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Winemaking in Michigan

by Staff Writer - K. Ash | July 02, 2011

Winemaking in Michigan is unique when compared to the rest of the United States. Michigan is home to some of the best agricultural land for the production of fruit. Yet even with the benefit of ideal climatic conditions, serious winemaking did not get started in Michigan until after Prohibition. Also, the majority of vineyards found within Michigan contain grape varieties suited for the grape juice market. These two differences set Michigan apart from the majority of the United States with respect to winemaking.

Serious winemaking did not exist in Michigan before Repeal. However, winemaking did exist on a very small scale before 1933. Lacking any famous cellars or castle like estates, early Michigan wineries were characterized by the German farmers who operated them. These early wineries were small affairs lacking the massive vineyards found in wineries of different states. In 1880 a national wine census was taken and it was shown that 2,266 acres of vineyards existed within Michigan. During this time, Michigan's actual wine production totaled 62,361 gallons of wine. Farmers in Michigan have always recognized the benefits of local climate concerning fruit production. It is therefore no surprise that the cultivation and production of grape juice vines has always exceeded traditional winemaking grape varieties.

Vine planting began in Michigan with the great grape juice boom of 1900. During this time the Welch Grape Juice Company built a new juicing plant in Westfield, New York. To keep up with the demand, Welch's began buying grapes from neighboring states. Michigan vintners began to take notice and the first grape juice vineyards were established in Van Buren and Berrien counties. Responding to the continued grape boom, Welch's established a new juicing plant at Lawton in 1919. By this time all of the small Michigan wineries were closed with most farmers focusing on the grape juice market. Shortly after 1919, a new national demand for winemaking grapes had developed. Some Michigan individuals focused on supplying grapes for home winemakers or bootleggers. In addition to this, several wineries were started in the Canadian town of Windsor just across the river from Detroit. Michigan vintners now had another small market for wine producing grapes and they exploited it. Major changes for Michigan and winemaking were on the horizon with the end of Prohibition rapidly approaching.

While most states and wineries looked toward Repeal as a time to recapture the halcyon days of past, Michigan had no such past to look back to. And with the collapse of the grape market immediately after Repeal, Michigan found itself in trouble concerning grape production. As the price for juicing grapes continued to fall, vintners began forming new wineries in the Detroit area. Unfortunately these new wineries quickly built up surpluses of wine due to the varietal section used in making the wine. Most Michigan wines made during this time were of the Concord variety. While the Concord is an excellent grape for juicing it is not a grape variety to be used for quality winemaking. Therefore many early Michigan wines could not compete with wines from other parts of the United States or the world.

By the mid 20th century the Michigan winemaking industry was in serious trouble. Grape and wine surpluses existed that could not be easily depleted. Many different scenarios were developed to remedy the problem, but in the end a tax plan was designed to promote local Michigan wines. This tax plan placed a 50 cents per gallon tax on out-of-state wines while a 4 cent tax was applied to Michigan produced wines. In addition to taxes levied on out-of-state wines, a maximum percentage of alcohol was written into the Michigan wine laws in 1937. As a result of this law any wine with over 16 percent of alcohol was classified to as hard liquor. This created an environment where foreign vintners had to produce special variants of their wines in order to compete in Michigan.

With the implementation of these peculiar wine laws, Michigan wineries began to prosper in their own protected environment. Due to the protective nature of these wine laws, many Michigan wineries were content with not producing higher quality wines or attempting to compete with out of state wineries. Things began to change unfavorably for the Michigan wineries after the Second World War. During this time the United States saw the average consumer develop an appreciation for quality wines. This led consumers to start preferring dry table wines rather than the peculiar and localized Michigan wines. By 1965 only one-third of the state of Michigan still consumed local varieties of wine. Intent on survival, the Michigan vintners began to pay close attention to what their consumers wanted in wines. Efforts were made to develop dry table wines and Champagnes. Michigan wineries continued to update their operations during the 1970s. Many vineyards began working with vinifera wines for the production of dry table wines. This trend has continued and can be seen well into the 2000s.

Michigan has a unique climate that is ideally suited for the production of fruit. Areas of Michigan located near lake Michigan benefit from the natural temperature moderation of the lake. The fact that the lake does not freeze equates to a warmer climate for the vine in the winter while cool breezes in the spring protect the vine from frost damage. This unique climate is not confined to a small specific location. Fruit can be grown over a 200-mile stretch between the Indiana border and Grand Traverse Bay. Today Michigan has an area of 14,600 acres under grape cultivation although only about 1,800 acres were used for quality wine production. As Michigan has a fairly large fruit and juice industry and a fairly small and young wine industry, it will be interesting to see the growth of wine vineyards and producers over the next several years.

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