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Forget Silicon Valley, what about the next Napa Valley in Michigan?

Apr 9, 2015

The Next Idea

When was the last time you drank a bottle of Michigan wine? If it’s difficult to remember, you are sadly not alone.

Our state’s wineries have been winning hundreds of national and international awards for years, but it seems like only a small segment of Michigan wine drinkers know this. That is more than unfortunate, because a more robust wine industry would do wonders for our state’s economy and prestige.

Michigan's reputation does not match the high quality of its wines, say Bill and Susan Braymer, owners of Laurentide Winery.
Credit Courtesy of Laurentide Winery

Michigan’s nearly 150 wineries produce more than one million gallons of wine a year. Only four states grow more wine grapes than we do. This is because Mother Nature has given us something special.

The great Laurentide Ice Sheet receded 10,000 years ago and left behind rocky soil loaded with nutrients that just begs for vines to be planted. 

The climate is ideal. We are a peninsula surrounded by the largest bodies of freshwater in the world. It doesn’t get any better than that for moderating temperatures and precipitation to grow wonderful Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Noir. 

But what about the wine? True, the early efforts were not inspiring, but nor should they have been expected to be. It takes time to make great wine – the vines must mature, and so must the know-how.

The Michigan wine industry has been around long enough now to work out these growing pains. We have years of experience and have honed our farming and vintner skills. This hard work has paid off, as I mentioned, in international awards. Michigan wines routinely receive excellent independent reviews like this, and this, and this.

While the awards and rave reviews have been great, they haven’t moved the needle enough. In the highly competitive wine business, a poor reputation is incredibly difficult to overcome.

So what’s the Next Idea?

To put it bluntly, we need everyone’s help. When we appreciate and celebrate our own wine in Michigan, it will be so much easier for the rest of the country (and the world) to follow our lead.  There are a few ideas that we think could get us going in the right direction.

Let’s start with changing Michigan Wine Month. Right now, it’s April. While we’re happy to have a month in which to celebrate, a cold, spring one doesn’t exactly evoke images of lush vines with dangling fruit waiting to be plucked, pressed and barreled. What about a greener month, governor?  

While the awards and rave reviews have been great, they haven't moved the needle enough. In the highly competitive wine business, a poor reputation is incredibly difficult to overcome.

The Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council was established in 1985. It is our most devoted promoter, but its effectiveness is limited without more funding to scratch deeper than just the surface of our growing and maturing industry.

At the very least, Michigan wines should be served at state government functions where wine is included. Politicians and lobbyists could show off their Michigan pride even more by serving them at fundraisers and networking dinners.

We, as Michigan winemakers,  have to get more organized and offer more tours and tastings to Michigan-based sommeliers and members of the Michigan Restaurant Association. We could develop a package of incentives for Michigan restaurants and wine distributors that visit our wineries, learn our stories and feature our products. As more restaurants celebrate the local food trend, why not pair these dishes with local wines too? Think about how much our reputation would soar if more of our restaurants proudly served Michigan wines.

Lastly, if you have been avoiding Michigan wines because you think they’re cheap or of poor quality, please try them again.  Heck, have some fun and taste them blind next to your old standbys. Cover the bottles with brown bags, taste the differences, and then prepare to be gob-smacked. We think you will be converted.

If you don’t drink wine, or you’re a teetotaler, then why care about Michigan wine?  Simple answer: It raises the bar for everyone. Viticulture promotes sustainable farming practices and preserves agricultural land. The Michigan wine industry directly employs more than 5,000 people and entertains thousands more every year.  And a great wine region attracts loads of tourists, just ask residents of Napa Valley, Bordeaux and Tuscany.

A vineyard on Michigan's Leelanau Peninsula.
Credit Flickr/Joey Lax-Salinas

Not to be overlooked is the prestige factor in wine. Michigan produces great cherries, but let’s face it, that doesn’t carry the same weight. A fine wine is a work of art, and a sense of pride comes to those who produce it consistently. Pride is an attractive force. While the Napa wine region’s proximity to Silicon Valley is of course not the reason for the tech center’s immense success, it certainly hasn’t hurt the region’s attractiveness to have world-renown vineyards nearby. 

There’s all this talk about how we create the next Silicon Valley in Michigan. What about the next Napa Valley? Nearly 40 years ago, French winemakers scoffed and ridiculed California vintners for trying their hand at making Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Who’s laughing now?

We have long been proud of our forests, our lakes, our rivers – our Pure Michigan. It’s time that our wines be included and celebrated, as well. As we seek to recover from the economic downturn and build a better Michigan, a little extra pride can go a long way.

Bill and Susan Braymer are the owners of Laurentide Winery in Lake Leelanau, Michigan. 

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