Michigan-Grown Vines Take Root at Commercial Venture

Next year at this time, Tom Greyerbiehl hopes to have a new type of grapevine planted in his Benzie County vineyard.

It could come not from out-of-state nurseries where he’s purchased vines before, but from the local operations of Campbell Milarch Vines, LLC.

The Copemish-based venture, a partnership between Black Star Farms owner Kerm Campbell and nurseryman Jake Milarch, is offering up an alternative to vines traditionally sourced from other states: commercially produced vines grown in Michigan and propagated from plants that have led to award-winning wines, or, that are the customers’ own plantings.

Greyerbiehl, for example, is looking to have Campbell Milarch produce about 1,000 plants from some of his young vineyard’s proven and hardy vines. It’s a prospect, he said, that might be “a pretty good recipe for further success of our vineyard.”

Since launching Campbell Milarch Vines in 2012, the two partners have brought resources and expertise to bear to move forward – from concept to proof to production – an idea that’s drawing interest from those in and around the industry.

“This is something completely new,” said Karel Bush, executive director of the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council. “The wine comes from the grapes, and the grapes come from the vines. This gets right to the bottom line, the source of the wines.”

Now starting to commercially market its Truly MI Vines, Campbell Milarch Vines is taking orders for spring 2018 planting and plans by September of next year to have produced and delivered 30,000 vines to customers like vineyards that grow grapes sold to wineries, and wineries that have their own vineyards.

Marcel Lenz, vineyard manager at Leelanau Cellars, said he has talked with Campbell Milarch and is interested in “learning a little more about what they’re doing. If the quality is there, and I suspect it is, we would love to buy some vines from them.”

He said there could be inherent advantages to using Campbell Milarch as a source, including local accessibility and the possibility to propagate vines that reflect the region’s unique characteristics. Lenz said the grape and wine industry in northern Michigan, and Michigan overall, is now well-established and could benefit from such a venture.

“We are now at a point where we’ve demonstrated now for a long time that we can produce quality grapes, and make excellent wines,” he said. “I like the idea of self-sufficiency as much as possible. The industry needs to have its own nursery where we can produce our own vines.”

The Process

Campbell Milarch’s vines start by collecting scions, or the fruiting part of a vine, from vines grown on the more than 100 acres of producing vineyard that Campbell owns on the Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas. Scions can also be collected from a customer’s vineyard. The scions are gathered in the winter and grafted onto stick-like rootstock, which in about a month forms roots and is soon potted in small biodegradable containers, ready by early June for vineyard planting.

The process is designed to deliver a cold-hardy vine that is growing and leafy, as compared with vines ordered from out of state that arrive dormant and are bare root plants that need to establish new roots.

“This plant is already green and growing when you put it in June 1,” Milarch said.

Planting the Idea

For Milarch, the venture is an extension of his life pursuits and knowledge. A certified arborist specializing in tree preservation, restoration and removal, he is a director at Archangel Ancient Tree Archive in Copemish, a nonprofit led by Milarch’s father, David, that seeks to preserve and propagate some of the world’s oldest and largest trees, cloning them and planting the new trees.

Campbell and Milarch formed Campbell Milarch Vines a couple years after a happenstance meeting on a plane flight introduced the two and eventually led to further discussions about Campbell’s interest in having vines cloned.

“Jake was an ideal partner with me because he had all of the knowledge of working with tissue and grafting and everything else, and had a love of what he was doing,” Campbell said. “And I had access to 100 acres of vines that I owned myself.”

Milarch said that at the time, with Archangel, he had been “climbing redwoods and giant sequoias…and cloning those, which are some of the biggest plants on the planet and they were thousands of years old. I thought this would be something fairly easy, compared to that.”

He said it’s been an opportunity for him to take his “lifelong passion for plants to the next level” and apply his knowledge and intuition, and diversify his skill set.

Working over the last several years to prove that a vine that produces vinifera grape varieties like chardonnay and pinot gris can be propagated locally, Campbell has provided financial backing and Milarch said there’s been “sweat equity” invested by himself and his wife Amanda, “believing that something valuable” would transpire.

From the Ground Up

A $19,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture grant in 2015, matched with $19,000 from Campbell, paid for a business plan, marketing plan and feasibility study, said grant writer Heather Fortin, owner of Traverse City grant writing and business consulting firm Clockwork Consulting. Newly part of the Campbell Milarch team as sales and marketing manager, Fortin’s background includes serving as a startup consultant and grant manager for Bonobo Winery and as the northern Michigan program director for the MidMichigan Innovation Center, a Midland-based business incubator.

A second grant came earlier this year, through the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, or MDARD. The $140,400 grant, matched with $54,600 from co-owner Campbell, is helping Campbell Milarch Vines move toward the next step of commercially producing and selling its Truly MI Vines.

Fortin said the MDARD grant will help pay for numerous areas, including: development of a website; an additional grafting machine; vine-related materials and supplies; office equipment; attendance and a booth at the annual Michigan Grape and Wine Conference; bookkeeping services; salaries; and hiring four student interns from Northwestern Michigan College.

The interns could be involved in a variety of steps, including harvesting the rootstocks and collecting scion and working in the greenhouse on production. It “would be great if they were there for the whole process, from December to June,” said Amanda Milarch. Husband Jake said the interns may also help out in Campbell’s Leelanau Peninsula vineyard, “so they understand what goes into working an active vineyard.”

At NMC, the interns will be under the purview of Brian Matchett, Michigan State University Institute of Agricultural Technology program coordinator at the college. He said the business venture and the opportunities created are a “seamless fit” for students enrolled in the fruit and vegetable crop management or viticulture programs that are a joint offering of the MSU institute and NMC.

He said the students’ Truly MI Vines work could not only count as the programs’ required professional internships in agricultural technology, but it also provides valuable exposure to operations from grafting to vineyard management – and, to a business as it grows.

“Not often is there an opportunity to be involved in a business startup like this, especially one that is meeting such a unique segment of the agricultural industry that is not being met in Michigan,” Matchett said.

He said Campbell and Milarch bring much toward the business’ ultimate success.

“The expertise and resources that those two have collectively, is a hard thing to find,” Matchett said. “They have the full package that’s needed to make the venture successful.”

The Grape and Wine Industry Council’s Bush, who wrote a letter in support of Campbell Milarch Vines’ request for the MDARD grant, said the venture fits with council goals that including expanding and sustaining workforce – as seen in “giving these students an opportunity to be part of this project and learn from the ground up” – and increasing Michigan grape vine plantings and acreage.

Campbell, who has thousands of Campbell Milarch Vines’ prototype grapevines growing in his Leelanau County vineyard, said his initial thought in the venture “was providing my own plants, for expanding my vineyard, not making it into a commercial venture.”

But he said he saw the future opportunity it presented and a “way to help the whole state of Michigan as vineyards grow across the state.”

Said Campbell: “Where a good wine starts, is in the field.”

At Greyerbiehl Vineyard LLC in Frankfort, owner Greyerbiehl is hoping to have scions from his pinot gris, chardonnay and cabernet franc vines grafted onto Campbell Milarch rootstock. He’s purchased dormant vines from nurseries in New York, Washington and California in the past, but said receiving vines already leafed out could gain “a years’ worth of growth, putting ourselves in a better position for the success of the vineyard.”

Amy Lane is a freelance journalist and former reporter for Crain’s Detroit Business, where she covered business, state government, energy and utilities for nearly 25 years.