Winery boards businesses until they’re ready to fly

LEELANAU COUNTY – To the casual observer, Don Coe, co-owner of Black Star Farms in Suttons Bay, is a gentleman farmer. Ask Don what he does, though, and he'll tell you that he's in the business of "destination marketing."

Pry a little further, and you'll find out this inevitable truth: Before a person can be successful at the hybrid of "destination marketing," they have to have a destination to market. Hence, Don wears three hats – one of gentleman farmer, one of destination marketer, and one of business incubator.

"The way we structure Black Star Farms is as an incubator for people who want to get into the wine business or the agricultural tourism business," said Coe. "We own the land and the buildings but we have other people come in as minority partners for the various businesses throughout the farm. They can learn and then, when they're ready, withdraw."

The metaphor is an apt one. For those of you from the city, an incubator is a warming device used by poultry farmers to keep chicken, duck, turkey and pheasant eggs evenly warm and protected until they are ready to hatch. Right now, Black Star Farms is acting as mother hen to a cheese company, a farmers market, various grape growers, and a horse riding, boarding, and training stable. Some of these arrangements are as simple as providing space or land, others are more complex and include business development, branding and retailing.

Today and from the very start, Coe, who invested in Black Star Farms after retiring from a long career with Hiram Walker, billed the farm as a winery. A slew of awards have proven his point, including the latest, the Chairman's Award from the 2007 Riverside International Wine Competition for their Arcturos '06 Semi-Dry Riesling. Still, continued recognition will come when the area is taken ever more seriously as a wine-producing region.

"You're not credible as a wine region unless you have multiple wineries," said Coe. "The way to accelerate that process is through incubating. Then, we can market together, we can plan and hold events together, we can provide assistance to each other, we can provide equipment to each other. We can be much more effective as a region than we can working on our own."

The idea of incubation is not unique to the wine industry, nor to northern Michigan. As a matter of fact, it is such a phenomenon that there is a trade association devoted to it. The National Business Incubation Association (NBIA) was founded in the 1990s to assist technology entrepreneurs. In the past decade the group has expanded, and now, investing in rural areas is one of the fastest-growing incubator sectors.

According to the association's website (, "incubator clients are at the forefront of developing new and innovative technologies-creating products and services that improve the quality of our lives in communities around the world."

Don Coe doesn't claim to be improving the quality of life in the whole world, but he's pretty committed to Leelanau County. When he and his business partner, Kerm Campbell, approached county leaders in 1997 to discuss their plans for the Black Star Farms property, they were told that what Leelanau County needed was a way to keep its young people from moving away from the area, a way to keep the area's agricultural heritage from being overdeveloped, a way for farmers to earn a good living, and improvements in affordable housing.

"Ten years later, and I still haven't figured out the housing issue," Don laughs. "I guess you can't do it all!"