Sue and I have spent the last two weeks tasting wines from two Michigan wineries, Good Harbor Vineyards and Aurora Cellars (both part of the Simpson Family Estates group). The wineries are located on the Leelanau Peninsula, a short drive from scenic Traverse City.
Michigan wines? Are you surprised? We discovered Michigan wine several years ago at an industry event called Riesling Rendezvous, organized by Ste Michelle Wines Estates, which was a regular stop on top world Riesling producer itineraries in the days before the covid pandemic.
The Riesling Belt
Riesling Rendezvous brought together the makers and their wines from all around the world and it helped teach us that here in North America, there is a northern Riesling belt that runs from Washington state (the Columbia Valley) and British Columbia (Okanagan Valley) to Idaho (Snake River Valley), Michigan (Great Lakes), Canada’s Niagara Peninsula, and on to New York (Finger Lakes). Great Riesling wines can be found all along this northern belt, so it makes sense that great wines of other types are found there, too.
Michigan wineries always came to Riesling Rendezvous and turned skeptics into fans. Respect! Not everyone has the benefit of the Riesling Rendezvous experience, however, so the very fact of Michigan wine often comes as a surprise.
The idea that American wine comes from California is very strong and there is some logic in it. California’s nearly 5000 wineries produce about 90% of all U.S. wine. California is big in wine; there are lots of vineyards acres, wine producers, and some of the largest winery complexes in the world.
Michigan’s Surprising Wine Industry
Most of the over 6000 U.S. wineries not located in California are small producers that depend on loyal local consumers. The difference in scale means that they are often overlooked and many people, even some locals, are surprised to discover them.
That’s true with Michigan’s wine industry. According to American Wine by Jancis Robinson and Linda Murphy, Michigan’s wine history goes back to the 1600s. French explorers made wine from native grape varieties, and the settlements that followed made wine, too. Eventually, the Michigan wine industry emerged and gained steam in the mid-1800s.
Michigan wine recovered quickly from Prohibition, according to American Wine, but then pretty much collapsed. Why? Competition is the answer. Many early wines were made from Concord grapes, so winemakers had to compete with grape juice companies for grape supplies. Investment in vineyards was limited by the higher returns offered by conversion to apples and cherries. Only two wineries remained in 1970. The long book of Michigan wine history was seemingly writing its last chapter.
But the book goes on. Michigan boasts 233 wineries in 2023 according to the Wine Business Monthly, having experienced steady growth over the last ten years. Michigan ranks #9 among U.S. states in terms of winery count, wedged between North Carolina (205 wineries) and Ohio (329 wineries). Surprised by these numbers? I thought you would be!
Simpson Family Estates
The wines we sampled from Good Harbor Vineyards and Aurora Cellars have roots that go back more than 40 years, which is a very long time in American wine. Founder Bruce Simpson aspired to make good, affordable wines in Michigan and, after studies at UC Davis, he and his wife Debbie established Good Harbor Vineyards in 1980. The operation remains in family hands today and has grown into Simpson Family Estates, which includes both Good Harbor and the Aurora Cellars wines. Harbor Hill Fruit Farms, which supplies grapes and winemaking services to the family wineries and other winemakers, too, is also family-owned and -operated.
Given our previous experience with Michigan wines, we weren’t surprised that the Dry Riesling and Gruner Veltliner wines we tasted were very good. But the quality of the sparkling wines and the Pinot Grigio caught us a bit off guard, as did the Kiwi-esque punch of the Sauvignon Blanc.
The red wines from Aurora were the real surprise. The Cabernet Franc was terrific and the Blaufrankisch was excellent, with a bit more soft grip than the Cabernet Franc and good fruit flavor, too.
Blaufrankisch (a.k.a. Lemberger) is an under-appreciated grape variety and we are glad to see it getting attention in Michigan. The grape was planted here in Washington state in the early days but is slowly disappearing as vineyards are replanted to more profitable Cabernet Sauvignon. Lemberger sells out at the tasting room, one winemaker told me, but it is hard to sell through distribution.
We were surprised to see Blaufrankisch in Michigan. But then Michigan wine is full of surprises, isn’t it?