The Wines of Michigan (January 14, 2016)
Michigan owes the birth of its wine industry to two enterprising citizens from Windsor and Walkerville, Ontario.
One was an entrepreneurial Italian immigrant named Mariano Meconi, the other a wealthy Canadian landowner, Major Maurice R. Twomey, who trained sharpshooters for His Majesty's Royal Army in Windsor in 1915.
At the age of 13 Mariano Meconi immigrated from Faleria, Lazio, to Windsor with his two brothers. After school he worked at the Studebaker plant before saving enough to follow his chosen vocation, winemaking. He opened Border City Wine Cellars in Windsor at the height of Prohibition in 1921. He was 26 years old.
At that time Detroit had an estimated 25,000 blind pigs and speakeasies, all thirsty for his and Major Twomey's Windsor Wine Company's labrusca wines. The cases were illegally shipped across the river at night in boats with collapsible motors that could easily be hidden.
A Michigan Grape & Wine Industry Council report in 2008-2009 tells us, "In the late 1920s, it was believed that Meconi was either a partner of, or collected money for, Joseph Kennedy in the sale of whiskey in the Detroit/Windsor and
the Port Huron/Sarnia areas under the name of Essex Import and Export Company." Major Twomey's operation specialised in sparkling wines whose contraband bubbly bottles proudly bore Piper-Heidsieck labels, making them doubly felonious.
Michigan was the first state of the union to ratify the Twenty-first Amendment that would repeal Prohibition in 1933.
Within a year after repeal both Meconi and Twomey transferred their operations across the river to Detroit. And in 1936 Meconi moved the family business to its present location in Paw Paw, "in order to be closer to the acclaimed Lake Michigan Shore grape-growing region." He renamed it The Italian Wine Company.
Anti-Fascist sentiment during World War II prompted another name change to St. Julian Winery, in memory of the patron saint of the village where he was born. But, ever ecumenical, Mariano Meconi added to his portfolio a product called "Sholom Michigan Kosher Sweet Concord Wine," which is still sold today and whose label sports a Star of David and not one but two hanukiah (the seven-branched Hanukah candelabra).
St. Julian is the oldest winery in Michigan, producing a large range of grape wines, fruit wines, brandy, Michigan Brut "Champagne" and an Icewine.
Fast forward to 2015. Currently there are 15,000 acres of vineyards in Michigan, making it the fourth-largest grape-growing state after California, Washington and Oregon, although most of this acreage is planted to the native North American labrusca varieties, Concord (red) and Niagara (white), which is mainly processed for grape juice. Today 117 Michigan wineries produce more than 1.4 million gallons of wine.
About 17% of vineyard surface is devoted to vinifera varieties – producing the style of wines that wine lovers want to drink – such as Riesling, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Syrah.
Most of Michigan's quality wine grapes grow within 40 kilometres of Lake Michigan. Here, the "lake effect" (similar to that in Ontario's Niagara, Lake Erie North Shore and Prince Edward County regions) protects the vines from winter snows, delays bud break in spring which helps to avoid frost damage, and extends the growing season by up to four weeks.
Michigan has four federally approved viticultural areas (AVAs). In the northwest part of the lower peninsula of Michigan, near Traverse City, lie the Leelanau Peninsula and the Old Mission Peninsula. Half of Michigan's wine grapes are grown here. In the southwest part of the state lie the Lake Michigan Shore and Fennville appellations, where 45% of Michigan's wine grapes are grown. The newest AVA is at the top of the Leelanau Peninsula, which rejoices in the name of "Top of the Mitt" because Michigan's lower peninsula looks like a huge baseball glove.
For the past 37 years the Michigan Grape & Wine Industry Council has held an annual competition for its local producers. This past August I was invited to be one of the 25 judges. We were divided up into panels of four and we had to come to a consensus as to whether a wine we sampled blind was worthy of a gold, silver or bronze medal or no award. There were 372 entries all told, submitted by 47 wineries. If all four of us gave a wine gold medal then it automatically became a Double Gold award and would be tasted by the entire roster of judges later in the afternoon to determine "Best of Show" trophies at what was termed the Sweepstakes Round. The results can be found at www.michiganwines.com.
I had not previously tasted many Michigan wines – we don't see them on LCBO shelves – and I was very impressed by the quality and style of the sparkling wines, the Rieslings and Cabernet Francs. A far cry from the kind of those high-alcohol wines that were ferried across the Detroit River in the Roaring Twenties.