Plotting a new course for wine growers; Leelanau legal battles in holding patterns

Research and development in the Michigan wine industry is at a key juncture, and there's a new leader steering the way forward.

Italian Paolo Sabbatini is the new head of viticulture at Michigan State University. With a research and extension appointment that includes field work at MSU's horticultural research station in Leelanau County, his task is to help growers identify the grape varieties best suited to Michigan's cool climate and short growing season.

That's especially important given the industry's rapid recent growth. Michigan's 50-some wineries squeeze virtually every grape grown in the state-and want a lot more. The Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council, the promotional division of the state department of agriculture, wants 10,000 acres planted by 2024.

That's an ambitious aim, given that less than 20 percent of that is in the ground now. What's even more daunting is that the best spots for vineyards-sloping terrain close to Lake Michigan-are already taken.

"So we have to work to find if there are other places where vinifera can do well," Sabbatini, 39, said on a recent trip to the Northwest Horticultural Research Station in Leelanau County.

To that end, Sabbatini has two projects on tap:

– Next spring he'll plant a trial one-acre plot at both the Leelanau and a southwest research station. Consisting of 52 different varieties, divided about 50-50 between red and white, it will compare what are already core varieties for the region and new ones believed to have potential. Contenders include two Italian red varieties, Dolcetto and Barbera, and Albarino, a Spanish white.

– A collaborative map developed with a cross-disciplinary MSU team including soil scientists and meteorologists. When complete, the map will analyze weather data, soil conditions and proposed grape varieties to help growers choose where to plant.

Both are long-term projects. It'll be four years before the trial plot grapes are ready to pick, and two or three before the first map is complete. But Linda Jones, Council executive director, is mostly just glad to have someone succeeding longtime MSU horticulturist Stan Howell, who shepherded viticulture for more than 30 years until his retirement in September 2006. The Council expects to spend about $50,000 next year to support Sabbatini's research.

"This mapping and identification of new vineyard sites is a really important thing for us," Jones said. "There's no climate exactly like Michigan, so it's important that (research) be done here."

The Council would also like MSU to fill a posting for an enology coordinator-a potential first for Michigan. Posted last fall with a different description, it didn't generate enough interest, Jones said. So they're trying again. But with state funding tight, she's not sure if the outcome will be any better. The Council's committed to $50,000 a year for two years, but Jones said that only covers about half the anticipated position costs.

Two wine legal battles are in holding patterns. At the end of September, a U.S. appeals court upheld a lower court ruling allowing Chateau de Leelanau to continue to use the word "Leelanau" on its labels, despite a claim of trademark infringement by Leelanau Wine Cellars, which dated back to 2000.

Leelanau Wine Cellars President Bob Jacobson said he hadn't given much thought as to whether he'll continue to pursue legal options.

"I'm just busy trying to get a new winery open," said Jacobson. Leelanau Cellars is building an expansive new facility that should be open in 2008.

Meanwhile, the Wineries of Old Mission Peninsula (WOMP), which represents five Old Mission wineries, Peninsula Township officials and Black Star Farms, the newest winery on the peninsula, are midway through a 30-day cooling off period, trying to negotiate a compromise that will keep them out of court.

In October, WOMP sued the Peninsula Township Zoning Board of Appeals over an August exception it granted Black Star Farms, allowing the Leelanau County-based winery to temporarily sell wines made there at its new tasting room on Old Mission. Township ordinance requires Old Mission wineries to both grow grapes and process wines there.

The effort to compromise is a relief for people like Jones, whose job is to help all the wineries work together. But she said she understands winery frustration.

"There are some fundamental issues with our zoning for agritourism in Michigan that set us up as a state for this kind of conflict to arise," she said.

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.

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