The Ultimate Michigan Wine Bucket List
Wine-related must-dos throughout the Mitten State
Nearly four years ago, when I traded my decade-plus job as a weekly newspaper reporter to launch Michigan By The Bottle Tasting Room, I imagined I’d have copious time to immerse myself in all of the Michigan wine-related things I’d always dreamed of doing.
While that’s come true in some ways — I would never have been able to regularly attend winemaker’s dinners back then, for instance; now, we host them monthly — it’s mostly been the opposite. Owning a business is one of the most satisfying and rewarding feelings in the world, but the work is never done, which makes spur-of-the-moment jaunts to the wine trails fewer and further between.
Over the last few months, I began compiling a list of all of the Michigan wine adventures and experiences I wanted to have in the near future, so I could firmly commit to accomplishing them. As I jotted those ideas down, I realized how many things I’ve been fortunate enough to have already done that other Michigan wine lovers may want to add to their own to-do lists.
That mixture of things I can already recommend and things I still want to do composes what I hope to be a solid Michigan Wine Bucket List.
Visit every winery in Michigan: A few years ago, I could say I'd been to nearly every winery in Michigan and feel pretty confident in that statement. But every year, new wineries join the fold, and I'm falling behind. It’s a great problem to have — to live in an up-and-coming wine region that’s flourishing so spectacularly that we can’t keep up!
Since that one’s a biggie, here are some sub-goals:
Experience the Bay View Trail: This Petoskey-area wine trail is building momentum, and I'm ashamed to say that I’ve only been to one winery there. This region recently got on the map in a big way with federal approval of the Tip of the Mitt American Viticultural Area, and it's high time we started seeing firsthand what it's all about.
Visit wineries in the UP: My husband is a Yooper, yet I haven't been to the Upper Peninsula in 15 years, and I've never been to one of the handful of wineries located there. Sounds like it's time for a road trip.
✓ Visit the Old Mission Peninsula wineries: Just north of Traverse City, OMP has an undeniable charm all its own. With 10 wineries, it’s just-barely manageable in a single day — though to rush through these gems would be a waste.
Visit the Leelanau Peninsula wineries: With more than 25 to its name, Leelanau Peninsula is now so populated with wineries that you couldn’t possibly do them all in one day (unless, possibly, you have a liver of steel and a very patient designated driver). Do it right and take several days to hit up this trail. The Leelanau Peninsula Vintners Association even helps you out by dividing the trail into “loops” for easy travel planning. (No “✓” for me, since there are still one or two newer ones I haven’t visited.)
Visit the Pioneer Wine Trail: This trail is one of the best kept secrets in Michigan wine, with about a dozen wineries concentrated around the Jackson/Ann Arbor area. Being so close to Detroit, it makes a fantastic day trip. (Only partial “✓” for me on this one, since there are a few new wineries I've yet to visit.)
Visit the Lake Michigan Shore Wine Trail: Chicagoans seem to be in touch with this trail, but many Michiganders remain clueless about this gorgeous region in southwestern Michigan. While Traverse City seems to get all the attention, southwest Michigan is awesome in its own right. Tons of great wineries with a rural, relaxing feel. (Only partial “✓” for me on this one, since there are a few new wineries I've yet to visit.)
Spend time in each of Michigan's AVAs: You haven't experienced everything Michigan has to offer until you've visited all of the state's American Viticultural Areas: Leelanau Peninsula and Old Mission Peninsula in northwestern Michigan, Lake Michigan Shore (in which Fennville is another sub-AVA) in southwestern Michigan and, as of this summer, Tip of the Mitt, spanning several counties at the top of the Lower Peninsula. It's fascinating to taste firsthand the effect different soils and climates can have on wine produced within the same state, and to hear the winemakers there discuss the different advantages and challenges they face.
As for the non-geographical items:
✓ Drink with a winemaker: I feel incredibly fortunate to have had this opportunity many times, both through our blog and through our tasting rooms. Spending time with Michigan winemakers gives a whole new depth to the experience; it makes the wine feel personal. And you’ll probably never forget, say, Lee Lutes showing you how to spit wine elegantly into the floor drains at Black Star Farms.
✓ Tour a winery: Once you take a peek behind the scenes, you'll have a whole new appreciation for the effort that goes into creating what's in your glass. From harvest to crushing to fermentation to bottling, the winemakers and their teams have a lot of work to do before their tasting room staffers put that bottle in your hands to take home.
Help with a harvest: This is one I can’t yet check off, and let’s be honest: It sounds like a lot of work. But everyone I know who’s done this has said it’s a great experience, giving them a better understanding of the process and making them more appreciative of what it takes to go from grape to glass.
