Despite being decades ahead of the state’s craft breweries in coming to market, Michigan’s wine industry has yet to experience the same explosion in popularity.
While the industry has taken longer to mature, its stakeholders still have high hopes for Michigan’s winemakers, which are largely clustered in the northwest and southwest Lower Peninsula along the Lake Michigan shoreline.
Many attribute the slower growth of the state’s wine industry to a widely-held perception that Michigan wines, simply put, are not as good as wines from more prestigious regions.
That’s a perception that James Lester has tried hard to change.
As the owner of Buchanan-based Wyncroft LLC since the early 1980s, the Southwest Michigan winemaker says he has seen a significant uptick in the quality of the region’s wine, which is slowly helping to change the perception among connoisseurs.
“I think Michigan (wine) right now is where California was in the early 1970s,” Lester said. “In the 1960s, California was considered (to have) trash wine. … People are discovering that we can make world-class wine.”
The premier brand for Wyncroft, named after the winery, is based on grapes Lester grows himself. The winery only sells that particular brand via a subscription mailing list and to high-end restaurants in places such as Grand Rapids and Chicago. An August 2013 story in Crain’s Chicago Business reported that Lester’s wines were one of the only Michigan wines sold in top-tier Chicago eateries.
In the coming weeks, Lester said he will be launching a new brand, Marland, based on classic French styles. The launch of the brand will mark his first foray into retail, and he said he expects it to be sold at fine wine shops such as Martha’s Vineyard and G.B. Russo & Sons in Grand Rapids. A bottle of Marland wine will sell in the $19 range, he said.
The winery sells approximately 200-300 cases annually of its Wyncroft brand, but it expects to move about 800-1,000 cases per year of Marland, Lester said.
As a company, Wyncroft largely eschews the agri-tourism component often tied to the wine industry in Michigan. Unlike many of his competitors, the company does not have a tasting room, and instead tries to lend “authenticity” to its wine by catering to more sophisticated consumers, Lester said.
“My business is aimed at connoisseurs who are skeptical about Michigan wine but are impressed once they try it,” Lester said, acknowledging Wyncroft is a relatively small producer.
The comparatively high cost of many Michigan wines is one thing that Gary Greer says is an issue for the fledgling industry.
“Serious wine drinkers tend towards the California or imported (wine) racks,” said the owner of The Crushed Grape, a wine and beer retailer on Knapp Street in Grand Rapids. “You can take a meritage blend from Black Star Farms that is a great bottle of wine, but it’s a $30 or $50 price point. … It’s a hard sell.”
Despite that pricing challenge, the store has still been finding success with Michigan wines, Greer said, noting that he recently expanded its selection from around 30 bottles to approximately 80 bottles.
One issue for stakeholders in the Michigan wine industry is the matter of self-distributing their products. While some in-state winemakers are exempt from Michigan’s “three-tier” distribution model that requires producers to go through wholesalers to sell their products, sources MiBiz spoke with for this report held varying opinions of the efficacy of self-distributing products directly to restaurants or retailers.
“There is a need for the middle man,” Wyncroft’s Lester said. “Schlepping cases of liquid is hard work.”
Greer from The Crushed Grape disagrees. The retailer has to inflate prices of Michigan wines “so that the distributor can get their cut,” he said. To get around that added cost to consumers, Chateau Fontaine on the Leelanau Peninsula began self-distributing its wines to the store, which allowed Greer to reduce the price of the wine for his customers.
Currently, there are 102 wineries scattered around the state, according to the industry website Michiganwines.com. By comparison, there were only 19 wineries in Michigan in 1998, said Linda Jones, executive director of the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council, a state agency housed within the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD). The council was established by the Michigan legislature in January 2013 as a means of promoting the industry as a tool for economic development.
“We are trying to attract new investment (for the industry),” Jones said. “We need people to see the potential of the Michigan wine industry.”
Much of the council’s work is around crafting legislation to help grow the industry, Jones told MiBiz. That includes helping winemakers access new markets, such as allowing wine to be sold at farmers markets.
“Government agencies are all in favor of our industry becoming a (state) treasure,” said Wyncroft’s Lester.
But that support hasn’t necessarily translated into funding for educational programs that could help the industry become more sophisticated, he said, adding that he’s seen state funding for wine-related programs come and go a number of times in his career.
“There’s a lot of willingness, but not a lot of money,” Lester said. “But I think that will change. Political leaders will recognize that this is something worth investing in.”