I enjoyed a pre-Labor Day vacation in St. Joseph on the east shore of Lake Michigan last year, so I decided to repeat the experience this year. Millicent Huminsky of the Southwest Michigan Tourism Council helpfully worked to set up winery visits in the Lake Michigan Shore AVA. I’m happy to report that my curiosity from last year’s initial tastings was satisfied with the quality and potential of the wines from this region. Wineries featured here source their grapes locally within the AVA; some produce only estate-bottled wines.
Southwest Michigan and the Lake Michigan Shore AVA
Thanks to lake effect (prevailing western winds over the deepest part of Lake Michigan), the climate in the southwestern corner (USDA zone 6a-b) is two weeks longer than that of northwest Michigan (the Leelanau and Old Mission Peninsulas). Ms. Huminsky explains that this region of the state is the second most diverse agricultural district in the country; in addition to wine grapes, there are tree fruits and berry fruits a-plenty.
The Lake Michigan Shore AVA was established in 1983, encompassing the 1.283 million acres of mostly sandy, well-drained soils of the region (the earlier-established Fennville AVA is the northwestern corner of the larger regional one.) The longer growing season allows for the ripening of a wide range of vinifera varieties. While I expected and tasted a lot of fine, fresh, racy white and rosé wines, I was impressed and even amazed at the range of well-made, stylish red wines, ranging from very fine pinot noir to elegant meritage to a very juicy, full-bodied and decadent Cabernet-Shiraz blend.
Tourism is a big business in the region, with Chicago being a 90 minute to two-hour drive away. Ms. Huminsky confirms that the number of wineries in the area more than doubled in the decade from 2006-2016, from 8 to 20, and that breweries, cideries and distilleries are also popping up to diversify the local beverage scene. Southwest Michigan hosts over 300 festivals, events and concerts each year.
While the moderate climate and clean lake beaches draw families, sailors and sportsmen to the area, Ms. Huminsky points out that fall colors also bring many visitors to the area. The St. Benton Harbor Golf Club hosts the Senior PGA every other year, and on Labor Day Weekend the Tri-State Regatta is a sailing race from Benton Harbor to Michigan City (IN) which is a big draw.
For the off season, Ms. Huminsky’s office worked with local hotels and wineries etc. to launch a Maker’s Trail passport program for visitors. Between September and April, participants can get their passports stamped at area local beverage producers and hotels; those who get the most stamps are eligible for an increasing range of prizes. This year there are already 25 participating hotels.
White Pine Vineyards
While staying at the elegant Boulevard Inn & Bistro in St. Joseph, I walked to the tasting room of White Pine Winery, founded by Dr. Dave Miller and his wife Sandy. “Dr. Dave” earned his Ph.D. in viticulture under Stan Howell at Michigan State U. and then served as his technician and winemaker at MSU’s research winery, before taking a job at St. Julian Winery, Michigan’s oldest and largest winery, as assistant winemaker. In 1999 Dave and Sandy planted “Sophie’s Vineyard” in Lawton, named after their daughter Sophie.
In 2010 Dave and Sandy took the plunge and started White Pine Winery. In addition to the fruit from Sophie’s vineyard, ”they are working with local growers to produce the wines that showcase the awesome climate and soils which are the source of their wonderful wines,” according to their website. Dave is a firm believer in using sustainable principles in grape production so vineyard practices use the latest methods to reduce the impact on the environment.
**Reserve Riesling 2017(semi-dry) Nose: WOW! Ripe peach and apricot. Palate: zesty ripe peach and apricot with great fruit/acid balance; juicy and fresh! Very hedonistic.
**Lady Slipper 2017 Dry Chambourcin rosé. Color: vivid dark pink. Nose: a party! Fresh cherry and strawberry! Palate: fresh, vibrant, clean, white/red cherry, watermelon, PERFECT summer sipping or food dry rosé.
*Cabernet Franc Reserve 2017 (Berrien Co.) Nose: nice fresh bright red cherry. Palate: vibrant fruit, some strawberry, fresh clean finish. Great warm weather cabernet franc to serve slightly chilled.
