Michigan Grapevine: Business aims to convert Michigan wine skeptics into buyers

It's a beautiful northern Michigan evening. Jazz drifts from the radio. Eddie Baur sips a glass of pinot noir from Lemon Creek, a small winery in southwest Michigan.

"I'm always sampling," he says, settling back behind his laptop in a cramped, concrete-block, fluorescent-lit office in an industrial development on Cass Road in Traverse City. Sometimes working late isn't so bad.

Baur's office and adjacent warehouse are the home of Mitten Wine Logistics, the distributorship he and partner Scott Fochtman founded in April 2006 to focus exclusively on Michigan wines. The pair has dedicated their savings, workaholic attitudes and belief in Michigan wine into Mitten, aiming to put Michigan wines in front of consumers, especially in the Detroit area.

"We believe Michigan wine is up there in the best of the world, and it should be on the table of every Michigan diner, whether he's at a restaurant or at home, with no chagrin," said Baur, who's cultivated that belief over more than 35 years in the industry. He spent 18 years heading Wicksall Distributors' wine division, managed state and national sales at Chateau Grand Traverse and also owned Jack's Market in Traverse City for eight years.

But standing between most of Michigan's 50 wineries and those customers is a system tailored to mass distribution. With a few exceptions- notably Chateau Grand Traverse and Leelanau Cellars in the northwest and Tabor Hill and St. Julian wineries in the southwest-most Michigan wineries are low-volume producers that don't hit the radar screen of distributors and retailers and customers. According to the state Liquor Control Commission, Michigan wines constituted just 5.2 percent of all wine sales in the state in calendar year 2006.

That's up from just 1.5 percent 10 years ago, and 3.5 percent in 2001. But relatively speaking, there's plenty of market share to go after, especially considering that total wine sales accounted for only 7.5 percent of all alcohol sales in fiscal 2006.

Baur and Fochtman think they can help wineries grab some of that market share. The business model is simple: They buy inventory from 14 client wineries outright. It's then delivered to about 300 retail accounts around the state, most in the Detroit area.

"How we work this is one of us is on the road selling, and one of us is on the road delivering," said Fochtman, who comes from an auto parts sales background that he's been happy to apply to wine.

On the retail side, they take a personal approach, seeking out high-end independent markets with knowledgeable wine staff willing to showcase Michigan wines instead of mixing them in with other brands.

"We don't want the customer looking at 50 chardonnays. We're very selective," Baur says.

Not everyone's been eager at first. Baur and Fochtman turn Michigan wine skeptics into converts by doing actual tastings with the sommeliers and wine department buyers.

"No one ever presented Michigan wine the way Eddie has," says Susan Cosenza, sommelier and wine buyer at Joe's Produce in Livonia. Since becoming a Mitten client, her store's Michigan stock has shot up from four wineries to a dozen, with more than 74 different varieties.

With results like that, Mitten foresees major growth, predicting half of Michigan's 50 wineries will be clients by its second anniversary. In June, Baur relocated to Plymouth to establish an initial Detroit-area base, while Fochtman continues to work out of the Cass Road warehouse space. Later this fall they plan a bonded warehouse in the Detroit area.

Baur estimates that Mitten's clientele is presently split 85-15 percent between retail and restaurant accounts. But he's aiming for a 60-40 split eventually.

"The next stage is to go to the restaurateurs," he said.

One restaurant that's already showcasing Michigan wines is the Whitney, a Detroit landmark. Master sommelier Claudia Tyagi has seven Michigan wineries on her menu, including three northwest Michigan whites poured by the glass: Larry Mawby's Blanc de Blanc sparkling wine, Peninsula Cellars' 2005 pinot grigio, and Bowers Harbor's 2005 Langley vineyard riesling.

Tyagi, who works the restaurant floor in addition to overseeing the wine list, says that every week she's able to recommend a Michigan wine. She says not all Michigan wine is good, but that the good stuff is very good.

She believes that restaurateurs and sommeliers should take the initiative and risk to put Michigan wines on their menus.

"It's a color within the lines and connect the dots mentality as far as wine goes," she said of wine lists dominated by California, France and Italy. "As a sommelier, I've always thought my job is to be a trend setter, not a trend follower.

"There's no dearth of fine wine in Michigan, but it does take a little bit of extra work. The representatives are not knocking your doors down," she said.

Baur, however, plans a conversation soon.

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