Di-Vine women: Three women stake a claim in regional wine industry

Nod if this scene sounds familiar: You're in the grocery store, en route to the dinner party, standing in the wine aisle, wondering what to bring.

If you're like most people, you don't choose on price, brand or even variety. Rather, you pick the wine with the label you like.

"All of the research says it's the No. 1 reason people buy wine. Labels are the first thing they go after," says Emily Ulbrich, a freelance wine label designer and packager in Traverse City and one of three women in wine you'll meet in this column.

Ulbrich, who worked in every aspect of the wine business, including winemaking, at Peninsula Cellars before leaving last May, learned her trade on the job. Back in 2002, Peninsula decided it didn't like the professional label redesign it had hired out. Ulbrich recalls making an unfavorable comment herself. The next day, a Mac was waiting for her.

"I sat down and figured it out," said Ulbrich, whose clients now include her former employer, Left Foot Charley, owned by winemaker brother Bryan Ulbrich, and Gills Pier in Northport. She designed a completely new label package for Gills Pier for its 2007 vintage, its first since 2000.

So how does Ulbrich, 31, decide what's going to appeal to that late-to-the-dinner-party shopper? First, she drinks the wine as it develops. That, she says, helps her see colors that she might incorporate. While it might sound a little like Barbara Walters, she also queries the winery about what kind of song or musician they liken their wine to.

"That helps me get a general feel…do they want something really flashy, or something a little bit mellower," she said.

Gills Pier, for instance, likened their wine to a Tom Petty song, she said.

Then there are practical considerations: bottle color and shape. A label that scores on a clear bottle can flop on a green one, she said.

Finally, there's her basic heart for the business.

"I love being involved in the wine industry," she said. "I don't think I could design labels for shampoo bottles."

At Gills Pier, Ulbrich's chief contact is wine woman No. 2, Kris Sterkenberg. She co-owns the boutique winery that opened its tasting room in 2003 with her husband, Ryan. Previously a suburban stay-at-home mom to her now-teenage children, Sterkenberg jumped into the day-to-day management of the winery and tasting room while her husband handles the vineyard.

"We wanted an agriculturally-based business," said Sterkenberg, 41. The family previously lived in Milwaukee, but both parents wanted to exchange city life for a family business where their two children can help out and learn the value of hard work.

Hard work it has been. Sterkenberg wants to know every facet of the business. To that end, she's "hoed every row" of their four-acre vineyard, learned how to staff and run a tasting room, and learned the basics of retail, wholesale and direct sales.

After starting with just two wines, Gills Pier is now up to eight. Bryan Ulbrich is their contracted winemaker. Sterkenberg last year dipped her toe into winemaking, too, training with Ulbrich through harvest season. She's now again concentrating on the business end of Gills Pier operations, as well as her family.

Co-owner and sommelier at Trattoria Stella in Traverse City, Amanda Danielson has carved out a special niche for Michigan wines within the restaurant's wine cellar. Of the 40 to 50 wines Stella serves by the glass, Danielson tries to keep a dozen Michigan selections – a relatively high proportion. But she's no cheerleader. The wines have to measure up to the standards she's developed as a master sommelier candidate – a credential held by only 150 people.

"It's a pretty rigorous process. We have a reputation for wine, and for fine wine," Danielson, 32, said. "We don't sell them 'Buy a local wine.' We highlight them as being local but we also showcase them as being world-class."

Four other Stella staff members have taken introductory sommelier exams and are working on their next level of credential, creating a depth of wine expertise in the restaurant.

Stella also hosts an annual dinner that serves as the release party for Old Mission vintages. This year's event is set for June 12. Danielson believes Michigan wine drinkers have a lot to look forward to.

"There are some new wineries and some of the wines we'll see in the next six, eight months will rival anything we've ever produced up here," she said.

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.