these wines as fortified wines rather than distilled products and allows them to be sold in grocery stores instead of the state-controlled liquor stores that existed at the time. The result is a boost in wine production.

1962: Angelo Spinazzé of Bronte Champagne and Wine Co. makes the state’s first dry wine with Baco Noir, a French-American hybrid grape.

1960s: Bronte is the first in the country to bottle Cold Duck, an immediate bestseller inspired by a Detroit Pontchartrain bartender blending sparkling wine with red wine. Ernest Gallo, co-owner of E & J Gallo Winery in California, asks the winemaker about it and produces his own version, André, which is still well known today.

1970: Bernie Rink ignites northern Michigan’s industry when he plants French-American hybrids to start Boskydel Vineyard.

1972: A change in state law increases the amount that wineries are required to pay growers for grapes to receive a much-needed tax break and shuts down most of the state’s wineries.

1974: Against expert advice, Ed O’Keefe plants the state’s first large-scale European vinifera vineyard and later opens Chateau Grand Traverse.

Leonard Olson, founder of Tabor Hill Winery, discusses his grapes in the vineyard during the early days of his wine career. Photo courtesy of Gunnar Olson

1974: Tabor Hill’s Vidal Blanc is served at the White House during Gerald Ford’s presidency. This is the first Midwest wine ever served at a state dinner at the White House.

1981: Bob Hope is gifted Tabor Hill’s Vidal Blanc demi-sec while performing at the Berrien County Youth Fair and becomes a huge fan, ordering 80 cases of it for his 80th birthday.

1980s: Many new wineries open, and four American Viticultural Areas are established: Fennville (1981), Leelanau Peninsula (1982), Lake Michigan Shore (1983), and Old Mission Peninsula (1987).

1985: The Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council (later replaced by the Michigan Craft Beverage Council) is established through state legislation to provide research, education, and promotion for the advancement of Michigan wine grapes and wines. Shortly afterward, the Michigan Wine Institute dissolves.

1990s: Thirteen more wineries open across the state.

2000s and Beyond: Tons of new wineries open across the state, including in the Tip of the Mitt region, the state’s fifth American Viticultural Area established in 2016 at the top of the Lower Peninsula.

Lorri Schreiber is the co-author of The History of Michigan Wines: 150 Years of Winemaking Along the Great Lakes. The majority of the information in this article is from her research for that book.

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