2021 Taste Makers: Chris Southern Leads the Program at Detroit Vineyards

The general manager and head wine maker draws on the best grapes from Michigan’s wine growing regions
chris southern - detroit vineyards
Detroit Vineyards barrels stack up against some of the best wines in the state, thanks to head winemaker Chris Southern.

Wine is not high on the list of things people think of when they think, “Made in Detroit.” But thanks to Chris Southern, general manager and head winemaker at Detroit Vineyards, it should be. Born in Michigan, Southern stumbled into winemaking while in California, and then spent 10 years working in wine there and during stints in Washington, New Zealand, and South Africa. In 2019, he was lured back to Detroit to take over the fledgling Detroit Vineyards operation.

Detroit Vineyards is situated in a stunning post-industrial space in the former Stroh’s factory near Eastern Market. Stroh’s made ice cream there until the 1980s, after branching out from beer during Prohibition. But before all of that, it was the original St. Julian Winery, making it the perfect home for one of the state’s most exciting new wineries.

There are no actual vineyards at the building that bears the Detroit Vineyards name. In a style of winemaking Southern is familiar with from California, the winery purchases its grapes from expert growers at vineyards all over the state. “Michigan has a lot of microclimates, and they’re different from those I was used to in California, so they offer a lot of opportunity to be creative,” Southern says. In doing so, he draws on the best grapes from the various wine growing regions, such as Lake Michigan Shore, Leelanau, and Old Mission Peninsula. 

Soon, though, Detroit Vineyards will be bottling its own grapes. In 2018, the winery planted a vineyard in Detroit’s Morningside neighborhood. Vineyards take an average of four to five years to become productive, but Southern is hopeful the site could produce
some grapes this year — although “it might just be a bucket’s worth,” he says. 

At full production, the 1-acre vineyard could produce up to 3 tons of Marquette grapes, a hybrid varietal that the winery will be able to turn into 1,500 bottles of wine. But for now, Southern and his team are working on coaxing the vines into the best fruiting positions. If the Morningside vineyard is successful, the winery may expand to additional sites in the city.

When Detroit Vineyards opened in 2019, the focus was on the space itself as a destination. Saturday afternoons would find the room packed with people finishing up their shopping at Eastern Market. That model wasn’t going to work in 2020, due to restrictions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, so instead, Southern spent the year focusing on quality. He also introduced a second label. The Detroit Vineyards label features well-executed versions of well-known varietals, such as a bright and fresh Chardonnay aged in 40 percent stainless steel and 60 percent second-fill French oak barrels. The newer Woodward & Vine label is where Southern goes to play, drawing on his solid winemaking education and experience but injecting that independent Detroit spirit. CV is a Chardonnay-Vignole blend with a tropical nose, bright acidity, and rich finish. ¡Blau! is a veritable explosion of fruit made from Blaufränkisch, a traditional Austrian grape variety that grows particularly well in Michigan. 

As the state has opened up again, so too has the tasting room. Guests can sample wine, enjoy cheese and charcuterie, and even book a tour of the winemaking facility. They can also join Detroit Vineyards’ Wine Club for access to limited releases, special events, and year-round discounts. It’s a little taste of wine country right in the middle of Detroit. 

For more information, visit detroitvineyards.com.

This story is featured in the August 2021 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more stories in our digital edition. And learn more about this year’s Taste Makers here