Michigan can learn from Mawby and Laing

Over and over, we hear that Michigan's auto industry is headed for a mortal turning point in 2009. Drastic retooling is necessary or the not-so Big Three face bankruptcy, then extinction. And for Michigan's economy and the thousands of auto employees who still remain here, the consequences are monumental.

Looking at the enormity of all that, the story of one small Michigan winery's new partnership –Larry Mawby's with Stuart Laing, announced in January – may not seem relevant, let alone instructive. But I think it offers insight into how adversity and change can, in fact, transform for the better.

First, the numbers and details. The partnership allows Mawby, one of the region's wine pioneers, and Laing to move into a new building in Suttons Bay, where production of the original, pricier, bottle fermented, L. Mawby brand will grow from 3,500 cases to 5,000. That site has room for another building of similar size, Mawby says, allowing for more future growth. He'll oversee

Back at the original winery on Elm Valley Road, where the tasting room will remain, Laing will oversee an eventual tripling of the newer – as in just five years old – less-expensive, tank-fermented M. Lawrence line, from 5,000 to 15,000 cases. Mawby will remain winemaker for both lines, with increasing help from Laing's son Mike with M. Lawrence.

The lessons many in Michigan might learn from are four: Calculated risk can lead to golden opportunity. Don't be afraid to try something new. An environmental conscience – not just marketing it – can truly help the bottom line. And partnerships are preferred to going it alone.

Let's start with the calculated risk. Mawby debuted M. Lawrence in 2003, in the wake of a winter freeze that killed 80 percent of his grape crop. In 2006 I profiled him for a national wine trade magazine. At the time, he told me, he was in a growth phase and needed to find another source of fruit. He found what he wanted in California.

To preserve the integrity of the L. Mawby brand, which uses strictly Leelanau County fruit, he started the M. Lawrence line. As the numbers indicate, it's gone from zero to nearly 60 percent of his sales.

"My response to a crop failure was to expand," Mawby said then.

Lesson No. 2 pertains to Laing and his wife Sharon. As Michigan's economy changes, a lot of people here will find themselves doing things they've never done before. Since change is scary, many people just let new things happen to them rather than deliberately seeking the next opportunity, as the Laings did. He's retired from the steel industry and they decided to plant a vineyard – not exactly a typical path.

With three harvests behind them now, and Sharon Laing's experience working in Mawby's tasting room, they're a lot more experienced than they used to be. But they still enter into this partnership with more to learn than known.

"We don't know how to make wine," said Laing. "You have to take a leap of faith, I guess."

Third, the environmental lesson. The future Suttons Bay home of L. Mawby is new to Mawby and Laing, but it's not a new building — built five years ago and now serving as a warehouse for the Suttons Bay Department of Public Works. The "adaptive reuse" as Mawby calls it, fits right in with his environmental philosophies, which include wind energy in the winery, all-electronic customer mailings (no paper) and an electric company car.

Making wine away from a vineyard is something that could make a lot of sense as Michigan's economy evolves from its manufacturing origins, vacating large, open buildings. Mawby becomes the second in the area to do so, following Bryan Ulbrich at Left Foot Charley, who moved his tanks and barrels into the abandoned laundry facility at the old state hospital. Now Mawby revamps a warehouse.

"It's a bit the Champagne model of pressing grapes near the vineyard, then bringing juice into the urban area for wine production – a sensible land use strategy, I think," Mawby says.

Lastly, the partnership. Talk of this seems to have a psychological effect downstate – will the Big Three become Two? Have they already? Well, if it helps longevity and prosperity overall, why not?

Mawby frankly says he needed a partner to grow.

"We have not had the capacity to sell M. Lawrence as broadly in chain stores as we should have, hope to correct that with this expansion," he said. Laing has high hopes for Internet distribution and sales.

"But you can't tap those when you can't produce enough wine," he said.

There's also the partnership of Stuart and Sharon Laing.

"You can't just jump. You have to do some homework and preparation. But don't be afraid. As long as you and your spouse are together, you'll be all right," Stuart Laing said.

The road ahead for Mawby and Laing won't be devoid of bumps. But their attitudes and anticipation of inevitable change could perhaps model how Michigan might smooth out the rough road it now faces.

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