Tabor Hill Vineyards
My first stop the next day was with Brian Carlson, the winemaker for the Moersch Hospitality Group which includes Tabor Hill (the oldest winery in the region), Round Barn and Free Run, a very small lot producer focused on dry mostly-vinifera wines. We focused on the wines of Tabor Hill which are mostly dry to semi-sweet.
Although Brian has only two vintages in Michigan under his belt (he spent many years making wine in the Walla Walla AVA of Washington), it was clear that he understands the chemistry and stylistic limitations of cool climate grapes, both red and white.
Tabor Hill Tasting Highlights
**Pinot Noir 2017 Nose: baking spices, black cherry and forest floor. Palate: chewy, solid black cherry fruit, a big volume, firm tannins, great fruit/acid balance, crisp fresh finish. Impressive.
*Albariño 2018 Nose: still a bit closed, fresh, hints of grapefruit and white flowers, lime and mineral. Palate: chewy, full-bodied, bold, vibrant white grapefruit, zesty lemon pith, young, high acid but fruit balances it and classic varietal style.
*Pinot Blanc 2018 Nose: closed, hints of light lemon. Palate: round, clean, smooth, a hint of creaminess from lees contact, bright clean lemon flavors; stylish. Great summertime seafood wine.
*Dry Rosé 2018 (77% P. Meunier, 13% Merlot). Dark pink. Nose: juicy red plum, from the Meunier. Palate: round, dry but juicy, full of bright red plum and strawberry. Great fruit/acid balance, original and stylish.
*Cabernet Franc 2017 Nose: solid red cherry aromas, some baking spices. Palate: black cherry, plum, black pepper, not too much oak, crisp finish, classic varietal style.
*Blueberry Franc NV This is a fun, original blend of mature Cabernet Franc port and fresh, fruity blueberry wine. Nose: spicy, dried cherry from the Cabernet Franc, with loads of pepper and spice, then fresh blueberry. Palate: spicy red fruits, loads of pepper and spice, then finishes with some fresh blueberry on top of peppery tawny-like texture. Original, intriguing.
Hickory Creek Winery
Adam McBride is owner/winemaker of Hickory Creek Winery, one of the smallest wineries in the region (1,500 cases). He loves good Pinot Gris; I liked his 2018 but he liked the vintage character of his 2017 even more. He’s one of the few people doing varietal Gruener Veltliner in the area, but his strength is with dry reds. One of the reasons is that he gets nice ripe, concentrated fruit and uses large, mostly neutral oak to age them in.
**Chambourcin 2017: Nose: lifted plum and blackberry aromas. Palate: rich, spicy black fruits, more spice and concentration “like Syrah” says Adam; a serious, brooding full-bodied Chambourcin that has and handles new French oak; to me it drank like a cool region (Mendocino?) Zinfandel. He says it’s his most popular wine.
**Merlot 2017 Bright medium garnet color. Nose: fragrant red and black fruits, mostly cherries. Palate: VERY lively red cherries, bursting with flavor and acidity, exceptional fruit/acid balance, fresh clean finish.
Jeff and Kathy Lemon operate Lemon Creek Winery, which is one of the oldest in the area (1984) with 17 acres of vines. They say their dry reds are the most popular ones with their clientele, and remark that across the state wine quality with reds has improved markedly in the last five years. While the quality at Lemon Creek is consistently high, they specialize in reds and are making some of the best that I’ve had in the region. Tasting Highlights:
*Unoaked Chardonnay 2017 Nose: bright fresh lemon, gentle and subtle. Palate: round, fresh, dry but pretty and feminine, flavors of light fresh apple. Stylish.
*Sauvignon Blanc 2017 Nose: gentle hint of gooseberry, white flowers. Palate: dry, zesty, firm acidity, drinks like Loire Valley style, flavors of lemon and mineral, fresh clean finish.
*Dry Riesling 2017 Nose: lots going on; petrol, smoke, mineral, peach, apricot and apple. Palate: smooth, dry but broad, nice integration, apple and white peach with pineapple hints. Still young, promising but drinking well now.
