When McKenzie and Creighton Gallagher opened their Rove Estate Vineyard and Winery near Traverse City three years ago, they weren’t ready to invest the resources it would take to start their own production facility.
They turned to custom winemaking instead. That meant contracting with other wineries to make and bottle most of their wines — currently Brys Estate on the Old Mission Peninsula and Aurora Cellars on the nearby Leelanau Peninsula.
Coenraad Stassen, winemaker and estate manager at Brys, says the Gallaghers check in during the growing season and he goes to visit and check the grapes so they can collaborate on when to harvest based on the wines they want to make.
Brys has been doing custom winemaking since about 2005. Stassen says Brys worked with other wineries earlier on, then had to pull back for lack of space.
“Then we added to our facility and now we have room,” he says.
In fact, Brys now has space to take on other custom winemaking clients again.
“Custom winemaking is a good way to do it for the first few years until you establish yourself in a market,” he says.
Bryan Ulbrich, owner and “winery sherpa” at Left Foot Charley in Traverse City, has also long been making wine for other wineries. He says state law requires that the other wineries make a little on-site, but they can contract out the rest.
“The people I work with all grow their own fruit and we take their fruit and make wine out of that,” says Ulbrich, who’s currently serving four other licensed wineries. “It’s a big winery game out there, so if I can be a little more competitive by having 30,000 gallons run through our system — that helps us, and helps the clients — as opposed to me just making 10,000 gallons.”
At St. Julian Winery in Paw Paw, vice president and winemaker Nancie Oxley says the company does a lot of sparkling wines for established wineries in addition to producing and bottling regular wines for newbies. St. Julian offers eight flavors of its own sparkling juice and can be producing anywhere from five to 10 sparkling wines at a time.
“It’s a huge capital investment to have a bottling line that has the added capability of a sparkling product,” Oxley says. “Working with a winery that has this capability makes sense for everybody.”