While many Michiganders might picture rolling hills and a view of Grand Traverse Bay when they think of tasting rooms in the state, wine lovers in urban areas may be a lot closer to Michigan wine country than they realize.
Over the past decades, wineries have been popping up in cities around the state to offer residents a chance to try Michigan wines without leaving their hometown.
“It’s a neat experience if anybody hasn’t tried it,” says Dave Miller, owner and winemaker at White Pine Winery in downtown St. Joseph. “You can hit a couple of tasting rooms, you can hit a restaurant, shop, go to the beach — all kinds of things you can do, and you only have to park the car once.”
For the wineries, it’s also often a smart business move.
Miller says the decision to open a tasting room downtown was motivated both by the visibility and foot traffic a central location would provide and by a love of the town.
“We always liked St. Joe,” he says. “My wife and I always took our daughter there for festivals and events and whatnot throughout the year and really enjoyed the community. … There were no tasting rooms in that town when we went there, but we figured it was a good community and a good fit. So we took the plunge.”
White Pine’s tasting room opened in September 2010 and has remained a St. Joseph staple ever since. Miller says the tasting room was welcomed with open arms.
“It’s been a good experience, definitely,” he says. “We’ve been there 12 years, and we don’t have any intentions of leaving.”
White Pine — and other wineries like it — plays a unique role in the wine industry’s ecosystem. While Miller and his team grow some of their own grapes, they also partner with local growers to source grapes, supporting Michigan viticulture at large.
“We’ve got a couple of growers that we’ve been working with since the beginning and have a really good relationship with them, and it’s been positive all the way through,” he says.
Detroit Vineyards in Eastern Market has a similar arrangement. The winery uses grapes sourced from six growers all over the state. The variety of grape sources allows Detroit Vineyards to offer an especially diverse selection, says winemaker Chris Southern.
“We work with growers down south as well as Up North, and so we’re really giving a snapshot of all of what Michigan has to offer in terms of grape growing,” Southern says.
Some of the wines showcasing Michigan grapes are Detroit Vineyards’ 2020 Marsanne, a grape that’s very rare in Michigan, according to Southern; a new Merlot; a Pinot Noir from Southwest Michigan grapes; and a Vignoles, which Southern says is unusual to find bottled on its own.
Establishing a winery in Detroit was a chance to introduce Michigan wine to a new audience.
“We really had the opportunity to bring winemaking into the city, which is unusual but cool,” Southern says.
Cortney and Shannon Casey, co-owners of Michigan by the Bottle tasting rooms, have also formed partnerships to share their love of Michigan wine with people in areas of the state that traditionally have few wineries.
Their tasting rooms, in Auburn Hills, Royal Oak, and Shelby Township, offer wines from an array of wineries in other parts of Michigan, including Brys Estate Vineyard & Winery in Traverse City, Chateau Aeronautique Winery in Jackson, Mackinaw Trail Winery in Petoskey, and Peninsula Cellars on the Old Mission Peninsula.
The concept for the tasting rooms grew out of the Caseys’ blog, MichiganbytheBottle.com, which they started in summer 2009.
“Shannon and I started falling in love with Michigan wine (and wine in general) around 2009, after we began really exploring the various wine trails around the state,” Cortney Casey says via email. “We felt like some of the Michigan wineries didn’t have a very robust web presence or were hidden gems that a lot of people in metro Detroit didn’t seem to know about. We thought it would be fun to do videos, podcasts, articles, etc., to give people a look at some of the wineries they may not have visited.
“It just took off like crazy.”
A few years later, in 2012, the couple opened their first tasting room featuring Michigan wine in Shelby Township, with two others following in 2014 and 2016. They focus primarily on wines from small, family-owned boutique wineries and higher-end products that are not widely distributed. All the wines they offer are made from Michigan-grown grapes.
As the business has grown, its partnerships with wineries have strengthened.
“We started out with an initial slate of six wineries that we had developed relationships with while traveling and tasting for the blog, and they were the ones willing to take a leap of faith with us,” Casey says. “As we expanded, more and more wineries became interested, to the point where we actually have an informal ‘wait list’ for wineries that have asked to partner with us, which is very humbling and flattering.”
The tasting rooms’ locations have also led the Caseys to form deeper connections with their visitors.
“Because most guests visiting our tasting rooms are just metro Detroit residents living their everyday lives versus vacationing in wine country, we tend to have a lot of wonderful regulars who we see frequently,” Casey says. “This allows us to build solid relationships. We get to know what those people like, and we can reach out when something new comes in that we know they’ll love.”
Additionally, some urban wineries offer activities that you won’t likely find in more traditional wine regions. For example, Filipo Marc Winery, located in Clinton Township, helps guests make and bottle their own wine.
Winery visitors start with an informal tasting to decide what kind of wine they’d like to make. When the raw materials arrive, guests come in and blend their wine with the help of winery staff.
“We do it right there with them, at least on the first few times,” says winery co-owner Gerard Giacona. “We don’t just presume that they know how to make wine — we hold their hand through the whole process.”
The winery handles the “in-between” stages, including racking, adjusting the chemistry, and filtering. Once the wine is filtered, it’s time for guests to bottle it and add labels and corks. Start to finish, the process takes about six to eight weeks, depending on the type of wine. Filipo Marc offers about 80 choices, from dry reds and whites to dessert and ice wines.
Giacona notes that many wine enthusiasts try out making their own wine to cross it off their bucket list or to connect with their heritage and family traditions.
“Many of them will say, ‘My grandfather used to make wine, and I remember that aroma in the house, but I never got to make it with him, and I’d really like to see what that experience is all about,’” he says.
Other customers like to use their “homemade” vino as party favors for weddings or corporate events. Some wine lovers simply enjoy making wine year after year.
“Some people have been with us over 10, 12, 15 years, making their wine as a tradition every year, whether it’s for Christmas presents or they just enjoy the wine that they make,” Giacona says.
It can also be cheaper to make your own wine than to purchase it in a store, says Brett Scharnhorst, co-owner of Fort Gratiot–based Vinomondo Winery, which also offers the opportunity to make your own wine.
Scharnhorst and his wife, Jackie, have taken over management of the winery from previous owners Pat and Jeanne Healy and are in the process of buying the business.
“Right now, with the way the economy is, it is so economical to make your own wines,” he says. “And the quality, the flavor — I would put it up against any store-bought wine, any of them. That’s why my wife and I jumped on this and decided we were going to buy the business. We have that much faith and trust in the product. It’s just a fantastic product.”
As the number of urban wineries has grown, more and more Michiganders have been able to experience what the Michigan wine industry has to offer. Several of the winery owners say that when they first opened tasting rooms, people were surprised to find a winery in a city or downtown area. Today, there’s much less surprise.
“I’d like to think we have helped open people’s eyes and minds,” Casey says, “to the vast spectrum of possibilities when it comes to Michigan wine.”