State Wineries: Record start-up year predicted

Hard to believe now, but two decades ago, less than a dozen wineries existed in Michigan.

Among those early adopters were Chateau Grand Traverse on Old Mission, Boskydel, L. Mawby and Leelanau Cellars on the Leelanau Peninsula, and St. Julian and Tabor Hill in the southwest.

The industry's growth curve has been steep the last several years, but with at least three new northwest wineries opening this year, 2008 is shaping up to be a watershed for the industry, whose members will gather at their biggest annual event later this month at Crystal Mountain.

"We are really expecting a record number of openings in 2008. We're going to be close to 60 wineries by the end of 2008," says Linda Jones, executive director of the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council, the division of the Department of Agriculture officially charged with promoting the industry. The Council organizes the Michigan Wine Industry annual meeting, which usually draws representatives from more than half of the state's 50-plus wineries, Jones says. It also attracts people who are considering the business.

"We don't want people to get into this industry and then flounder," says Jones, noting that winery owners must be prepared to compete in three diverse economic sectors: agriculture, tourism and alcoholic beverage. Agriculture and tourism each present challenging uncontrollable factors – weather and personal pocketbooks. The alcoholic beverage industry is fraught with arcane, often unintuitive regulations and business practices that can surprise newcomers, Jones says.

In 2008, three new wineries are expected to take on those challenges up north. They are:

– Forty-Five North. Owned by Indiana eye surgeon Steven Grossnickle, the winemaker is Shawn Walters, formerly of Leelanau Cellars. The tasting room will be in Lake Leelanau, off M-204.

-Circa. Owned by Margaret and David Bell. The couple has grown grapes in Leelanau County for 16 years, selling the whites to Good Harbor and reds to Bel Lago. Now Margaret intends to keep the grapes for her own winemaking operation. They're targeting a summer opening for their tasting room on Horn Road north of Lake Leelanau.

-Two Lads, on Old Mission Peninsula. It's owned by Cornel Olivier, formerly winemaker at Brys Estate, and Chris Baldyga.

The Council's annual meeting Feb. 27-29 features speakers including Elizabeth "E" Slater, a California-based wine marketing consultant whose presentation two years ago drew raves, Jones said; Roz Mayberry, wine buyer for D&W Foods in the Grand Rapids area, and Doug Frost, a Kansas-based wine consultant for United Airlines and columnist for United's in-flight magazine.

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After spending 2007 focused on developing a retail client base, Mitten Wine Logistics, the Traverse City-based distributor of exclusively Michigan wines, plans to turn to the restaurant side of sales in 2008. One already on board is the Beverly Hills Grill, named by the Detroit Free Press as its 2007 restaurant of the year.

Also last year, Mitten hired two sales representatives, one in the Flint area and one in the southwest. They're now looking to hire again in the southwest, since Christine Alef, whom some up north may remember as the tasting room manager at Chateau Chantal, has moved to Oregon.

Plans for this year also call for Mitten to begin distributing a few brands of its own, which co-founder Eddie Baur says he's working on with some Michigan wineries already.

Baur says that consolidation among distributors is helping his almost two-year-old business. Several deals last year – the merger of J. Lewis Cooper, which distributes Gallo in Michigan, with General Wine and Spirits and the acquisition of both L&L Wine World and AHD Wine Vintners by National Wine Spirits – has small wineries wary of getting lost in the shuffle, he believes. Baur also thinks the consolidation trend will only continue, forecasting that the nation's largest distributor, Southern Wine & Spirits, which has a presence in 29 states, will also make a foray into Michigan this year.

"A lot of these other little niche distributors have decided to sell out to the big guys. I have a feeling there are a couple distributors on the west side of the state that will be absorbed before too long," he said. "Consolidation is taking place on a grand scale in Michigan and nationally. Those (wineries) that are in those books are trying to get out."

Mitten's just added Chateau de Leelanau and Ciccone Vineyard & Winery to its client list and expects to bring another two wineries on board by spring, for a total of 18.

Cari Noga has covered Michigan's grape and wine industry since 1999. Read her blog at Send news and story ideas to her at