Michigan wineries could find a sweet home in Chicago

A bill now awaiting the governor's signature could be a boon for Michigan wineries.

It's not Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm whose penstroke is hoped for, however, but that of her Democratic counterpart at the other end of Lake Michigan, Gov. Rod Blagojevich of Illinois.

On Aug. 7, a bill allowing out-of-state wineries to purchase licenses that would allow them to ship directly to Illinois residents cleared both Democrat-controlled houses of that state's Legislature.

So what? Michigan wineries may now be able to get subsequent sales out of the Chicago tourists who visit the wineries. Since a late 2005 Supreme Court decision cleared the way for direct interstate shipping, states have been gradually drafting permit processes that dictates how it will happen. Clearance to ship into the huge Chicago market would be "good news" for Michigan wineries, says Don Coe of Black Star Farms.

Coe was front and center on direct shipping as it worked its way up to the Supreme Court and during the subsequent debate in Lansing over how, exactly, to allow it to proceed. Not surprisingly, Black Star Farms now leads all Michigan wineries in terms of direct shipping volume, according to a 2006 Michigan Liquor Control Commission report.

The report doesn't break down intra- and interstate shipping, but Coe said Black Star ships to about a dozen states, plans to add Illinois, and eventually others.

"There are many state legislatures that have not dealt yet with establishing a permit system," he said. "It's a little burdensome and there's reporting requirements, but we're willing to do that."

While Black Star leads in direct shipping volume, on a percentage basis other wineries ship more out of state. Top of the list is Cherry Republic-which would probably surprise many wine drinkers who aren't aware of the Glen Arbor all-things-cherry catalog powerhouse. Close behind is Old Mission's Brys Estate.

The opportunity also looms at a time when the larger Traverse City tourism community is trying hard to lure Chicagolanders away from Wisconsin, their customary playground.

"That is a very important market for us," said Mike Norton of the Traverse City Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The most recent data from Travel Michigan, the state's official tourism agency, isn't good. Only 3 percent of visitors in the Traverse City area were from Chicago in 2002-04.

"We have our work cut out for us," acknowledged Norton, who with CVB and National Cherry Festival colleagues has paid several visits to the Windy City. "It is shocking how very little people know about northern Michigan."

But Norton described the CVB's efforts as "very aggressive" and added that direct shipping could be helpful, since Chicago tourists tend to be more sophisticated and interested in the food and wine scene.

Gov. Blagojevich now has 60 days to sign the bill into law-or not. While he's a Democrat too, a signature is not guaranteed, as there was some controversy over it. Tune in again in October.

As harvest approaches, the region's wine community will have its collective eyes on something besides the vine-the race between three Leelanau wineries to be the first sold on the open market in Michigan.

Bel Lago, Chateau de Leelanau and Willow Vineyards all went on the market earlier this year. Dan Matthies of Peninsula Properties, a Leelanau real estate brokerage specializing in vineyards and wineries, who last month had taken deposit money from one buyer, now says he has written formal offers for both Willow and Bel Lago. Matthies also listed Bel Lago, priced at $3.95 million. Willow is listed at Real Estate One in Suttons Bay for $2.35 million.

Meanwhile, after being listed with Matthies earlier this year for $4.2 million, Chateau de Leelanau switched strategies and is now being auctioned by Century Asset Management in Maple City. Suggested starting bid is $3.5 million, and bids will be accepted through Sept. 30, said Dennis Kubesh, president and chief auctioneer.

Kubesh said he's working with four prospective customers, all from out of state.

"The response has been relatively positive although nobody has at this point stepped up to the plate," Kubesh said. "They are doing their homework."

Some vine-kickers are new to the wine industry and some are established, looking at Chateau de Leelanau as an additional production site. If an established winery does buy it, Kubesh said it's unlikely they'd continue to operate the two leased tasting room sites, one five miles south of Suttons Bay and the other in Frankenmuth.

Kubesh hopes to have initial bids by Sept. 1.

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.