Equal Footing for Michigan Wines

How Northern vintners can turn skeptics into believers

by Cari Noga
Michigan Wine Tasting
Charlie Edson is proprietor and winemaker at Bel Lago on the Leelanau Peninsula.
Traverse City, Mich. -- Michigan wineries could be ideally positioned to capitalize on the locavore trend--but they might have to be a little sneaky about it at first. That paradox emerged at the second annual Northern Michigan Wine Summit on April 28, a promotional and tasting gathering of 20 wineries from the Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas in northwest Michigan.

Locavores--the growing ranks of the environmentally and edibility-conscious who deliberately seek out food and drink produced locally--would seem ideal prospective customers for regional wineries. But these still fight skepticism about Michigan wine, despite increasing critical acclaim and a flourishing industry, now up to nearly 60 wineries.

"I almost have to trick them," executive chef John State of the JW Marriott in Grand Rapids, said of convincing guests in his hotel in Michigan's second-largest city to try Michigan wines as well as foods. Heads of the nearly 100 winery representatives and restaurateurs in attendance nodded in agreement.

Michigan Wine Tasting
Bryan Ulbrich is owner and winemaker of Left Foot Charley in Traverse City, which opened in 2007.
Michigan Wine Tasting
Sean O'Keefe is specialty winemaker at Chateau Grand Traverse on Old Mission Peninsula.
Michigan Wine Tasting
Adam Satchwell is winemaker at Shady Lane Cellars and president of the Leelanau Peninsula Vintners Association.
Michigan wine tasting
Tony Ciccone is owner and winemaker of Ciccone Vineyard and Winery on the Leelanau Peninsula.
Michigan Wine Tasting
Master sommelier Madeline Triffon makes a point at her Michigan Pinot tasting table.
"What is it about our culture that says it must be better if it's from somewhere else? That drives me crazy," said moderator Eric Villegas, chef and host of the PBS food show "Fork in the Road."

But once they do taste it, customers are believers--or, more to the point, buyers. Sales of Michigan wines were up 14% last year, according to industry figures, while wine sales overall rose just 3%.

Master sommelier Claudia Tyagi, an independent wine consultant in metro Detroit, told winemakers she doesn't necessarily sell--nor need they--their wines as customer-worthy just because they're from Michigan. Rather, they should pitch their wines as equals to other standouts of the same varietal.

"You don't have to try it as a Michigan wine," she said. "If it performs in the glass, that's what's important."

Winemaker Adam Satchwell of Shady Lane Cellars in Suttons Bay, told of attending a recent wine dinner in Boston, part of a trip to tout his wines there. At the dinner, he found his wines labeled "exotic." After initially laughing, he said he realized that description had a positive connotation, too.

"This was something new, something different, something exciting," said Satchwell, who's also president of the Leelanau Peninsula Vintners Association. "This is all about discovery"--which appeals to locavores.

Some winemakers said they don't get a chance to have their wine discovered, however. Winemaker Tony Ciccone of Ciccone Vineyard and Winery in Suttons Bay said he feels "shooed away" when he tries to sell his wine to restaurants. "Get a thicker skin," panelists responded.

"The burden's on you, to a degree," said sommelier Madeline Triffon of Detroit's Matt Prentice restaurant group. "If we're not putting a little bit of sweat equity into finding a couple (Michigan) wines to list, shame on us. But you're making it too hard for us," she said, noting that Monday's summit took place 250 miles away from Detroit, where Michigan wine consumers are concentrated. "Why don't you have an event like this in metro Detroit?"

Besides how to best position Michigan wines in the marketplace, Monday's summit included:
  • Some cautionary words about pricing, given Michigan's slumping, auto-dependent economy. "This is hardball," Triffon said.
  • Both blind and winery-sponsored tasting tables open to an expected 200 restaurant servers attending to learn how to sell Michigan wines to the vacation crowds that flock to Traverse City every summer.
  • Journalist Richard Leahy noting that Riesling sales were up 27% last year, the fastest-growing white variety in the U.S. "Michigan is fortunate, especially northwest Michigan, in having a natural terroir for Riesling," Leahy said.
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