|BACK TO THE BEGINNING (A History
(Content courtesy The Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council & A.H.D.
To follow the history of the vine and winemaking
from the very beginning until now, we must take a winding route
that stretches back over a period of more than 7,000 years. Few
facts are known about the early years although it is generally accepted
that wine was made for the first time in Persia, with evidence of
wine production dating back as far as 6000 BC. From there, winemaking
spread to Egypt, where written references to wine dating back to
5000 BC have been found. At about that same time, they began making
wine in Phoenicia. By 2000 BC, the Greeks and the Cretans had also
begun producing wine. The Cretans in particular became famous for
exporting quality wine.
By 1000 BC, the inhabitants of Sicily, Italy and
most countries in North Africa had begun planting vineyards, and
500 years later wine production spread to Spain, the south of France
and Arabia. In about 100 BC, wine was also made in northern India
and China. Winemaking then spread to the Balkan States and northern
Europe. The history of wine virtually ground to a halt for the next
1 000 years as the decline of the Roman Empire and Europe's Dark
Ages curtailed its development. Explorers in the 16th century accelerated
the pace again and by 1530 the vine had spread to Mexico and Japan.
Some 30 years later Argentina imported vine plantings, followed
a öshort while later by Peru. The next milestone was the planting
of vineyards at the Cape in 1655. California followed in 1697, and
Australia and New Zealand in 1813.
The development of wine cultivation has over the
years gone hand in hand with the spread of civilization. Looking
back at the early days of the vine and its product, it is obvious
that while winemaking methods and advanced techniques produce different
styles of wine, the basic principles have changed very little. It
is interesting to note that viticulturists selected and propagated
varieties thousands of years ago. They understood cloning techniques
and made distinctive and excellent wines for export.
The ancient Greeks had no fewer than 18 adjectives to describe wine
and the Romans made more than 80 styles. Some Roman wines were apparently
still drinkable after being stored for 200 years. They developed
many of the sophisticated viti- and vinicultural techniques still
in use today.
History of Winemaking in Michigan
A TALE OF TWO REGIONS
Michigan's winemaking history spans two centuries.
In the period just before the Civil War, disease destroyed America's
largest wine-producing region along the Ohio River near Cincinnati.
The remnants of that industry migrated to the already recognized
grape-growing region along Lake Erie. This area quickly became,
in its turn, the leading wine region in the country. By 1880, vineyards
extended past Toledo into Southeast Michigan. In 1919, there were
eight wineries near Monroe, none of which survived Prohibition.
Southwest Michigan's wine industry fared much
better. Also a recognized wine region in 1880, Southwest Michigan
received help from an unlikely source. Temperance advocate Dr. Thomas
Welch created the first "unfermented wine," as it was
originally called, for use in his church's communion service. It
quickly caught on with the public. The newly formed Welch's Grape
Juice Company encouraged planting of the Concord grapes from which
their product was made. The largest of these plantings were in Western
New York and Southwest Michigan. By 1900 Concord grapes had become
the foundation grapes of the wine industry as well. The opening
of a Welch's plant in Lawton, near Paw Paw, in 1919, helped the
area's grape growers survive Prohibition.
A TASTE OF THE TIMES
The red-skinned Concord and similar white-skinned
Niagara varieties are close relatives of vines native to eastern
North America. They are often called by their scientific name -
vitis labrusca. With our contemporary wine industry built on Cabernet
and Chardonnay, we find it hard to imagine a wine industry based
on Concord or Niagara. But this is how most American wine was made
at the turn of the century. New York, Ohio, Missouri and Michigan
were large wine producers, and nearly all the grapes used were varieties
like these. These pungent, usually sweet and often fortified wines
were extraordinarily popular. (Even California produced predominantly
sweet and fortified wines on into the 1960s!) In the 1940s and 1950s
Michigan wineries were so successful at meeting consumer demand,
that 80 percent of all wines sold in Michigan were produced in Michigan.
THE TIMES THEY ARE A'CHANGING
The 1960s saw many changes come to America, including
a change in the kinds of wines we drank. Some claim that soldiers
living in Europe adopted the local customs of drinking drier table
wines with meals. Some claim increased prosperity and travel contributed
to the process. Americans such as Julia Child, Frank Schoonmaker
and others certainly added their influence by writing about European
foods and wines. By 1968, Americans' tastes had changed enough that,
for the first time, consumers purchased more of the drier table
wines than the sweeter dessert and fortified wines.
This was a revolution in American culture. And it was a revolution
that eastern wineries in general and Michigan wineries in particular
were ill suited to accommodate. The grapes that worked so well up
until then failed miserably to make the drier table wines to which
consumers were flocking. Their biggest strength was now their biggest
weakness. Of Michigan's highly successful wineries from the 1950s
only one has survived. (The St. Julian Wine Company, under the leadership
of David Braganini, has actually thrived; becoming the fortieth
largest winery in the United States and being named Winery of the
Year 1998 by Tasters Guild.)