✓ Attend a major wine trail event: I can cross the Traverse City Wine & Art Festival off my list, as well as the Lake Michigan Shore Wine Festival at Weko Beach, but there are a ton of other great events organized by the wine trails throughout the year, too. Toast the Season and Harvest Stompede on Leelanau Peninsula? Romancing the Riesling and the Great Macaroni & Cheese Bake-Off through Wineries of Old Mission Peninsula? The Pioneer Wine Trail's Big Grape Bus Tour? Sunrise Side Wine & Beer Festival in northeastern Michigan? 2017 may need to be the year of the wine festival for me.
Join a wine club: Can't get enough of a Michigan winery's wine? Chances are, they have a wine club, so you can support a Michigan-based small business while getting your fix. Plus, most wine clubs offer their members special perks, like exclusive access to special events, free or discounted tastings and tours, etc. Who doesn't want to feel like royalty when they go wine tasting?
Stomp grapes: I haven't done this, but Hollywood has made it seem essential to a wine bucket list.
✓ Visit a major Old World wine region: On the surface, this may not seem Michigan wine-related; yet, over my years with MichiganByTheBottle.com and MBTB Tasting Room, I've realized that knowledge and appreciation of Michigan as an up-and-coming grape-growing and wine-producing region increases exponentially when viewed through a global lens. I was deeply grateful to be able to check this one off last spring, with a visit to Champagne, France.
✓ Witness disgorgement in action: As a sparkling wine fanatic, I'd always wanted to watch this process in person. The yeast remaining in the bottle after secondary fermentation is frozen and violently expelled prior to the adding of dosage, which tops off the bottle and determines the sweetness level. I got to see this live at the L. Mawby production facility on Leelanau Peninsula, courtesy of Larry Mawby. For a bubblehead like me, it was every bit as cool as I'd anticipated. If you're a bubbly fanatic, you may geek out at this as well.
✓ Taste in a cellar: There's nothing like sampling wine in the place where it was created. Yes, this is even better than sampling wine on your couch in your pajamas. And speaking of cellars …
✓ Try barrel samples: As I tell guests during our Michigan Wine Appreciation 101 classes: "If a winemaker asks you if you want to try barrel samples … the answer is always YES!" If you visit a winery at the right time — especially during the off-season, when wineries are less bustling and everything is more laid-back — you might just encounter a winemaker willing to share some samples from the barrel or tank. It's quite an experience to try wine as it's in progress (and to watch Charlie Edson scale the towers of barrels at Bel Lago to get that no-really-final sample from the very top one).
✓ Attend a wine dinner/winemaker's dinner: Something truly magical happens when wine is paired with food — a good match elevates both the food and the wine to the sublime. Winemaker’s dinners especially are a great way to satisfy all of the senses by enjoying a gourmet meal, delicious wine, and the interaction between them, all while learning more about the featured winery.
✓ Do a vertical tasting: Comparing the same wine from different vintages, side by side, is an incredible way to experience firsthand the effects of varying growing conditions and how the wine has aged over time. It’s both educational and, of course, delicious — and all the better if hosted by the winemaker.
✓ Take a wine class: Many wineries offer classes, and there also are various options available through your local colleges and community organizations. They may not all be Michigan-focused, but any wine class will give you a greater appreciation of Michigan wine as well. At MBTB Tasting Room, we hold monthly workshops that focus on all different aspects of wine appreciation, viewed through the lens of Michigan wine. If you're serious about increasing the depth and breadth of your studies, consider investing in the introductory sommelier program through the Court of Master Sommeliers, which typically holds one session a year in Michigan.
✓ Try more than just the wines you think you’ll like: When you walk into a winery and select only the ones you're confident you'll like for tasting, you limit the possibilities. At one time very early on, I thought I only liked Late Harvest Riesling. If I had continued to only try similar wines, I would have never discovered that I also like tart Vidal Blancs and rich Cabernet Sauvignons and delicate Pinot Noirs and refreshing dry rosés … the list goes on and on. Don't go into a winery thinking you don't like dry wine or sweet wine or Merlot or Riesling. Try it all. You just may be surprised.
And here are a few ideas from MichiganByTheBottle.com fans:
“I'm working on the visit-every-winery goal, but after Mackinaw Trail posted, looking for harvest help, I added harvesting to my list, too. Someday I'll get it all done!” — Heather Barringer, Ferndale
“I struggled with (bucket list items) for a bit — until my Michigan BrewVine Passport arrived in the mail today. My goal is to get a stamp for all 20 wineries listed.” — Adam Hiltunen, Algonac
“We have completed the Bay Shore Wine Trail, the Wineries of Old Mission Peninsula, and almost all of the wineries around Leelanau. We want to finish those and start on the southwest side of the state.” — Holly Goodwin Whitehead, Mount Pleasant
“I'm on a quest to try as many non-vinifera varieties from Michigan that I can. Probably at 20-plus right now — Marquette and Frontenac Gris are two favorites.” — Matt Killman, winemaker, Mackinaw Trail Winery
What’s on your Michigan Wine Bucket List? Comment below!
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, tasting rooms operated in partnership with multiple Michigan wineries, located in Shelby Township, Royal Oak and Auburn Hills. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.