Michigan’s vineyards: Wine that survives the winter?

Marketplace Contributor Jun 18, 2014

Michigan’s vineyards: Wine that survives the winter?

Marketplace Contributor Jun 18, 2014

Places like California are known for growing grapes that have been around for more than a century. But there are new types of grapes that have only been around for decade or two and are allowing wine to be made in places never imagined before — like colder Midwest states.

One winemaker who’s joining the northern wine region is Dave Anthony. He and his wife, own and run a four and a half-acre vineyard and winery in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, near the northern Lake Michigan shore.

Anthony says people were pretty surprised when he said he wanted to start a winery so far north 15 years ago.

“I think there’s some shock out there, that it actually works,” Anthony says. “The first reaction was beyond ‘are you crazy?’: ‘It’s just stupidity, total stupidity.’”

Because the winters are cold here. This winter, temperatures in January and February were often well below zero.

But Anthony is growing what is called “cold hardy” wine grapes, and they can withstand 25 below zero temperatures. Many of these wine grapes were created by the University of Minnesota. It released its first cold hardy grape in 1996. Since then, Minnesota tripled the number of wineries in the state to 30. Iowa more than tripled the amount of grapes it’s growing.

But Anthony says the biggest challenge is the lack of name recognition for his wines.

“Who’s ever heard of Marquette or La Cresent?” Anthony says.

But there already is a developed wine region in Michigan, it’s farther south near Lake Michigan, around Traverse City. It’s a bit warmer there so the vineyards can grow the European varieties like Merlot and Pinot Grigio.

Charlie Edson is the owner and winemaker at Bel Lago winery near Traverse City.

He grows 100 varieties of grapes on his vineyard, including some cold hardy grapes. But he says customers like to buy wines with names that they know.

“I think it is marketable in certain circumstances. In our circumstances I probably wouldn’t go that route because consumers don’t know what those varieties are,” Edson says.

Edson says the biggest criticism of these new grapes – at least in terms of taste – is that they don’t have the same structure and character as the centuries old wines, like cabernet.

But Edson says cold hardy grapes are a type of crop insurance, considering how cold this winter was.

“There is winter injury in the vineyards right now, in most vineyards, and I can tell you the cold hardy varieties — they laughed in the face of this winter, so we will have full crops of cold hardy varieties which is terrific,” Edson says.

That is not the case for most of the European varieties this year.

But back on the northern side of Lake Michigan, Anthony thinks this might be a wakeup call for grape growers, which might allow cold hardy grapes to expand and grow even further in the future.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.