Environment & Science
9:01 am
Mon June 16, 2014

The U.P. could soon have a wine country thanks to a new grape

Northern Sun winery in the Upper Peninsula runs on cold-hardy grapes.
Credit Emily Fox / Michigan Radio

We've all heard of Cabernet, Merlot and Chardonnay. Those wines have been around for centuries.

But what about Frontenac, Marquette and La Crescent? Those grapes have only been around for a decade or two and they can withstand harsh winters, and thrive.

I went to the Upper Peninsula to see if it has what it takes to develop a new wine region in the state.


After traveling and working in state politics, Dave Anthony has returned home to the Upper Peninsula. Now he and his wife own and run a four-and-a-half-acre vineyard and winery outside of Escanaba. And you might be thinking, what? Wine that far north?

“I think there’s some shock out there, that it actually works,” Anthony says. “The first reaction was beyond are you crazy, it was just stupidity, total stupidity.”

Because it’s cold here. This winter, temperatures in January and February were often well below zero and bottomed out at 25 below.

But Anthony is growing cold-hardy wine grapes, and they can withstand that kind of cold.

Many of these wine grapes were created by the University of Minnesota. It released its first cold-hardy grape in 1996, and since then wine regions have been popping up in places once unimaginable.

In the past two decades, Minnesota has tripled the number of wineries in the state to 30. Iowa more than tripled the amount of grapes it’s growing.

But Anthony said the biggest challenge is the lack of name recognition for his wines.

“Who's ever heard of Marquette or La Crescent?” Anthony said.

Larry Pilon visited Anthony’s tasting room. He and his wife live in Ann Arbor, but he actually grew up just down the road.

Pilon likes the wine and he and his wife bought six bottles.

“This has been a depressed area for so long. It’s nice to see something that is thriving and growing,” Pilon said.

But the real wine business is in Traverse City.

Because it’s warmer, the vineyards can grow the European varieties like Merlot and Pinot Grigio.

Charlie Edson is the owner and winemaker at Bel Lago winery near Traverse City.

He grows 100 varieties of grapes on his vineyard, including some cold-hardy grapes. 

But he says customers like to buy wines with names that they know.

“I don’t see the cold-hardy varieties being more than just a small portion of the industry here in Traverse City. It’s because the vernifera (European grapes) do so well and they are so well known and that is what wineries are building their reputation on,” Edson said.

Edson said the biggest criticism of these new grapes in terms of taste is that they don’t have the same structure and character as the centuries-old wines, like Cabernet.

But Edson says cold-hardy grapes are a type of crop insurance, considering this year’s polar vortex.  

“There is winter injury in the vineyards right now, in most vineyards, and I can tell you the cold-hardy varieties, they laughed in the face of this winter, so we will have full crops of cold-hardy varieties, which is terrific,” Edson said.

That is not the case for most of the European varieties this year.  

But back in the U.P., Anthony thinks this might be a wake-up call for grape growers, which might allow cold-hardy grapes to expand and grow even further in the future.

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