This story was originally published in the Chicago Tribune brand publishing special section Michigan Wine Country.
Sipping a glass of your favorite wine, or discovering a new favorite, while overlooking the rolling hills of a vineyard or sparkling blue bay, is one of life's simple pleasures experienced in Michigan's wine country.
Visitors have long loved the authenticity of Michigan wineries, rich in tradition and innovation. They might find themselves chatting with the owners, vintners and grape farmers themselves while tasting wine in a historic schoolhouse, town hall, or sophisticated California-style tasting room.
If it's been a while since you've tried Michigan wine, it's definitely time to come back for a taste, says Karel Bush of the Michigan Grape & Wine Industry Council. The industry has blossomed and the winemaking has matured over the last decade, with 101 wineries using Michigan-grown grapes, up from 25 in 2000. Today there are 25 wineries in southwest Michigan alone, just around the lake from Chicago.
If you come, you won't be alone. Two million people a year are visiting Michigan tasting rooms. Michigan has mapped its wine regions in six wine trails, covering the southwest, north, northeast, and southeast parts of the state (see related story inside). These wine trail websites are the place to go if you want to plan a trip. They have event listings, awards, wineries, tours and much more. Michiganwines.com, a user-friendly guide to the state's wine world, and its annual magazine, Michigan Wine Country, are also good resources.
The crazy growth and popularity of Michigan wine country is a convergence of many things, Bush says: the popularity of local/regional food, culinary travel, farmers branching out, investors coming in, wine surpassing beer as a beverage of choice, and a maturing Millennial generation willing to try new things.
Of course, Chicagoans have been doing "culinary travel" to Michigan for generations, day tripping to the fruit belt for Michigan peaches and blueberries in the summer, apples and pumpkins in the fall, and venturing "up north" to the Traverse City area for cherries. Those vacationing in the picturesque lakeside lighthouse towns along Michigan's west coast now find in-town tasting rooms for wineries too.
"Michigan wines have a following, and it's only growing with the number of wineries and promotions. It fits into wine tourism and foodie culture," says Marie-Chantal Dalese of Chateau Chantal near Traverse City, which sees nearly 100,000 tasters a year. "We are in a boom time for Northern Michigan wineries, with close to 37 wineries up here now. It's a perfect combination with the tourism that is already in our backyard."
Part of the cachet is that many Michigan wines are available only on site at the wine tasting room or vineyard that made them, though distribution is expanding. Many Michigan stores carry local wines and restaurants also serve it but most are not mass produced. So if you taste something you like, buy it then and there, Bush advises.
What type of wine is Michigan known for?
Ask anyone in the Michigan wine business, and they will say Riesling is the No. 1 Michigan wine grape.
In fact, Michigan wineries make many styles of wine, from dry to sweet, including sparkling, fortified, fruit wines, eau-de-vie (fruit brandy) and ice wine (dessert wine made from frozen grapes left on the vine). Michigan wines are typically cool-climate wines, with clean, crisp, balanced wines that exhibit real varietal character, according to michiganwines.com.
The top wine grapes grown in Michigan are European (65 percent). They include Riesling (the most popular white grape), Chardonnay, Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Pinot Noir (the most popular red grape), Gewürztraminer, and Pinot Blanc. American-French hybrid wine grapes comprise 35 percent: Vignoles, Chambourcin, Seyval Blanc, Vidal Blanc, Chancellor, Marechal foch, Chardonel and Traminette.
People have been making wine in Michigan since the mid-1800s.
Today's vintners are likely to be family farmers like Joe Herman, a sixth-generation fruit farmer in Coloma who decided to branch out into juice grapes in the mid-1990s when his apple and peach business was squeezed by Washington and California.
At first he grew wine grapes to sell to other wineries.
"Then I thought, gee, why don't we do it ourselves?" he says. They started Karma Vista Vineyards.
The Hermans still grow fruit, and it works out because "the winemaking starts when we would have been slowing down on the farm, in the fall and winter," Herman says.
Their karma has indeed been good. The winery garnered a handful of medals in the 2013 Michigan Wine Competition.
In Traverse City, Dalese's parents, Bob and Nadine Begin, were part of the initial wave of cherry orchard-to-vineyard transitions a generation ago. They bought an orchard in 1983 with visions of a vineyard and winery. Today Chateau Chantal is a gorgeous estate overlooking Grand Traverse Bay with a bed-and-breakfast inn, dining room, wine and food events, and 27 selections in its tasting room.
What makes Michigan so great for grapes?
Most of Michigan's quality wine grapes grow within 25 miles of Lake Michigan. The "lake effect" protects the vines with snow in winter, retards bud break in spring, helping avoid frost damage, and extends the growing season by up to four weeks, according to michiganwines.com.
The climates of some of the greatest growing regions in Europe. The northernmost region of grape growing in Michigan is at the 45th parallel, the same as Bordeaux and Chianti.
Michigan vintners argue the wine regions of Michigan are no less picturesque.
Herman urges visitors to "Get away from the city and see that this is where the wine really happens."