Another winery squeezes in. And, will paid tastings become legal?

A fourth new winery is slated to open up north this year, in addition to the three others that have already announced plans (Two Lads on Old Mission and Circa Estate Winery and Forty-Five North in Leelanau.) Silver Leaf Vineyard and Winery, owned by former Chicagoans Mark and Patti Carlson, plans to open its tasting room doors near Suttons Bay this summer – even though it won't have its first crush until fall.

Mark Carlson's been a "cellar rat" at Chateau de Leelanau since the couple moved to Leelanau County three years ago and planted their grapes, three acres of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Since Silver Leaf doesn't have its winemaking license yet, it will buy wine from Chateau de Leelanau and possibly others, label it as Silver Leaf, and sell it at their tasting room. The '08 vintage will then be made on premises, with Carlson as winemaker.

Also a recruiter for the financial services industry, Carlson said he's "a little nervous" about joining the thriving local wine community, but the couple has ambitious plans. They want to expand their vineyards, private label jams and jellies made with local fruit, and eventually host weddings on their site.

After two years at Mutual Farm Management, vineyard consultant Craig Cunningham is back on his own again, as proprietor of Cunningham Viticultural Services, LLC. Prior to Mutual, he owned Vine Care.

"The region has enough work to support another vineyard management outfit," besides Mutual and Dan Matthies' Big Paw Vineyard Services, Cunningham said.

With his new business, Cunningham said he is focusing on premium customers located on quality sites. Rather than commercial wineries, his customers are mostly residential property owners who "landscape with grapes," Cunningham said. Besides planting and maintaining vineyards, he serves as a liaison with local winemakers, who custom bottle the small quantities involved for private consumption.

"These people want a limited amount of wine that's grown on their land," Cunningham said. His customers also serve as a kind of research and development arm for the industry, he said. Without a business interest to protect, they can afford to experiment.

"They're the ones willing to try varieties," he said. "We learn a lot about what varieties grow where."

Both Cunningham and Doug Matthies say that the trend is to try reds. Matthies, who has planted 200 acres on Leelanau County and now manages about 100, says his new vineyards are split almost 50-50 between red and white varieties. Five years ago, only about 10 percent were reds.

"In the future, smart wineries will have (reds) in their repertoire," Matthies said.

An effort to allow paid tastings in Michigan has begun a slow plod toward possibility. Michigan Agriculture Commission/Black Star Farms managing partner Don Coe in February proposed allowing wineries to set a voluntary tasting charge, which would require amending Michigan liquor control code. Coe's now seeking the sponsorship of state Sen. Michelle McManus, R-Lake Leelanau, who went to bat for the wineries a few years ago on the direct shipping issue.

McManus said she is now doing "due diligence" on the issue.

"We're now listening to the other wineries to be sure they're on the same page," she said. "This has to be an industry-wide supported effort."

Other wineries, including Leelanau Cellars and Chateau Chantal, have said they do not favor charging for tasting. However, if the legislation made it voluntary, that would theoretically keep everyone happy.

Current liquor law does allow wineries to charge via a back-door method of charging for accompanying food. Information collected from wineries by the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council shows that 22 of 55 wineries already have some form of a fee.

The information was to be included in the 2008 edition of Wine Country Magazine, the tourist-oriented publication the industry produces annually and distributes statewide. But the fee structure was too variable to present clearly. Some wineries allow a few free tastings, then impose a charge. Others charge for premium wines, like ice wine, while most remain free.

Black Star alone illustrates the patchwork situation. Its original winery south of Suttons Bay charges for a glass. Its Tastes of Black Star Farms tasting room at the Grand Traverse Commons in Traverse City charges for food. Its Old Mission tasting room doesn't charge at all since local zoning prohibits it.

Lastly, some column news: Beginning this month, Michigan Grapevine is also appearing monthly on www.crainsdetroit.com, the online site of Crain's Detroit Business. Look for it in the Business Lives section.

Cari Noga has covered Michigan's grape and wine industry since 1999. Read her blog at www.michgrapevine.com. Send news and story ideas to her at cari@michgrapevine.com.

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