When Mitch Ermatinger was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2019, making wine was just a side project.
The owner of Speciation Artisan Ales and Native Species Winery located in Grand Rapids had opened the brewery in January 2017 and began making wine with the 2018 harvest after traveling to Europe and seeing the possibilities.
“Some friends started recommending wine to me — natural wine — and I had never heard of it,” Ermatinger says. “It’s basically low-intervention wine.”
What that means, he explains, is that most wines are made with a variety of ingredients beyond just grapes — sulfites and coloring agents among them. Natural wines are made with one ingredient: grapes.
“I started drinking it in Europe,” he says. “At our brewery, we use mostly wine equipment, so (I thought) maybe we should try buying some Michigan grapes, crush them by foot and don’t add anything and see what happens.
“We really liked the results and decided to start a side brand winery, with a similar ideology to our brewery, which is just wild fermentation and trying to make unique and innovative stuff.”
Then came his diagnosis. People who have celiac disease can’t eat foods with gluten, a protein in wheat, rye and barley; doing so could prompt the immune system to damage the small intestine.
Since Ermatinger already had a wine license, Speciation expanded its wine production to the point that wine is now 20 to 40 percent of its business.
“Wild fermentation … kind of leads to unconventional flavor profiles, so a lot of our wines have kind of a wild, fermented kind of funkiness to them,” he says. “We’re also making a lot of orange wines, which are basically white grapes but made in the style of red wines. Our favorite thing to make is Pét-Nat, short for pétillant naturel, which is basically just a naturally made bubbly wine.”
It’s a Natural
Not all breweries’ reasons for expanding into wine production are as dramatic or medically driven. And it’s not unusual for the opposite scenario in which Michigan wineries expand into beer production.
“I speculate that beer is a really great insurance policy for wineries if the grape harvest is light or in poor condition or if a catastrophic event during the winemaking process occurs; hops are a great place to turn to maintain revenue and pad the bottom line,” says Emily Dockery, executive director of the Michigan Wine Collaborative. “Even if none of those things present an issue, beer is profitable with a relatively quick turnaround time to produce, depending on style.”
All say it’s a natural extension of what they’re already doing — and a way to appeal to a broader swath of customers.
Radel Rosin, manager/brewmaster at Rolling Oak Brewing Company, says that was what motivated him to expand into wine. Rolling Oak opened four years ago in Grayling.
“We know the demand for wine so we were looking to implement this option for our consumers,” Rosin says.
Making wine is similar to making beer, he explains, and even utilizes the same equipment, with the exception of new fermentation tanks specifically designed for winemaking needed due to lack of space for a barrel house. Rolling Oak started with a Cabernet to offer a simple table wine option to its tap list. A white wine option came after in the form of a house Chardonnay.
“We take pride in our winemaking as much as we do our beer-making,” Rosin says.
For breweries, making wine can also be a way to serve wine without having a brewpub license, which enables the sale of wine and spirits. Scott Graham, executive director of the Michigan Brewers Guild, says there are different types of beer licenses and that businesses licensed as microbreweries are prohibited from selling anything but their own beer. But if they obtain a small winemaker license, they can make and serve their own wine.
“As we’ve seen the numbers of breweries really increase in recent years, most of the openings are licensed as microbreweries, which means they don’t have another liquor license to sell products they don’t make,” Graham explains. “Many of them get a small winemaker license as well so they can offer their guests wine or cider; cider is made under a winemaker’s license and taxed as wine.
“And if a small winemaker wants to serve beer, they’re going to have to get a brewing license and make beer.”
From Wine to Beer
That’s what Lorenzo Lizarralde did. He’s been in the winery business since 2008 and is the owner of Chateau Aeronautique Winery in Jackson and Irish Hills. In 2017, he built an 8,000-square-foot building at his 26-acre Irish Hills property — two-thirds earmarked for wine production and one-third for a tasting room. In 2018, he built out the kitchen and started a microbrewery, Blue Skies Brewery. Blue Skies Brewery beers are offered at the Jackson site; another location, Blue Skies Brewery in Auburn Hills, also offers Chateau Aeronautique wines.
“We hired a brewer who is passionate about brewing — he’s very fussy about it, as I am about wine,” Lizarralde says.
Being able to offer both beer and wine means being able to satisfy the tastes of most customers.
“I just love it when I walk through the tasting room and there’s a couple — she’s having wine, he’s having beer, and everybody’s happy,” he says. “That’s the bottom line.”
At Rudbeckia Winery and Burnt Marshmallow Brewstillery in Petoskey, owners Vickie and John Wysokinski knew from the beginning that they wanted to offer both beer and wine at their 190-acre property. They’re also making spirits, including grape vodka, grappa and brandy made from their own estate grapes.
“We knew we needed to be able to offer both in order to attract families, husbands, wives — the yin and yang between beer and wine,” says Vickie. “When we started off, we got permits for both.”
It’s proved to be a winning combination, she adds.
“We have everything,” she says. “Plus we’ve also spent a lot of time on nonalcoholic cocktail offerings for pregnant women, folks that don’t drink. They’re part of a large group that we don’t want to feel disenfranchised.”
Either way — winery adds beer, microbrewery adds wine — it’s a new exercise in experimentation.
“For us, it’s kind of a whole new creative avenue,” says Ermatinger, who estimates producing 1,200 cases of wine this year. “We’ve been really focusing on beer as a brewery, but it’s fun to have kind of a totally different, but still related (enterprise).
“And we love building relationships with all these different wine growers.”