Petoskey Wine Region Debuts

From his post as president of the newly named Petoskey Wine Region, Dustin Stabile sees wineries working together and aiming higher.

“We’re trying to turn this into a destination, where people are making plans to come to Petoskey … we want them coming here to Petoskey for the wineries,” said Stabile, also head of production at his family’s Mackinaw Trail Winery & Brewery and a member of the Michigan Craft Beverage Council. “We don’t want to be the secondary reason for coming here; we want to be the sole reason to come to Petoskey. That takes time.”

And help. Along with the wineries’ sweat equity, state grants and a branding veteran who once worked on the state’s award-winning Pure Michigan tourism campaign, the Petoskey Wine Region wants to raise its profile.

Stretching along Lake Michigan through portions of Antrim, Charlevoix, and Emmet counties, the region includes 12 wineries. Once known as the Bay View Wine Trail, the group is rolling out a mobile app, brochure, video and other measures to promote the area, its grapes and wines.

Initial backing has come from a $100,000 federally funded grant through the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD), awarded last fall. The grant paved the way for a variety of activities aimed at increasing awareness of Michigan’s newest federally recognized grape-growing area – the Tip of the Mitt American Viticulture Area (AVA), yielding grapes that thrive in cold temperatures – and wines and wineries within the region.

Organizers hope to ultimately boost the sales, profitability and sustainability of an industry that in Antrim, Emmet and Charlevoix counties alone, as of 2017 had a direct economic impact of almost $16.9 million, according to a study for the then-Michigan Grape & Wine Industry Council. The 2017 study, conducted by economic research firm John Dunham & Associates in Brooklyn, New York, also cited a tourism impact in those same counties of nearly $7.4 million. That figure reflects spending by winery and vineyard visitors at establishments like restaurants, hotels, shops and attractions, said managing partner John Dunham.

Katie Potts, owner of an artisan cut-to-order cheese shop in downtown Petoskey, knows wineries’ impact. Potts wrote a letter attached to the region’s MDARD grant application and said she could attribute approximately 10 percent of her Petoskey Cheese shop sales to wineries in the area. That includes supplying food – like custom cheese plates for winery tasting rooms and flatbread pizzas cooked onsite at Rudbeckia Farm and Winery – as well as word-of-mouth referrals, she said.

Potts said in the “small-knit-type” community, she has gotten to know a lot of the winery owners. “We refer a lot of people to the trail, and they refer people to us downtown,” she said.

“If someone’s coming up from Detroit and they come to Rudbeckia and they buy a bottle of wine and they have a flatbread pizza when they are there,” Potts said, that benefits the winery and “then some of those same customers will come into our store. It’s a win-win.”

She said the region’s rebranding and heightened visibility stands to help local businesses. “The more excuses we have to bring people specifically to the Petoskey region … the more our economy can thrive,” Potts said.

And marketing that highlights the AVA’s newness is a smart move, she said. “That puts a fun and trendy twist on it. That does allow us to be a little different than Traverse City,” Potts said.

The AVA, established in 2016, encompasses 2,760 square miles through Alpena, Antrim, Charlevoix, Cheboygan, Emmet and Presque Isle counties and is the furthest north of five AVAs in Michigan.

For the Petoskey Wine Region lying in AVA’s western part, a central rebranding goal has been to create a distinct impression. From a brochure that lays out the wine region’s “story all its own” to a video portraying similar sentiment, words and images sell visitor experience: wineries’ personal hospitality and award-winning wines, beauty of natural surroundings, unique and diverse small towns.

It “follows along the line of someplace where you want to go to relax and enjoy and have a wonderful time,” said Vickie Wysokinski, who wrote the MDARD grant and with family owns Rudbeckia in Petoskey.

No surprise that there might be a familiar feel to what Wysokinski called “magic messaging”: Hired to brand and position the region was Danny Fellin, a freelance brand development and communication strategy professional whose background spans several Detroit-area ad agencies and includes work on the Pure Michigan campaign.

Fellin, once lead brand strategist for McCann Detroit client Michigan Economic Development Corp., was part of a team that won the marketing industry’s Effie award for Pure Michigan. He was also experienced in consumer products and retail.

“Danny Fellin had no knowledge in the wine business but that’s not what we were hiring him for,” said Stabile. “We were hiring him for his knowledge [in] branding.”

Birmingham-based Fellin, who is on the board of the Walloon Lake Association and has a house in the area, said he began by going to each of the wineries and talking with principals about their growth, challenges, customers and issues they faced, immersing himself in their businesses. The brand story that ultimately emerged seeks to define the region to visitors and strike a chord.

“It’s about making an emotional connection with the place you’re talking about,” Fellin said. “When you travel someplace, you’re looking for the experience.”

Fellin said he wrote copy for the brochure and tapped colleagues to assist in other work while providing guidance and counsel in things like the wine trail’s name-change and a new logo. Wysokinski managed the logo-design process, utilizing a global creative platform design contest that drew 156 designs from 30 freelance designers.

A May event at the Great Lakes Center for the Arts in Petoskey showcased the region’s new persona and tools – a coming-out party that included a presentation and pitch to representatives from local lodging establishments, restaurants, retail businesses and others who might serve as “ambassadors” for the wine region and its wineries.

“We are all here to work together, and us succeeding means them succeeding, and vice-versa,” said Stabile.
Peter Anastor, director of MDARD’s agriculture development division, said the effort to engage other businesses and gain their buy-in has value.

“I think the more people you have sharing that vision and spreading that word and talking about it is definitely going to have a big impact,” he said.

The MDARD grant comes via a U.S. Department of Agriculture program designed to enhance the competitiveness of specialty crops through a variety of activities including research, marketing and promotion. The Petoskey Wine Region project fit nicely, Anastor said.

“Drive more use of those grapes is kind of the ultimate goal that we have,” he said.

Anastor said the marketing effort has good potential to help wineries and grape growers in the AVA.

“I think the more that people can appreciate the wines being made [with the grapes], obviously that’s going to increase the awareness and opportunities for people to make sales in those areas,” he said.

The region has received an additional $37,500 grant from the Michigan Craft Beverage Council for further advertising and promotion. Future plans include an invitation-only event in 2020 for high-level regional and national wine and travel writers to come to the area.

Stabile said there’s a lot of momentum for wineries that he hopes will continue. “I feel like we’re really on the cusp of great things for our region,” he said.

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.