By Susan R. Pollack
Wineries are popping up in Michigan almost as fast as champagne corks on New Year’s Eve. Together, they welcome over two million visitors annually and boost the state’s economy by $300 million.
To date, there are 119 in every corner of the mitten and even a handful farther north in the Upper Peninsula. The best-known are clustered near Traverse City on the Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas that jut into Lake Michigan and adjoining bays.
Located on or near the grape-friendly 45th parallel (think France’s Bordeaux and Cotes du Rhone regions, Italy’s Piedmont and Oregon’s Willamette Valley), they boast easily-navigable wine trails and host special events year-round.
Statewide, Michigan’s award-winning wines – including Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Grigio and Pinot Noir — are served in tasting rooms ranging from restored barns and a one-room schoolhouse to Old World-style chateaus.
In southern Michigan, in an airpark community west of Ann Arbor, a pilot for a major airline is turning out award-winning, French-style wines in an airplane hangar-turned winery he named Chateau Aeronautique.
Lorenzo Lizarralde, a Texas native, created his dream winery six years ago near Jackson, MI, complete with a gazebo tasting room overlooking a grassy airstrip and a VIP tasting room in his basement.
A self-taught winemaker who researches wineries in France, Lizarralde leads tours of his barrel-filled hangar, explaining how he ages, bottles and labels 14 varieties of wines, including Aviatrix Crimson and Aviatrix Passion, in the shadow of his vintage, 1956 Cessna 172.
“It’s neat how he incorporates his passion for planes and the winery,” said Sylvia Ney, visiting Michigan from Keller, Tex. After sampling sweet and dry flights of red and white wines in Chateau Aeronautique’s signature oversize glasses, she and her husband, Brant, purchased a half-dozen bottles to take home.
Among Michigan’s newest wineries is Bonobo, developed on the Old Mission Peninsula by TV home improvement guru Carter Oosterhouse (“Trading Spaces,” “Carter Can”). The winery, on a former 50-acre cherry orchard near his childhood home, is a joint venture with his brother, sister-in-law and actress wife, Amy Smart, whose credits include “Just Friends,” “The Butterfly Effect” and “Crank.”
Adding to the Bonobo buzz is a small plates/pairing menu curated by celebrity chef Mario Batali, who owns a summer home on the nearby Leelanau Peninsula.
Oosterhouse put his carpentry skills to work in the winery, building a long, oversize tasting bar from old barn wood and installing chandeliers from his wedding above it. The industrial-modern building features multiple rooms – a library, art gallery, sitting area with fireplace and various nooks — designed to encourage lingering over a glass or bottle of Bonobo wine, including Rieslings, Chardonnays and Pinot Noir. “We wanted to create an environment where people could relax and hang out, enjoy the space, instead of bouncing to the next winery and the next one,” Oosterhouse said.
To those unfamiliar with Michigan wines, he promises: “Come up and try them for yourself — you’ll be pleasantly surprised.”
These days, even long-established Michigan wineries such as Chateau Chantal, Bonobo’s Old Mission Peninsula neighbor, are creating fresh experiences, such as seven-course wine dinners, free Thursday night “Jazz at Sunset” sessions and blind-tastings, to attract travelers’ attention in the increasingly crowded field.
Vacationing in Traverse City, Gretchen Kuhns and Jayson Miller, of Irvin, PA, participated in a 90-minute “Sensory Tour” that they credited with giving them a new appreciation for wine.
The session started with wine served in black glasses to conceal its color; the upshot was that even experienced wine buffs in the group couldn’t always tell the difference between reds and whites simply by taste. Another experiment about the musical influence on tasting was equally intriguing. It was followed by a guided tour of Chateau Chantal’s vineyard, cellar and winemaking process and a small plates tasting and pairing.
“Wine seemed like a simple thing to start, but so much goes into it,” said Kuhns, a self-described wine novice as she and Miller savored the stunning view of the vineyards and bay. “All I knew coming in was that I preferred beer over wine. This was an eye-opener.”