Flying back to Michigan from California, Black Star Farms winery owner Kerm Campbell had one of those serendipitous airplane conversations. He sat beside a fellow Michigander and an employee of the Copemish-based Archangel Ancient Tree Archive. The two sparked a conversation about their travels and work, which led to a mention of Jake Milarch, a certified arborist who clones some of the world’s oldest and largest trees for Archangel.
Months later, a mutual friend tracked them down and encouraged a meeting. That eventually led to Campbell and Milarch — along with Milarch’s wife Amanda — launching a Michigan grapevine business, Truly Michigan Vines. The company propagates custom vines and new grape varieties and sells to commercial growers and hobby winemakers.
“It’s just another unique thing that’s going on in northern Michigan,” Jake Milarch said. “There’s a pretty big market for grafted wine vines.”
Historically, commercial growers and vineyard owners have had to buy grapevines from other states to replace diseased or dead vines or to expand their operation. Truly Michigan Vines hopes to capture that market as the state’s only supplier of locally grafted vinifera and hybrid grapevines.
“We’re really excited about the next couple of years because people are really going to start seeing the advantage of buying something local that they have had to outsource across the country,” said Amanda Milarch, executive director of Truly Michigan Vines.
The business began as an experimental venture between Campbell and the Milarchs. Campbell had a business problem to solve. He wanted to use existing vines on Leelanau Peninsula to grow more, rather than buying replacement vines from California.
Jake Milarch, a fourth-generation tree farmer who clones trees and serves as education program director for his family’s nonprofit Archangel, felt confident he could do the same with grapevines growing in Michigan.
“Some of the vines we’re propagating were some of the oldest vines on the peninsulas,” Jake Milarch said. “You collect the material for the varietal that you want to clone and pair that with the proper rootstock.”
In the world of growing grapes, grafting is the process of bringing the rootstock, which grows below ground, and scion, the fruiting arm of the vine, together to form a living plant.
“It’s like a puzzle piece going together, the grafting process,” Amanda Milarch said. “After the graft is calloused, we put it in a pot with the soil and then they grow. That rootstock essentially takes on whatever the properties are of that scion.”
In some cases, the scion comes from well-established grapevines that have won wine awards for Black Star Farms and other wineries. Custom grafting also is available for vineyards and wineries that want to propagate a particular grape or try a new variety.
“We can also do this other piece where we are able to sell to people who don’t have current vineyards,” Amanda Milarch said. “We’ve also got smaller wineries that have bought from us downstate.”
Campbell and the Milarchs first introduced Truly Michigan Vines in 2012 at Campbell’s Capella Farms, managed by Legacy Vineyard Services, on Leelanau Peninsula. They spent the last five years on research and development and started selling to other vineyards in 2018.
Now the Capella vineyard has 6 to 8 acres of Truly Michigan Vines of chardonnay, pinot gris, pinot blanc, cab franc and gamay noir. Since 2014, grapes from Truly Michigan Vines have produced the award-winning Arcturos Sur Lie Chardonnay from Black Star Farms.
Not only did the vines survive two of the region’s harshest winters in 2014 and 2015, but the vines continue to perform “amazingly well,” said Nick Stanek, vineyard manager and co-owner of Legacy Vineyard Services. “The mortality rate after planting has been extremely minimal compared to vines we have used from other nurseries.”
Historically, wine grapevines planted in Michigan have come from California or New York. It typically takes four to five seasons for a vine to produce enough grapes to make wine.
Truly Michigan Vines allow growers to produce fruit up to one year earlier than out-of-state vines, which arrive dormant and need a full year to acclimate to the soil and weather before setting roots.
“There is (also) the risk of dying off in shipping and the risk of not knowing what you’re getting,” Amanda Milarch said.
Some say the vines could change the game for commercial grape growers by reducing risk and cost associated with plant loss because they are designed to thrive in Michigan soil and climate. After grafting, the vines grow in a greenhouse during the winter months. They can be planted in May or early June and even later. Last November, the Chateau Chantal winery purchased and planted about 800 vines to replace dead vines in established vineyards.
“Our main customers are wineries that are experiencing growth and planting new vineyards,” said Pat Murad, director of sales for Truly Michigan Vines. “They need more vines and want to continue growing the same grapes.”
Truly Michigan Vines propagates 15 varieties of grapes for customers, according to Murad. It has a stock of chardonnay, pinot gris and pinot noir vines that can be purchased online with requested pickup at the Copemish greenhouse.
“We’re really excited about the next couple of years because people are really going to start seeing the advantage of buying something local that they have had to outsource across the country.”
— Amanda Milarch
For vineyard managers, it’s nice to be able to contact the person who actually propagated the vines. Stanek said he believes the Milarchs employ higher-quality control measures. “Jake can actually come to the vineyard and look and see what is going on,” he said. “If you buy them from somewhere else and I have a 50 percent mortality rate, they are not going to give me more plants and they are not going to care why, and they are not going to come look at it.”
Murad, who has a background in viticulture and worked as a research technician for Michigan State University, agrees disease is an issue plaguing the industry. The theory is a plant adapts to its environment. When you clone a certain type of vine that has been successful in the region, it is ready to take off and grow more.
“Kerm noticed that Jake was producing high-quality plants, and he wasn’t having disease issues,” he said. “We’re doing what has already been proven to work but bringing it closer to home and making it even better, we think.”
The business received grant funding from the Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development and rebranded as Truly Michigan Vines. Now focused on getting the word out about the benefits, the company continues to make inroads with the state’s larger commercial growers.
It also sells to hobby winemakers and individuals who want to establish a backyard vineyard. The vines grow best closer to Lake Michigan and need certain soil, climate, elevation and temperature to succeed.
“Not everybody is going to be able to plant a backyard vineyard, you have to have a lot of specifics,” Amanda Milarch said. “We’re not going to sell you something that’s not going to do well.”
Murad is willing to talk to people about their location and specific plans, and if the vines are appropriate for those conditions. Establishing a backyard vineyard takes work, gardening experience and a time commitment.
“There is a learning curve involved,” Murad said. “I wouldn’t say it’s easy. It wouldn’t be like putting in petunias in your garden every year.”
Truly Michigan Vines
Are you an avid gardener interested in adding grapevines for decoration in your garden or a hobby winemaker who wants to establish enough vines for your own backyard vineyard? Vinifera grapevines available for purchase online include chardonnay, pinot gris and pinot noir.
Facts & Figures
- Michigan’s unique climate and lake effect from Lake Michigan make the state
great for growing grapes
- Native Americans cultivated Concord grapes long before it became a state
- Michigan has five federally recognized viticultural regions, 13,700 acres of vineyards and 3,000 acres devoted to wine grape production
- Michigan ranks fourth in the nation for growing grapes
- Michigan’s commercial wineries bottle more than 2.7 million gallons of wine and attract more than 1.7 million visitors annually
Marla R. Miller is a freelance writer and journalist who lives in Norton Shores.