*Merlot 2017 Nose: fruity/fragrant, red/black cherries, some garden herbs. Palate: dry but very zesty cherry bursting with fruit and acidity, no noticeable oak, although 50% new oak was used in a 265-liter puncheon.
*Petit Verdot 2017 (barrel sample) Nose: big, bold black fruits, spice, some oak. Palate: big, chewy, lots of tannins, black fruits, some spice. Young, but big, impressive, lots of potential.
*Meritage 2016 (34% Cabernet Sauvignon, 24% Cabernet Franc, 13% Carmenere, 13% Petit Verdot, 8% Malbec, 8% Merlot). How’s that for a “kitchen sink” meritage blend? Jeff says this is the first vintage of this blend. Nose: first, ripe red cassis, then other red/black fruits, a bit of spice, very elegant. Palate: ripe red and black fruits, moderate oak, loads of spice, well-integrated but lots of finesse, will age well but can drink and enjoy from this fall.
*Meritage 2017 (barrel sample): A richer vintage; darker color, similar grape blend but in a richer, bolder style. Nose: rich ripe black fruits, some spice. Palate: young, more new oak but the wine can handle it; ripe black fruits, vanilla and spice from the oak, firm tannin and acids, will age well, good integration.
**Cabernet Sauvignon/Shiraz 2017 (60% C.S., 40% Shiraz). Nose: Wow; big New World style of ripe black fruits; spicy black cherry and black cassis; a party in a glass! Palate: Peppery! Big, juicy dry, spicy, bold, but not over-oaked (Jeff used 1 new barrel for each grape). A double gold medal winner.
*Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 Barrel Select Nose: Pure black cassis, with spice and black pepper. Palate: chewy, spicy, still fresh and lively, black pepper. Big, but still refreshing and terroir-driven.
Domaine Berrien Cellars
This winery are Rhone variety enthusiasts (members of the Rhone Rangers) and farm 40 acres of estate grapes, all picked by hand. Aside from Rhone variety wines, they have a range that includes Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Lemberger, a Meritage blend, and a Cabernet Franc ice wine.
*Marsanne 2018 (20% Roussane) Nose: classic varietal markers of white pepper and pear. Palate: broad, spicy, prickly pear and white pepper flavors, lively acidity and fresh finish, good food wine.
*Pinot Noir 2016 Nose: fresh red cherry, hints of French oak. Palate: lively bright acidity, red cherry, clean, French oak spice, very promising in a Volnay/Beaune style, needs another year of bottle age at least.
*Cabernet Franc 2016 Pale color. Nose: fresh, clean fruit, bright red cherry with a hint of white pepper. Palate: bright, fresh, clean, vibrant red cherry, fruit-driven, young but still promising.
*Lemberger 2016 Dark color. Nose: fresh, ripe, cherries and white pepper, spice; very varietal style. Palate: spicy, bright briar fruits, very lively acidity, a bit of earth, fruit and acid-driven, still young, good varietal style.
Dablon Winery and Vineyards
This winery was named for Claude Dablon, a Jesuit missionary and one of the first European explorers in 17th century Michigan, although the operation sports an impressively contemporary tasting room and winery. They acquired 44 acres of land on one of the highest points in Baroda, and began planting grapes, and now have 36 acres of estate-grown grapes planted on their 75-acre farm. The winery has been open since 2015 and their website says they “combine Old World techniques with New World methodologies.”
Dablon grows perhaps the most diverse selection of vinifera grapes in the region. Reds run the gamut from pinot noir to the spectrum of six red Bordeaux grapes (the three majors plus Carmenere, Malbec and Petit Verdot), Tannat and Syrah. The white wines are also an eclectic mix with Chardonnay (steel and oak versions), Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir rosé and include strong hybrids like Seyval Blanc and Traminette.
*½ Estate White Blend 2017 75% unoaked Chardonnay, 25% Pinot Gris. Nose: the Gris is forward with fresh-cut pineapple and cantaloupe. Palate: clean, crisp, very vibrant fruit, white flowers, fresh-cut melon and pineapple, vibrant, with enough complexity for a food wine.
