Winery visits can be just as good — if not better — in the off season
The notion of visiting Michigan wine country often calls to mind images of leafy green vines, plump purple grapes, and sun-soaked patios.
But even as the temperatures drop, snow blankets the vineyards, and the vines go dark and leafless for the winter, Michigan wine country is still a worthwhile vacation destination — some argue it’s an even better time. Here, winery reps and travelers weigh in on why winter rocks when it comes to Michigan wine.
Take advantage of the more personalized attention.
Nancie Corum Oxley, winemaker for St. Julian Winery in Paw Paw, cited smaller crowds as the number one reason to visit Michigan wineries off-season.
"Most tasting room staff members will have more time to interact with customers and explain the wines into more detail," she says. "St. Julian oftentimes offers additional wines with each tasting. The winemakers may also be more free to visit with customers."
In the slower winter months, "our staff has the time to really sit and get to know you and your likes and dislikes," says Meridith Lauzon, tasting room manager at Left Foot Charley in Traverse City. "We can really help tailor the wine tasting to just you and help you stock your cellar with some real gems."
The prospect of more personalized service seemed to be the biggest appeal for die-hard wintertime winery travelers.
"I love being able to talk to the people at the wineries," says Sherri Adcock of Bay City. "It's not too busy or crowded … and we can stay all day!"
Kathryn Wolff of Royal Oak likes the opportunity to interact with owners and winemakers.
"Anytime you get to hear someone share their passion with you, it's a marvelous experience,” Wolff says.
Verify hours of operation.
Failure to verify a winery's seasonal hours is the biggest rookie mistake of wintertime trail hopping. While some wineries are open daily, many limit their winter hours (typically to weekends), and a handful close down altogether until spring.
"There is nothing worse than driving around, only to find your destination is closed," says Lauzon.
Call ahead if you have a group.
Calling ahead for a big group is always a good idea, but it’s even more essential in the wintertime, when wineries may have limited staff on hand. By checking in advance whether a winery has a special group policy, you can head off disappointment, expedite service, and ensure the visit is a memorable one — in a good way. No one wants to arrive at a winery only to discover they don't accept tour buses or that another group is already occupying the attention of all available staffers.
Check beforehand to see whether special events are scheduled.
There are two types of wine trail travelers: those seeking organized events, and those looking to avoid them. Either way, it's wise to verify in advance whether a major event is coinciding with your trip. Even during the off-season, there are plenty of activities scheduled along the trails and at individual wineries. The long-standing events have fan bases that have been building for years.
"The winery does not sleep," says Sandhill Crane Vineyards’ Christina Bryant, citing events at the Jackson-based winery like its January Wine & Wool Festival for knitters and crocheters. "It plays in the winter."
Other examples include the Wineries of Old Mission Peninsula's annual Winter Warm-Up event in January and Romancing the Riesling, celebrating one of Michigan's most notable grapes, in February. Across the bay, the Leelanau Peninsula Vintners Association's Taste the Passion event, featuring food and wine pairings, is held each February.
There are also many wintertime winery festivities that benefit charities, such as Round Barn Winery's Giggle & Mingle with Santa Claus (Dec. 6), and Wineries of Old Mission Peninsula's annual Day of Giving (Dec. 13).
Plan on getting tickets well in advance, if required, as space is usually limited and spots often sell out in advance.
Take in the seasonal charm.
There's plenty to love about snow-dusted wine country, and the small towns scattered throughout the regions can lend themselves to great holiday shopping and getting into the seasonal spirit.
Bed and breakfasts located onsite at the wineries — such as Black Star Farms, Chateau Chantal, and Chateau Grand Traverse — are often storybook perfect during the winter, offering guests a chance to curl up next to the fireplace with a glass of wine.
Many wineries are located in close proximity to places suitable for skiing or snowshoeing, so bring your gear (or most areas have rental options). The picturesque trail that extends between Blustone Vineyards, Tandem Ciders, and Forty-Five North Vineyard & Winery on the Leelanau Peninsula, crossing orchards and vineyards along the way, even garnered a shout out in The New York Times last February. Dan Matthies, owner of the Leelanau Peninsula’s Chateau Fontaine, said his customers are free to cross-country ski or snowshoe on his property.
Over on Old Mission Peninsula, Patrick Brys, director of operations for Brys Estate Vineyard & Winery, says plans are in the works to revive last winter's "Old Mission Snowshoe Wine & Brew." The Sunday sessions teamed Brys Estate with Bowers Harbor Vineyards and neighboring brewery/restaurant Jolly Pumpkin, encouraging visitors to snowshoe between the venues, with wine and beer specials upon arrival.
Another example of taking advantage of the weather: Bowers Harbor schedules sled dog rides on several Saturdays, December-March.
While most wineries' outdoor patios are closed for the season, some have fireplaces or cozy indoor seating to make up for it.
Mike Herbon of Harrison Township sees the lack of vegetation as a benefit. "Views are amazing,” he says, “no leaves on the trees."
Make sure your vehicle can handle more than a little snow.
Depending on how deep into the countryside you're venturing, you may encounter more snow than you're accustomed to back home. Brendon Redick of Clinton Township recalled getting his wife's convertible stuck at Lone Oak Vineyard Estate in Grass Lake, and Wolff of Royal Oak had a similar experience at Bowers Harbor. Four-wheel drive is a plus.
Look for sales.
Winter can be a great time to score deals along the wine trails. The Leelanau Peninsula Vintners Association, for instance, holds two weekends of Cellar Sales in December, featuring discounts on wine and merchandise at participating wineries. And several wineries plan Black Friday celebrations.
Many hotels and inns in Michigan's wine regions — including most located on wineries’ premises — have lower rates during the off season. Some offer packages that include winery visits, casino trips, dining, etc., such as the VIP Wine & Spa packages at Grand Traverse Resort. If you've been eyeing luxurious accommodations that were out of reach financially — or perpetually booked up — during the summer, winter is the perfect time to pounce.
Follow the same rules of decorum as usual.
Just because tasting rooms are quieter, regular rules of courtesy don’t fall by the wayside. All common-sense standards apply, even if you're the only people in the room with the tasting room staff. And be polite if you don't particularly enjoy a wine; the winemaker could be standing within earshot.
Know your limits.
As with any trip that involves alcohol consumption, safety is key. Get a designated driver or hire a reputable tour company to transport you. Eat meals and snacks so you're not drinking on an empty stomach, and drink plenty of water. Don't be afraid to ask for a "dump bucket" if you'd prefer to expectorate the wine after tasting it instead of swallowing it. It's what the pros do and you won't offend anyone, so long as you do it discreetly. It's a great way to identify the wines that you like and want to purchase without imbibing to excess.
Cortney Casey is a certified sommelier and co-founder of MichiganByTheBottle.com, a website and online community that promotes the entire Michigan wine industry. She’s also co-owner of Michigan By The Bottle Tasting Room, a joint offsite tasting room in partnership with multiple Michigan wineries, with locations in Shelby Township and, come December, Royal Oak. Contact her at email@example.com.