Watch out Napa Valley, Midwest wineries and vineyards are gaining ground in the wine-making world.
While most consumers associate Northern California’s Wine Country as the hub of fine wine-making in the United States, Midwest wineries are embracing their geographical location to grow grapes that have a signature taste all their own.
What largely goes unnoticed by the general public is that several states in the Midwest are located on the same latitude as European wine regions. These areas centered in the “cool climate” group lay claim to the finest food-friendly styles of wine in the world.
Sandwiched between four of the five Great Lakes, Michigan has more than 13,700 acres of vineyards, making it the fourth largest grape-growing state. The number of acres devoted to growing grapes has doubled over the past 10 years.
Of these acres, 2,850 are earmarked as wine grapes, making the Great Lakes State the fifth in U.S. wine grape production. The state’s 121 commercial wineries bottle more than 2.3 million gallons of wine each year, earning Michigan a top 10 ranking in wine production, according to the state of Michigan Department of Agriculture. The wine industry also contributes $300 million annually to Michigan’s economy.
Michigan grows more than 40 varieties of wine grapes, including European — or vinifera — varieties like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling and more.
“Over the past 10 to 15 years, vinifera plantings have increased significantly, so that more than 70 percent of the total wine grape acreage in the state is vinifera, compared to 20 percent in 1994,” said Karel Bush, executive director at Michigan Grape & Wine Industry Council.
Because these varieties are more susceptible to damage from Michigan’s cold winters, most vineyards are located within 25 miles of Lake Michigan. 2 Lads Winery owner Chris Baldyga said his winery’s location on the Old Mission Peninsula near Traverse City has been a blessing.
“The single most critical factor that allows us to grow the grapes we do is the moderating influence of being on a small peninsula surrounded by two large bays and close proximity to Lake Michigan to our west,” he said. “Without that body of water mitigating the deep cold of winter and our cold fronts coming out of the northwest from Canada and Wisconsin - our climate would be far less temperate and mild.”
In the early spring, the lake effect from the cool water delays bud break and helps grape growers to avoid late spring frosts that might damage early green shoots.
“In the fall when frost cooks your garden plants, our vines on the peninsula (all 23 acres) are kept warmer by the surrounding post-summer temperature bays and they lengthen our growing season by a couple of weeks,” Baldyga said.
Baldyga, who learned the wine business from the ground up in his hometown of Traverse City, said he and partner Cornel Olivier, who hails from his grandfather’s vineyards in Stellenbosch, South Africa, said they are proud to be adding to the already great legacy of Michigan winemakers.
“To be able to make great wines out of these challenging soils and craft a brand that people love and want to visit - like so many of my wine heroes in this region have done - is something I’m proud to have been a part of,” Baldyga said.
Wineries attract more than 2 million visitors annually to Michigan. There is a great deal of competition among wineries to lure customers in the front door. Mackinaw Trail Winery & Brewery of Petoskey, hopes to distinguish themselves from the average winery.
Dustin Stabile, head of production, said visitors travel from all to indulge themselves in the overall experience at the facility.
“The whole goal of our establishment is to create an experience instead of being ‘just another tasting’,” he said.
In additional to tasting wine made from the wineries’ 30-plus varieties of grapes, guests are encouraged to pair their wine with local cuisine, including a grilled baguette seasoned with olive oil from Fustini’s in downtown Petoskey.
Last year, the Mackinaw Trail Winery & Brewery added an event center designed to host weddings, festivals and corporate events.
“We have a great returning customer base that gets bigger each year because of our great wine and great hospitality,” Stabile said.
Award-winning winemaker Christine Lawlor-White says Illinois has come a long way in making a name for itself in the winemaking business.
“When we started in this business 40 years ago, there were just 12 wineries in the state. Today, there are over 120,” said Lawlor-White of Galena Cellars Vineyard and Winery. “Our industry is now based on all of these new hybrid grapes that we can grow in our area that have that complexity and sophistication like the Californian and European grapes.”
Lawlor-White said the Midwest is catching up to its peers out on the West Coast.
“California took the grapes from Europe that were already established and over a century developed grapes that grew best in Sonoma and Napa Valleys,” Lawlor-White said. “We’re now finding our niche in our viticultural area, producing homegrown products that are unique to this area.
“Our goal is to eventually find a grape that we grow better here in northern Illinois than anyone else in the world. It just takes time,” she added.
Cynthia Fleischli, director of Illinois Wine, said the wine-making industry has a $700 million impact on the Illinois economy each year. The state has also been a crucial partner with the growth of the industry providing assistance via grants and technical assistance when needed.
“Without their assistance, this impact would never have come to fruition,” Fleischli said.
Up north in the Land of the Lakes, wineries have been making inroads in the Minnesota cultural landscape. While Minnesota is synonymous with ice-fishing, bone-chilling winters and heart-warming hot dishes - thanks to Garrison Keillor – it is quickly becoming a burgeoning wine region.
The long-standing partnership between the University of Minnesota and local wineries has paid off in the development of several hardy grape varieties that do well in the state. According to the Minnesota Grape Growers Association, vintners are projected to produce more than $11.25 million worth of wine this year.
Among those wineries thriving in the Upper Midwest is Carlos Creek Winery, located in the heart of Minnesota’s lake area. President Tami Bredeson likes to mix her fine wines with a bit of Minnesota humor.
“We position ourselves as the ‘Most Fun’ winery in Minnesota. We make seriously good wine and serve it in a seriously fun atmosphere,” Bredeson said.
Because few customers were familiar with wines made from grapes that few had heard of, such as Frontenac and Brianna, Carlos Creek decided to brand them under the trademark “Minnesota Nice.” Customers now delight in finding their favorite wines bottled under Minnesota monikers such as “Hot Dish Red,” “Wobegon White” and “You Betcha Blush.”
The winery commissions unique labels each season featuring cartoon moose characters Ole and Spike, enjoying typical Minnesota pastimes like fishing and hockey.
“People are amazed that we can make outstanding wines in Minnesota, and Minnesotans are eager to try this novelty for themselves,” Bredeson said.
Click here to read how weather keeps grape farmers on their toes.