Getting Michigan wines into more glasses tough in penny-pinching environment

Imagine the car industry today if it hadn't started selling cars beyond Detroit. Or Steelcase beyond Grand Rapids. Or Jiffy Mix beyond Chelsea. While Michigan's wine industry is thriving in terms of number of wineries, it's barely begun to tap into the gi-normous global wine market. A key to changing that is to get Michigan wines onto restaurant wine lists as glass pours. The lower price point of a glass vs. a bottle serves as a low-risk invitation to customers to try out something unfamiliar.

At the third annual Northern Michigan Wine Summit, held April 27 in Traverse City, I chatted with three sommeliers about the conundrum of getting Michigan wines into more glasses. All are serious fans of Michigan wines, but said limited quantities and higher prices constrain how many they can offer by the glass.

"The quality is there. (But) sometimes I can't make a good business decision," said Patrick Peterson, sommelier at Coach Insignia, atop the Renaissance Center. "In this economy, you're trying to get (cost) down."

"This is Detroit, and we're in a new economic climate, so I'm definitely looking to ease the pain for people," agreed Claudia Tyagi, a master sommelier and wine consultant in the metro area whose clients have included The Whitney in Detroit and SideBar in Southfield.

Both Peterson and Tyagi said palatable glass pour prices range from $8 to $15.

Another conundrum is a prejudice Michigan customers seem to bring, despite the locavore trend of eating and drinking what's grown and made close to home. Tyagi said international or more urban diners are far more receptive to trying a Michigan wine than locals.

"We have to get our local people to drink our wines, like Londoners or New Yorkers," she said. "We have to start taking the message downstate: This is wine country."

Some have their ambitions set even higher.

"My mission is to take this to the west coast," said Elizabeth Schweitzer, a Detroit native and master sommelier now living in southern California.

Owner of a consulting company called Wine, Wisdom and Wit, Schweitzer said restaurant owners also must commit to serving local wines. She said she was disappointed at the lack of Michigan wines she'd seen on Traverse City-area restaurant wine lists, and had instead been drinking Michigan beer on her trip.

"Take a stand. 'This is what I have by the glass,'" she said. "The Michigan economy could certainly use another agricultural product that brings in money and jobs."

In fact, more money and jobs just might make for a few more restaurant customers.

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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