A NEW BEGINNING
In retrospect, this near complete housecleaning
of the Michigan wine industry forced us to evolve into a truly fine
wine industry with the ability to produce world-class wines. Other
eastern wine industries suffered, but none saw the near complete
collapse that occurred in Michigan. When our industry was rebuilt,
it was rebuilt with the right grapes and the right personnel. The
new owners and winemakers were dedicated to producing the finest
European- style table wines and planted grape varieties with this
The modern Michigan wine industry is built upon two major grape
types. Hybrid varieties, sometimes called French-American hybrids,
produce good quality table wines and are also cold-hardy and disease-resistant.
With names like Vignoles and Chambourcin, hybrids deserve to be
better known than they are. The other type includes traditional
European varieties such as Chardonnay and Merlot. These European
varieties are often referred to by their scientific name - vitis
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the first hybrid grape varieties
were introduced into Southwest Michigan. The first European varieties
were planted around 1970 on Mt. Tabor in Berrien County by Len Olsen
and Carl Banholzer. Tabor Hill Vineyard and Winery still produces
excellent wines from some of these original vines.
Southwest Michigan continues to produce large amounts of juice grapes
- enough to make Michigan the fourth largest grape-growing state.
But this area also produces about half of Michigan's wine grapes.
Growers here have found that wine grapes can be extremely profitable,
and they are increasingly ready to plant and properly care for the
more tender but valuable hybrid and vinifera varieties.
A NEW REGION
In the 1970s, an entirely new wine region was
born in northwest lower Michigan near Traverse City. On the Leelanau
Peninsula, Bernie Rink planted the first French-American hybrid
vines. Larry Mawby, Bruce Simpson and others soon followed. Over
on the Old Mission Peninsula, Ed O'Keefe became convinced - contrary
to all accepted wisdom - that Riesling and other vinifera varieties
could also be grown. He was proven correct. Today, both the Leelanau
and Old Mission peninsulas are predominantly vinifera grape regions.
Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Gewurztraminer,
Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc all vie for attention. And the number
of wineries in the area has increased from an original five to over
sixteen and continues to grow.
"A LITTLE HELP FROM OUR FRIENDS"
Important contributions to Michigan's reborn wine
industry have come from several sources. Research has been done
by Dr. G. Stanley Howell and his colleagues at Michigan State University
on the best vineyard practices, the best varieties and even the
best clones for Michigan's unique situation.
Much of this research was funded by the Michigan Grape and Wine
Industry Council, which was founded in 1985 to support the development
of the state's growing wine industry. The council is administered
by the Michigan Department of Agriculture. Among the promotional
activities coordinated by the council is an annual wine competition
where experts from around the country evaluate the latest releases.
In the past 30 years, Michigan winegrape growers,
owners, winemakers and other industry associates have revolutionized
our wine industry. To meet changing consumer preferences, today's
vintners concentrate on finding the best varieties and locations,
and utilize the latest technological advances in viticulture and
enology. With an impressive dedication to quality, they produce
excellent everyday wines as well as an increasing number of world
Some Facts about Michigan Wine
- Michigan has 14,600 acres of vineyards making
it the 4th largest grape-growing state.
- Most of this acreage is devoted to juice grapes
such as Concord and Niagara.
- About 2,000 acres are devoted to wine grapes,
making it 8th in wine grape production.
- Vineyard area has increased more than 60% in the last ten years (as of 2009).
- Michigan's 64 commercial wineries produce more than 1 million gallons of wine annually, making it 13th in wine production.
- The vast majority of our production is from
Three types of grapes are used for wine in Michigan:
- Vinifera varieties - these are the classic
European varieties such as Chardonnay, Riesling (the most widely
planted white), Pinot Noir (the most widely planted red), Pinot
Grigio/Gris and Cabernet Franc; about 65% of Michigan's wine grapes
are vinifera. Since 1997, 90% of the new plantings in Michigan
have been vinifera varieties.
- Hybrid varieties (sometimes called French/American
hybrids) - these are botanical crosses between vinifera varieties
and grapes native to North America. Typical names are Vidal, Chambourcin,
Marechal Foch and Vignoles; about 35% of Michigan's wine grapes are
- Native varieties - actually close relatives
of true native varieties. Typical names are Concord and Niagara.
About 3% of Michigan's wine is made from these varieties.
Most of Michigan's quality wine grapes grow within
25 miles of Lake Michigan. Here, the "lake effect" protects
the vines with snow in winter, retards bud break in spring helping
avoid frost damage, and extends the growing season by up to four
Michigan has 4 federally approved viticultural
areas (AVAs). In the northwest part of the state, near Traverse
City, lie the Leelanau Peninsula and the Old Mission Peninsula.
This area has a growing season averaging 145 days and an average
heat accumulation of 2,350 growing degree days; 51% of Michigan's
wine grapes grow here. In the southwest part of the state lie the
Lake Michigan Shore and Fennville appellations, where 45% of Michigan's
wine grapes are grown. This area has a growing season averaging
160 days and an average heat accumulation of 2,750 growing degree
days. Both are Region 6 on the USDA plant hardiness zone map.
Michigan wineries make many styles of wine, from
dry to sweet including Ice Wine, sparkling, fortified, fruit wines
and eau-de-vie (fruit brandy).
Michigan wines are typically "cool
climate" - clean, crisp, balanced wines that exhibit real varietal