Three wineries -- The Winery at Black Star Farms, Bel Lago Winery and Ciccone Vineyards -- have opened within the last year alone. All three are located in northwestern Michigan, near Traverse City, on the Leelanau Peninsula, one of the state's four appellations.
Although Lake Michigan creates a microclimate suitable for grape-growing along the western shore of the state, Michigan only had one established winery as recently as 1975. Linda Jones, program manager of the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council, attributes the recent growth to a developing viticulture program at Michigan State University, the collaborative efforts of new and experienced winemakers and increasing tourism in the wine region.
The Winery at Black Star Farms (616-271-4884) got under way about a year and a half ago, when the estate's four investors brought on Lee Lutes as winemaker and general manager, adding to the agricultural property's attractions. Black Star Farms also operates a bed-and-breakfast inn and facilities for the equestrian sport of dressage.
"With the increasing number of wineries in the area, it's setting us up as a more recognized winegrowing region," Lutes said. "We're making a significant investment in this winery -- it will be a $4 million property when things are done -- and we wouldn't do that unless we were convinced that this would be special."
The winery has no plans to plant its own grapes until 2001, so Lutes purchases local fruit, producing Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and Riesling. Lutes, who honed his skills studying and working in Australia, Italy, Long Island and New York City, expects to reach the winery's first goal, 15,000 cases, in 2000.
Black Star Farms' neighbor, Ciccone Vineyards (616-271-5551), will produce its first commercial endeavor this fall. Using grapes from the better half of the property's 14 acres, associate winemaker and owner Tony Ciccone is bottling Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Dolcetto, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Noir and Riesling. This year, Ciccone, a former engineer, hopes to produce 300 cases.
Only about 5 miles away lies Bel Lago Winery (616-228-4800), where winemaker and part-owner Charlie Edson started his 1-acre test vineyard 12 years ago. Today, he has 30 acres of vineyards, in which he grows Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and Riesling, as well as Auxerrois, a white grape from Alsace. When the 1998 vintage is bottled, Bel Lago should produce about 2,800 cases.
Edson, who received his doctorate in viticulture at Michigan State University and continues to do horticultural research there, works with many clones at his winery, growing more than 30 versions of Pinot Noir alone. "We're trying to approach this from a learning perspective, to show what can be planted in the United States," he said.
Like Lutes, Edson is encouraged by the current state of Michigan's winemaking community. "Rather than feeling as though we're in competition, there's a lot of help and suggestions between wineries," he remarked. "It's better for us to build a synergy rather than think about cutthroat competition. I hope it stays."