**Pinot Noir Rosé 2017 18-hour skin contact, nice med. dark garnet. Nose a: fresh watermelon and strawberry, bright fresh fruit. Palate: dry, bright, vibrant, intense strawberry and red cherry, a food rosé, classy!
*Malbec 2016 Nice purple garnet color. Nose: fresh boysenberry, fruit-driven. Palate: same flavor, broad spicy/vibrant fresh red fruits and briar fruits in a cool climate style.
*Estate Red Blend 2015 A Cab. Sauv.-dominated meritage-style blend. 24 months in oak. Nose: black cassis, licorice, black pepper. Palate: fresh, lively, good fruit/acid balance, ripe black fruits and lively tannins. Still young but bright, fresh and promising.
**Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 Nice dark garnet color. Nose: a “Left Bank” style of cassis, black fruits and leafy herbal notes. Palate: juicy! Smooth and vibrant cassis, red/black cherry, with nice concentration and ripe tannins, lively zesty finish like a Mozart piano piece. Stylish.
***Syrah 2016 Dark garnet color. Nose: brilliant northern Rhone-style: gamey, bacon, white pepper and spicy red cherry. Palate: dry, vibrant with white pepper red cherry and lively fresh finish. Clean and impressive New World interpretation of an Old-World classic.
Free Run Cellars is the small production, artisanal label in the Moersch Hospitality Group of wineries. Total case production is about 1,000 cases and most labels are in 50-case lots. Brian Carlson again guided me on a tasting. Tasting Highlights:
*Round Barn Sauvignon Blanc 2018 This is Brian’s favorite white grape (Round Barn is one of the wineries in the Moersch Group). Nose: racy, lively passion fruit and citrus, not as intense or grassy as the New Zealand style but still lively. Palate: zesty, fresh, loads of lemon/citrus and grapefruit, lively, very terroir-driven.
*Free Run Semi-Dry Gewürztraminer 2017 Nose: lovely classic lychee and some rosewater with pink grapefruit. Palate: juicy! (back-sweetened with its own unfermented juice). Still has nice fruit/acid balance for a semi-dry Gewürztraminer, zesty clean finish with just a hint of varietally typical bitterness.
*Free Run Dry Riesling 2018 Nose: Austrian-style of light lemon with lots of crushed limestone. Palate: firm acidity with loads of green apple fruit, an impressive dry style.
** Free Run Pinot Meunier Dry Rosé Bright watermelon color. Nose: a party! Red cherries, strawberries, watermelon, cranberries and a hint of smoke. Palate: juicy watermelon, strawberry and cherry with bright lively acidity; a winner and a fun way to showcase this overlooked non-tannic red grape.
**Free Run Meritage 2017 (mostly Cabernet Franc, 30% Merlot, some Cab. Sauv.) Dark ruby color. Nose: large volume; lots of black fruits, some new oak, spice. Palate: Large! Chewy tannins, cherry/chocolate, fresh finish. Stylish!
**Round Barn Gin NV One product line at Round Barn is spirits. Brian encouraged me to try their gin, and I’m glad he did. Nose: gentle fresh juniper notes. Palate: gentle, smooth with lemon rind (vapor-infused) with some spice hints in the background (coriander, cardamom). Mellow and classy, smooth and easy to sip, no burning or coarseness.
Five of my favorite Lake MI Shore AVA wines from this visit: from left to right, White Pine Lady Slipper Rose, Lemon Creek Riesling, Dablon Syrah, Lemon Creek Cabernet Sauvignon/Syrah, Tabor Hill Pinot Noir
Tom Zabadal, owner of Moonrise LLC, a winery south of I-94 in Bainbridge Township, is a figure well-known in the Michigan wine and grape industries. After over 25 years of service, Zabadal retired as viticulturist and coordinator of the Michigan State University Southwest Michigan Research and Extension Center in 2016, to tend a three-and-a-half-acre vineyard on a south-facing slope. He opened his winery in 2017, and focuses on Cabernet Sauvignon and the red Bordeaux varieties. He’s also one of the few to cultivate an interest in Gruener Veltliner and offers it as a varietal. He describes his production as somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500 cases annually.
