Night of the living red

Inspired by autumn’s bounty (and the Halloween season), a southeast Michigan winery revels in a new harvest.
Sandhill Crane Vineyard Wine
Sandhill Crane Vineyard Wine - Photography by Mark Bialek

As thousands of majestic Sandhill cranes soar overhead during the fall migration season, winemaker Holly Balansag has time for just a brief glance skyward as she honors them with a harvest that will become namesake vintages from her winery in Jackson.

Sandhill Crane Vineyards represents a growing number of tasting room stops along the Southeast Michigan Pioneer Wine Trail that turn classic Michigan fruits into a wide range of wines, from dry dinner wines to delectable dessert styles.

While the fall months may be the busiest season for Balansag, it is the best time to tour the area and experience the creative ways that Michigan winemakers make the most of its infamous bounty.

Holly Balansag at Sandhill Winery
Holly Balansag at Sandhill Winery – Photography by Mark Bialek

What makes Southeast Michigan so ideal for winemaking? Southeast Michigan is a challenge for grape growing, but many French hybrid and cold climate grapes can do very well here. There is an abundance of other wonderful fruit including raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, and the majestic Michigan apple. It provides the inspiration for our Apple Mead (made with local honey), Heirloom Apple, a semi-sweet, 100-percent apple wine made with our own apples, and Dolce, a fortified apple dessert wine. Our tasting room at Dexter Cider Mill is the perfect place to drop in and try them out during the fall season.

What are some of your favorite food and wine pairings? Pairing food and wine is magic when it works. I like sharp cheeses with our Vignoles, a dry crisp white. Our Sur Lie Chardonnay complements a light pasta tossed with pesto. And for that special dessert course, our 840 Port pairs beautifully with blue cheese, creamy cheeses and even chocolate. A tasting room sample that has become a customer favorite is to pair our Raspberry dessert wine with dark chocolate.

What’s your favorite way to enjoy the fall season in Michigan? The fall season is harvest time for me. It is non-stop work! But I love the process of seeing ripe beautiful grapes being harvested, then crushing, pressing and fermenting them. The fermentation process is incredible; it’s watching something grow, change, and develop into something new. The fall season is an all-consuming time of year, but I love it.

“A family favorite is our fall release ‘Night of the Living Red’ on Halloween, a semi-sweet spiced red. I created it to celebrate my daughter’s birthday that falls on the same day.” 

— Holly Balansag

Do you celebrate any special seasonal traditions? As a winemaker, the annual tradition of the season is all about enjoying the harvest and working day and night to make a great vintage. A family favorite is our fall release of a wine we call “Night of the Living Red” on Halloween, a semi-sweet spiced red. I created it to celebrate my daughter’s birthday that falls on the same day. It’s great fun and has become very popular.

Sandhill winery
Heirloom Apple wine by Sandhill Crane Vineyards

What is your most satisfying achievement? My children are my most satisfying achievement. When it comes to my career, I’m thrilled to be able to create wines that everyone, not just wine experts, can enjoy. It’s important to me that customers feel at home in the winery. I love to see them get a taste of Michigan and what is growing in their own backyard.

What’s next on your horizon? Our new facility opened this year with a café, a private party room and weekly music events, but I want the business to keep its small family feel. As a winemaker, I’ll continue to improve the quality of the wines by doing more testing, and exploring my favorite part of the winemaking process, the creative side. I hope to continue to develop the quality of our own vineyard and make top quality estate wines in the future.

Visit to learn more. Freelance writer Caroline J. Beck lives in California’s wine country and Lexington, Mich.

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