Michigan’s wide selection of quality wines and the wine industry’s significant contribution to the economy prompted Gov. Rick Snyder to declare April as “Michigan Wine Month.” We sat down with Gordon Wenk, Deputy Director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD), to get an update on the latest developments in the dynamic growth of the Michigan wine industry.
How has the Michigan wine industry grown in recent years?
The number of wineries and wine grape acreage has doubled in the past decade. Sales of Michigan wine rose 29% in the past 5 years. Market share for Michigan wine is now over 6% of the wine sold in the state. The industry is contributing significantly to the economy of Michigan through growing of grapes, wine production, distribution and wine tourism.
How does Michigan wine stack up for quality compared to wines from other, more well-known, wine producing regions of the world?
The Great Lakes provide an incredible moderation of our climate to make Michigan a fabulous place to grow fruit, including grapes. We refer to this as “lake-effect,” which extends the growing season. The state of Michigan straddles the 45th parallel. Some of the finest wine producing regions of Europe are also located near this latitude. In the U.S., Michigan is among the top seven wine producing states for quality and quantity of wine produced from locally sourced grapes (others being CA, WA, OR, NY, VA and TX). In 2013, 176 gold medals were awarded to wines from 23 Michigan wineries in 17 national and international competitions. Michigan is now firmly established as a “Wine Region to Watch” among those who follow the U.S. wine industry closely.
Is there opportunity for continued growth of the industry?
Absolutely – Michigan is a great place to invest in the wine industry in the U.S. because of our reputation as an emerging wine region to watch. Land costs are low compared to other vineyard land around the world, and we have a solid cadre of experienced vineyard managers and winemakers who have paved the way for others to follow in their footsteps. New varieties of wine grapes are being developed by plant breeding programs in the U.S., to provide varieties that are even hardier for our cold climate conditions.
What are the most widely planted varieties used for wine in Michigan?
Riesling is the most planted white wine variety and Pinot Noir, the red.
Does the Governor support the industry?
Governor Rick Snyder has demonstrated his support for the industry in the Michigan Wine Month proclamation, which is much appreciated by the industry. The Governor also personally recognized the wineries and vineyards on Old Mission Peninsula near Traverse City in April 2013. These businesses demonstrate their commitment to environmentally sustainable practices in their vineyards, through the Michigan Agricultural Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP).
Has there been significant legislation passed in recent years that has assisted in the growth of the industry?
Not only do we need the right physical climate for a great wine industry in Michigan, we also need a supportive set of regulations that will allow the industry to grow. This must be done while being mindful of the need for social responsibility in the area of alcohol consumption. Many of the state’s liquor regulations date back to the repeal of prohibition in 1933.
In recent years, Michigan has seen the enactment of several pieces of important winery-friendly legislation that allow Michigan wineries to have greater access to the market. These include:
- Wine tastings at retail stores
- Operation of tasting rooms jointly among wineries
- Charging for samples at tasting rooms
- Wine sampling and sales at Farmers Markets
- Bring Your Own Wine option for consumers at licensed restaurants
Is there any legislation on the horizon that will help the industry grow even faster?
HB 5275 would provide a tax credit to wineries, breweries and distillers that use a significant amount of Michigan agricultural products in their beverages. It’s early days in the discussion on this concept, but it’s one that some other states have found to be a valuable economic development tool to stimulate growth of their wine industries.
Are Michigan wines available outside the state of Michigan?
Several producers of Michigan wine have distribution outside of the Great Lakes State – notably Chicago, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Washington DC and New York City. On May 12, the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council will host a Michigan Wine Showcase in Chicago with over 24 wineries participating. Many Michigan wineries are licensed to ship direct to consumers in several neighboring states. This allows the industry to leverage tourist interest in the wines, when travelers return to their home state.
How does the MGWIC support industry growth?
The Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council (MGWIC) is a 12-member panel that supports the growth of the grape and wine industry in Michigan through research, education and the promotion of the Michigan wine grape and wine industry to stimulate economic development through value-added, sustainable agriculture. The Council represents the needs of wine grape producers (101 wineries and over 200 wine grape growers). Four industry members (three winery and one wine grape grower) are appointed to the Council by the Governor and serve for three year terms.
How has the Michigan wine industry engaged with the award winning Pure Michigan campaign?
Many wineries use the Pure Michigan logo in their promotional materials, including the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council. The Council also has a partnership commitment to the campaign, in which a “Wines of Pure Michigan” radio ad airs in the markets of Toledo, South Bend, Fort Wayne, Green Bay, Detroit and Grand Rapids during the spring and summer months. The campaign is designed to build consumer awareness of the industry and drive traffic to the tasting rooms. During the past three years of the program, wineries report an increase in the number of out of state license plates in their parking lots and the Council has seen a number of new visitors to our website, which tells us that the campaign is really working.
Where can people learn more about the Michigan wine industry?
A great place to start is the Michigan Wines website which is loaded with information and has a “Plan Your Tour” feature to allow the wine traveler to plan an itinerary to suit their needs and interests. A 64-page magazine about the industry is also available in digital format on the website and can be picked up at the state’s 13 Welcome Centers and many Convention and Visitors Bureau offices around the state.
How can people learn more about investing or working in the Michigan wine industry?
The Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council has a “Start-Up Package” of resources that assists those entering this complex industry. A checklist of regulations and suggested business models is included in these materials. The annual Michigan Grape and Wine Conference (March 4 -6, 2015) is another valuable place to learn about the industry and develop a network with established producers who are very open to sharing their experience with newcomers to the industry.
Educational institutions around the state are recognizing the need for training for those entering the industry. Programs at Michigan State University, several community colleges and online are available to suit a wide range of learning situations.
Interested in learning more about the Michigan wine industry or starting your own winery? Visit Michigan Wines’ contact page for additional information or to sign up for their e-newsletter.
Gordon Wenk is the Deputy Director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. Wenk is also the Chair of the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council, a program of the MDARD.