In fertile landscapes found inland of Lake Michigan, areas that benefit from the favorable climate along the lakeshore, red and green grapes are grown with exuberance. Wine makers have been planting them since the 1930s, and an ever-expanding number of vineyards are found there.
But Michigan’s commercial wine country history dates to 1863, when Joseph M. Sterling, former Monroe mayor and prominent businessman, was “the first to plant a vineyard in the Monroe region for the purpose of making wine,” according to authors Sharon Kegerreis and Lorri Hathaway, who wrote “The History of Michigan Wines: 150 Years of Winemaking along the Great Lakes,” published in 2010. In 1868, Sterling and two partners founded the Pointe Aux Peaux Wine Company.
It was a fitting business development for the lush region along Lake Erie, the home of the River Raisin that the French named La Rivière aux Raisins for the wild grapes that grew in abundance along its banks. Those very same grapes were immortalized in a 1679 journal entry by Father Louis Hennepin, the historian on the French sailing vessel Griffin commandeered by Rene Robert Cavelier, de la Salle (La Salle), according to the authors.
“The islands are the finest in the world. They are covered with forests of nut and fruit trees, and with wild vines loaded with grapes. From these we made a large quantity of wine. The banks of the strait (the Detroit River) are vast meadows, and the prospect is terminated with some hills covered with vineyards, trees bearing good fruit; and groves and forests so well arranged that one would think that Nature alone could not have laid out the grounds so effectively without the help of man, so charming was the prospect.”
“This is the piece that blows people away. They have no clue that it (commercial winemaking) started in Monroe,” notes Karel Bush, executive director of the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council. “Those were native grapes, and they were planted there. Today, most Michigan wines are made from French-American hybrids and vinifera, the European variety. Seventy-five percent are European varieties.”
There are 130 wineries in Michigan today. Most quality wine grapes are grown within 25 miles of Lake Michigan, according to Bush. Michigan is and has been one of the top 10 states in the nation for vineyard acreage and wine production.
“It is increasing on both fronts,” Bush said, “but production went down for a couple of years because of brutal winters. At this point, we are fifth for wine grape production and sixth or seventh for wine production. Michigan wineries produced 2.4 million gallons in 2016.”
Wineries and vineyards still are found in southeast Michigan, places like Sandhill Crane Vineyards in Jackson, one of nine found along the Southeast Michigan Pioneer Wine Trail and one of five trails the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council promotes because the wineries use Michigan-grown fruits. More about the wine trails is found at bit.ly/MichWines.
Yet, it is the Lake Michigan shoreline that provides the special conditions grapes need to grow, the moderating “lake effect” that protects vines and extends the growing season.
“We count on the lake to keep cool breezes coming across them in spring, which keeps the vines from breaking bud too early, so they don’t wake up yet,” Bush said. “Then the lake warms up and those breezes are warmer in fall, which increases the growing temperature and lengthens the growing season.”
In this issue of BLUE, we celebrate Michigan vineyards and wineries. Who knew that Michigan’s wine history would first be recorded in 1679 or that 23 years later in 1702, the French, so well-known for their wines, would plant the first grapevines in Detroit when Fort Ponchartrain was built under the command of Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac?
To the vintners of Michigan, we say salute!
Howard Meyerson is an award-winning journalist and managing editor of Michigan BLUE Magazine.