Moonrise is only open on weekends, but has cultivated a following who not only buy but like to come out and spend some time relaxing as music plays; Tom says they enjoy the view of the vertically-terraced vineyard close to the tasting room, and says “We’re always really busy on Saturdays,” despite no advertising and only being open from April-December.
*Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 Estate grown, 26 months in oak (many neutral barrels but he uses inner staves). Nose: a bit closed but hints of cassis and new oak. Palate: firm tannin, acid, solid cassis fruit and big oak influence on the texture, chewy, young, needs time. For those who like a “big” cabernet, I’d recommend laying this down until next winter at least; another year would probably be better for complete integration of fruit and oak.
*Heritage 2016: a meritage-style blend with its own name, this is a skillful blend of 40% each Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and 20% Cabernet Franc. Also aged 26 months in oak. Nose: nice integration of fruit; cherries, berries, and vanilla/oak; elegant. Palate: bright red juicy but ripe cherry/berry flavors, dry, then hefty oak on the mid-palate, young, still needs at least 6 months, but stylish and will age another few years.
Bad News and Good News for Lake Michigan Wineries in 2019
The variety and quality of vinifera wines here in the Lake Michigan Shore AVA is truly impressive and should inspire locavore-minded somms in Chicago and nearby regions to make a point of getting to know the vintners and their diverse products here.
Unfortunately, a polar vortex last winter brought several days of temperatures lower than -20° F to the region; Tom Zabadal at Moonrise says he lost his entire crop for 2019 (dormant buds killed), although the vines survived and are healthy and green. Most other vintners report losses of at least 70% of their potential 2019 crop. Domaine Berrien was one of the few who buried their cordons under snow, and the buds survived, so they have a crop. Kathy Lemon reports that this was the third polar vortex in five years, though none of the others was as damaging as in 2019.
Accordingly, the local wine industry will have to explore ways of preparing for what seem to be all-too frequent polar vortices with serious impact on the future crop.
Meanwhile, from classic dry vinifera wines to sweet hybrids and even wine slushies, there’s literally a satisfying wine or two for every palate in Southwest Michigan made from local grapes. Add to that the many complementary tourist attractions from beaches to dunes, art festivals, sailing, golfing, etc. and the close proximity to Chicago (and, for this author, the refreshingly moderate temperatures and humidity), and there are lots of reasons to visit the region and its wineries.
On the plus side, Lake Michigan College, which is home to Lake Michigan Vintners, the first commercial teaching winery in the Midwest, just cut the ribbon for the opening of the Welch Center, a $7 million, 14,000-square-foot teaching winery on its Benton Harbor campus. According to the College, “The Welch Center features a new wine press, large tank, and bottling rooms, tea laboratory, and temperature and humidity-controlled barrel and case good storage. There are two classrooms, three offices, a workroom, and an open commons area for wine tasting, community education classes, and special events.”
Industry members like Joe Herman, owner of Karma Vista Vineyards, and Adam McBride, are looking forward to how the center can bring trained professionals into the local industry and also explore the specifics of Lake Michigan Shore terroir. In fact, Adam, who received certifications through the Wine & Spirits Education Trust and the Napa Valley Wine Academy, was so impressed by the College’s viticulture and enology program that he enrolled as a student shortly after opening Hickory Creek Winery.
According to a College press release about the opening of the Welch Center, Adam said “At the wine academy we learned what to do and how to do it, but through the Lake Michigan College program we are also learning why you do it. The program at LMC is two or three levels deeper and a whole level of knowledge when it comes to winemaking and vineyard practices. I will learn something in class that morning and go back and put it into practice at Hickory Creek that afternoon.”
Resources For Visiting Southwest Michigan
- The website of the Southwest Michigan Tourist Council (https://swmichigan.org/) is a very handy resource for your trip to the region. It has a list of events and festivals, local hotels, “things to see and do”, and tools for planning your trip.
- The Michigan Wine Industry’s official website is https://www.michiganwines.com/ (note: the actual wine trail for the Lake Michigan Shore is not working for some reason).
Rating Scale: * = very good; ** = exceptional; *** = outstanding
Sunset over Lake Michigan from St. Joseph Beach