Wineries Working Together: Local vintners growing, changing via new trails and rebrands

The first vintners 40 years ago weren’t the only things that were hardy – along the way, the development of new grape varietals perfect for this climate has expanded the growing region even further north.

As the number of wineries and vineyards has swelled, various industry associations and groups have sprung up to provide greater visibility and maximize the industry’s impact. And well they should: Michigan’s wine industry contributes more than $5.4 billion to the state’s economy. Members of the industry and their employees pay $719.4 million in federal, state and local business taxes. Consumption taxes, which account for state and local sales taxes as well as excise taxes that apply to specific retail services, contribute $134.1 million to the state and federal economies.

Some wineries have chosen to go it alone, but most have seen the benefit of the wine trails, lobbying associations and governmental groups which have come to the fore. The first on the local level was the Leelanau Peninsula Wine Trail. Not only was it the first grouping of wineries locally, it is the oldest in Michigan and the largest in the Midwest, comprising 24 establishments in three “loops.”

Lorri Schreiber, executive director of the Leelanau Peninsula Wine Trail, said it makes sense for wineries to work together. “The purpose of a wine trail is to promote the region as a whole, typically by marketing and advertising, social media, media relations, creating brochures, maps, apps, etc.,” she said.

The wine trail also schedules and hosts events and sets up promotional opportunities, she said. “The trail brings visitors into the region. Once they are here, it is the winery’s job to get them into their tasting rooms. Our social media reach from a trail perspective is much higher than individual wineries,” said Schreiber.

As the industry grew, other regional affiliations did as well, resulting in the creation of a wine trail on the Old Mission Peninsula.

Formerly the Wineries of Old Mission Peninsula, the recently renamed Old Mission Peninsula Wine Trail fulfills much the same role as the Leelanau Peninsula Wine Trail. Both are funded by membership dues, though the latter derives most of its funding from events as well as advertising fees.

Alaina Korreck, the marketing director and spokesperson for the Old Mission Peninsula Wine Trail, said the role of the trails often goes beyond marketing and event planning. “We are always more than willing to work with wineries. We focus on what’s good for the collective,” she said.

That includes assisting new wineries with regulations, finding equipment and the other things that go along with a new endeavor.

Rove Estate joined the Leelanau Wine Trail when it first opened. McKenzie Gallagher, who owns Rove Estate with her husband Creighton, said for them it made sense. “There’s a large sense of community and networking,” Gallagher said.

While most wineries choose to become part of the wine trail, not all do. In Leelanau, Brengman Brothers is not a member, though Schreiber said the winery is supportive of the trail.

Bonobo is located on Old Mission Peninsula.

“Their business model made it challenging for them to host our large wine trail events, which is required,” she said.

On Old Mission Peninsula, Bonobo is the lone winery not a part of that trail. Co-owner and manager Todd Oosterhouse said the cost to be a part of it led Bonobo to decline. “My brother [television personality Carter Oosterhouse] has some celebrity, and we get some write-ups. We wanted to put our money elsewhere,” he said.

Turns out, one of those “elsewheres” was right in Traverse City. In 2017, the Traverse Wine Coast was launched by the wine industry and Traverse City Tourism. Todd Oosterhouse was a founding member and is on the board. “Traverse Wine Coast is set up for the whole area to be known regionally in a five-state radius. That generates more buzz as opposed to the trail, which is more local,” he said.

On that account at least, Korreck and Schreiber agree with Oosterhouse. The Traverse Wine Coast has a broader reach than any individual winery or the trails. “It’s a way to show the breadth of wineries, put everyone on the radar,” said Korreck.

Rove’s Gallagher is also bullish on Traverse Wine Coast as much as she is on the Leelanau Wine Trail. “There’s a cost associated with both, but absolutely it’s worth it,” she said.

Rove Estate joined the Leelanau Wine Trail when it first opened.

She believes gathering into a larger group will help promote the entire area to those outside the state. “Traverse Wine Coast’s role [will be] expanding in upcoming years as northern Michigan gets more recognition nationally and internationally,” she said.

Petoskey Wine Region
The wineries in and around Traverse City are not the only ones in the region. There are now a dozen wineries north of the 45th parallel, from Alanson and Charlevoix to Petoskey and Harbor Springs. Formerly known as the Bay View Wine Trail, they have regrouped and rebranded as the Petoskey Wine Region, offering their own take on the wine experience.

Geoff Frey owns Crooked Vine Vineyard and Winery in Alanson. The secretary of the Petoskey Wine Region, he believes the region is just beginning to come into its own. That coincides with the renaming and rebranding of the region, which it was able to do thanks to a block grant from the state Department of Agriculture.

“All 12 of us sit down every month and ask how we can work together,” he said. “We’re competitors but we all get along.”

Dustin Stabile, head of production at Mackinaw Trail Winery in Petoskey, is president of the Petoskey Wine Region. He said renaming it from the Bay View Wine Trail gave a greater sense of its geography.

“We needed something more specific,” he said, noting the Bay View Wine Trail could be anywhere. He also said the wineries wanted to promote the entire region as a whole, so they decided to drop the word “trail” in favor of something more all-encompassing.

Another sign of the growing respect the region is getting is the fact that Stabile has been named a judge at the Indiana National Wine Competition. “It’s one of the largest in the U.S.,” he said. “I’m pretty excited.”

Frey is also secretary of the Straits Area Grape Growers Association, an affiliation of wine grape growers in northern Michigan, specifically including the Tip of the Mitt American Viticultural Area, one of five in Michigan. Its general objectives are to promote northern Michigan as a source of premiere cold climate wine grapes and wine and to emphasize the unique climate, topography, soils, history and peoples of northern Michigan.

That’s something everyone agrees on. “The industry is changing,” said Oosterhouse. “Ten years ago it was …  a lot of sweet, a lot of fruit. Now it’s more terroir-induced, more dry.”

Changes at the State Level
At the state level, things have changed dramatically. For many years, an industry group championed the industry across the state and nation. The Michigan Grape and Wine Council held statewide events and lobbied on behalf of the industry. But as it was funded by not only the wine industry but craft brewers and distillers, the council was changed last year to the Michigan Craft Beverage Council. As such, it is charged with a broader role of also supporting the craft beer, spirits and hard cider industries.

Enter the Michigan Wine Collaborative. This relatively new alliance is seeking to more or less replace the wine and grape council, though without state funding or mandates.

“We have limited resources,” admitted Emily Dockery, the council’s lone paid employee. She said marketing and promotion of the industry are its main goals. “We want to assure exposure and access to all Michigan wineries.”

That includes activities both within and outside the state. As an example, Dockery pointed to her attendance at the National Restaurant Show in Chicago to tout the state’s wines. She said not many wineries are able to spare people and pay them for four days of pouring, networking and sharing the story of Michigan wines.

How far can the industry go? Will collaboration be the key, or will more individual wineries find it more prudent and profitable to stand alone? Only time will tell, but it seems likely that the proliferation of hardy grapes and eager entrepreneurs will see the industry continue to grow as the quality of Michigan wines becomes more recognized outside the state. As proof, Frey said he knows of three more in the Petoskey region that he believes will open within the next year or so.