Gathering the Grapes

2021 vintage off to a good start after successful harvests across Michigan
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About 30 people participated in Michigan Wine Co.’s Oct. 2 harvest party in Fennville. Photo courtesy of Michigan Wine Co.

2021 has shaped up to be a good year for Michigan vineyard harvests, and vintners around the state are excited about the wines they’re making from this autumn’s grape haul.

At Youngblood Vineyard in metro Detroit, grape yields were up this year because more vines had matured and the vineyards didn’t experience severe frost like they did in 2020.

The fruit of Jess Youngblood’s labors. Photo courtesy of Jess Youngblood

In total, Youngblood harvesters picked 46.1 tons of grapes, up from 10 the previous year. That will translate to nearly 3,000 cases of wine.

“It’s a lot more than we’ve ever made, so we couldn’t be happier,” says co-owner Jess Youngblood.

Compared with last year, Youngblood has been able to make significantly more of her in-demand Marquette wine from the eponymous cold-hardy grapes she’s harvested this fall. She’s made the wine from this year’s vintage in the same style as her 2018 estate-grown Marquette, which won Best of Class in the Dry Red category in the 2019 Michigan Wine Competition.

Jess Youngblood. Photo courtesy of Jess Youngblood

“Last year, we harvested three-quarters of 1 ton, so we were able to make basically 40 cases of that Marquette — that was it — and I was already sold out from the year before,” Youngblood says. “This year, we harvested 10 tons, and we were able to make over 700 cases. … I know our customers are really thrilled about that; so am I, because that’s my favorite wine that we make.”

Youngblood will also have two brand-new wines from this autumn’s yield: Itasca, a dry white from her first harvest of the cold-hardy grape, and a dry Prairie Star. The cold-hardy Prairie Star grapes are also white, but Youngblood fermented them with their skins on to make an orange wine.

“You basically are processing a white grape the same way you process a red grape, and that’s how you get an orange wine,” she says.

The Role of Weather
Although there have been some weather-related challenges this growing season and harvest, there have been plenty of good-weather benefits as well — and Michigan vintners have been making the most of what Mother Nature has thrown at them.

“The early season was extremely dry, so it was good for bloom and fruit set,” says Dave Miller, owner of White Pine Winery in St. Joseph and president of the Michigan Wine Collaborative, in an email. “Everything changed in June, and we got 10 inches of rain in two weeks in Southwest Michigan. That increases vine canopy growth, weed growth, and disease pressure.

“The rain continued through August, so we had to really work to hedge vines, pull leaves and keep vine canopies open. … September was dry, and with the warm weather and canopy work we did in summer, the fruit ripened beautifully.”

Miller, who makes a small number of wines using grapes that do well in Southwest Michigan, is excited about this year’s “excellent fruit quality” and that he will be able to make a Pinot Noir.

“I love Pinot Noir but am unable to find fruit most years, and if there is rain in early September, the Pinot can melt down and rot quickly,” he says. “I was able to find fruit, and it was beautiful, so I am excited for the wine from those grapes.”

Up North on the Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas, Black Star Farms enjoyed a strong growing season and will have brought in approximately 600 to 700 tons of fruit by the end of harvest.

Black Star Farms’ Chardonnay harvest. Photo by Sherri Campbell Fenton for Black Star Farms

“Winemaker Lee Lutes is anticipating this could be our best vintage in 10 years,” says managing owner Sherri Campbell Fenton via email. “The fruit that is coming in from the vineyards is lovely. To surpass the quality from 2017 [Black Star Farms’ 2017 Arcturos dry Riesling won Best Wine of the 2018 Canberra International Riesling Challenge] — which was phenomenal for everyone up here — is quite something.”

Creative Crop Management
When faced with challenges out in their vineyards, Michigan winemakers are creative and resourceful.

The crew at Petoskey Farms Vineyard & Winery, for example, ditched nets this year in favor of a more technologically sophisticated bird repellant: lasers.

“The lasers kind of zigzag across the vineyard,” says winemaker Josh Morgan. “The birds see the beam during the day, whereas we can’t, so it spooks them, and they fly out. And we’ve had extreme success in keeping our bird pressure and our loss low.”

One of the wines Morgan is excited about making from this well-protected vintage is Petoskey Farms’ Frontenac Blanc. Two years ago, the winery released its first iteration of the fruity vino made from white cold-hardy grapes, and “it was well received,” Morgan says. In fact, the 2019 Frontenac Blanc won Double Gold in the inaugural Judgement of Michigan this past August.

“We sold out of it almost instantly after that,” Morgan says, noting that the winery has almost sold out of its 2020 Frontenac Blanc as well. “I have 900 gallons of it, whereas … last year I had like 300. … More of our vineyard came online, so I’m excited that we have a larger quantity of that variety.”

Youngblood Vineyard. Photo courtesy of Jess Youngblood

Back in metro Detroit, Youngblood altered how she pruned her vines after losing much of her vineyard to frost in 2020, and she enjoyed larger yields as a result.

“I left more buds on than I normally would, and it’s probably a good thing that I did that because we did get some spring frost, but nothing like the year before,” she says. “Leaving extra buds like that made for more of a jungle look, but it gave me the tonnage that I needed; the yields were good.”

A Team Effort
At some wineries, harvesttime is an opportunity to engage members of the community and give them hands-on experience with the grapes that become their favorite wines.

Traminette grapes from Michigan Wine Co.’s Fennville vineyard. Photo courtesy of Michigan Wine Co.

“Harvest is this period in farming where it’s as close to instant gratification as you ever get,” says Joe Krajkiewcz. His Fennville winery, Michigan Wine Co., hosted “harvest parties” this year and provided volunteer pickers with lunch and wine.

“They’ve been an amazing help for us,” he says.

At the Oct. 2 harvest party, approximately 30 people worked together to pick about 1.5 tons of Traminette grapes.

“We get support from friends and family,” Krajkiewcz says. “We’ve had customers and wine club members, and they’ve even brought strangers with them to come out and help us.”

Erica Krajkiewcz, co-owner of Michigan Wine Co. Photo courtesy of Michigan Wine Co.

On the other side of the state, Youngblood also hosted several harvest parties — which included lunch and wine — and she was pleased by the turnout.

“We’ve had anywhere from 40 to 100 people come out for these days,” she says. “They like being part of what’s going in that bottle, and it really connects people to the wine and to our vineyard.”

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