Winery Tails

It's a tough job, but some dog's got to do it

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Hickory Creek Winery
Ranger is on patrol at Hickory Creek Winery in Buchanan. Photo courtesy of Hickory Creek Winery

The working farm dogs of yore have evolved into marketing machines at Michigan wineries.

As social media magnates, winery dogs command the “likes” and “hearts” of Facebook and Instagram for their owners. Their visages on bottles help sell wines by the case.

Wineries have not only capitalized on their canines, but they have also opened their doors to visitors’ furry friends for outdoor summertime concerts and other special events.

As unofficial ambassadors, winery dogs exude a natural warmth, owners say.

“It gives people a sense of comfort and lowers the barriers of wine tasting,” says Bowers Harbor Vineyards’ owner Spencer Stegenga, whose Traverse City farm-turned-vineyard has always been home to a long line of retrievers and Bernese mountain dogs. “Sometimes when they walk in and have never tasted before, people have a preset idea. With the dog around, people feel a lot more comfortable.”

A Natural Fit

Lone Oak Vineyard Estate
Dogs have been like family at Lone Oak Vineyard Estate in Grass Lake. This one is Ozzy. Photo courtesy of Lone Oak Vineyard Estate

Dogs mix well with wineries, say the many owners who not only have them as pets but also encourage dogs to be on the premises. The value goes deeper than the traditional farming duties of guarding and chasing, owners say.

In fact, the joke is that the notion of “guard dog” might be an oxymoron.

“We joke that he’s the worst guard dog for any winery,” says Adam McBride, owner and winemaker at Hickory Creek Winery in Buchanan, of his and girlfriend Lilli’s chocolate Lab/Irish Setter rescue dog, Ranger. “If someone wanted to break into the winery, they’d just have to pet him and give him treats. I’ve got pictures of him lying on top of cases taking a nap.”

As far as selling wines, Dennise Barber, co-owner of Lone Oak Vineyard Estate in Grass Lake, wishes she had done a label of her late dog Ozzy, who died a year ago.

“We were stupid; we should have had an Ozzy wine,” says Barber, who won’t be replacing Ozzy because of travel plans. “Dog wines sell like hotcakes.”

Stegenga says Bowers Harbor’s Otis, Cooper, Winston and Brix wines — all named for former and current winery dogs — are so popular, selling upward of 2,000 cases a year, that the winery will likely continue bottling under those labels. For every Winston wine sold, $2.50 per bottle goes to the local humane society.

“We can’t get rid of Otis and Brix because people know those wines now,” he says. “Going forward, we have to play (dog labels) by the marketing ear.”

Dogs Welcome

For millennia, dogs and humans have been working side by side. Stegenga, whose property started as his parents’ horse farm in the 1980s, says it’s the nature of the beast.

Winston at Bowers Harbor Vineyards
Winston at Bowers Harbor Vineyards near Traverse City. Photo courtesy of Bowers Harbor Vineyards

“Vineyard guys and farmers — that’s where we started,” he says. “The dog thing comes in when you’re out farming, and no one wants to hang out with you except your dog.”

According to vineyard owners, the reverse is true for the majority of visitors, who actually stay longer when they bring their dogs along, says Suzi Carpenter, events and marketing manager for Moersch Hospitality Group, the parent company of Round Barn Winery, Distillery and Brewery in Baroda.

“With dogs in particular, people are looking to chill out and relax; if they can’t take their dogs, they don’t stay as long,” Carpenter says. “We give people a reason to bring their dogs with them with doggie bags, bowls of water and dog treats so people can go, spend the day and not worry about letting them out or feeding them at home.”

For the past seven years in June, Round Barn has hosted Wine and Wags, a fundraiser that lures up to 3,000 dog owners. Shelter and rescue groups split proceeds: about $7,000 in 2018.

From May through October, Round Barn hosts dog-friendly outdoor concerts. A special fall favorite: HalloWine, a human and canine costumed event that features an Instagram scavenger hunt, music, food and spirits.

Even with all the visitors and their wag-a-longs, Carpenter says there have “never been any problems.”

“To us they’re just like family. We’re very open to dogs and kids,” she says, “so we provide reasons for people to come out for the day and stay.”

This article originally appeared in the 2019 edition of Michigan Wine Country magazine.

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