I pride myself on being a fervent planner, often to the dismay of my more spontaneous- minded friends. In my role of tasting room owner, I’m often asked questions about visiting Michigan wineries, and I always suggest to plan, plan, plan ahead.
I’m not sure how my own advice eluded me on my most recent trip to the Lake Michigan Shore Wine Trail in Southwest Michigan. Somehow, my husband Shannon and I found ourselves heading westward with few solid plans except for a booked hotel room.
The fun-but-convoluted 48 hours that resulted led me to develop this anti-how to guide for traveling the LMS trail.
• Don’t head out — especially on a holiday — without checking each winery’s hours. I naively assumed that all wineries would be open on Labor Day, as it’s what I would consider a “”touristy”” holiday. Not so; some of our favorites were closed for the holiday (some are just always closed on Mondays). Several had abbreviated Labor Day hours. Don’t necessarily rely upon Facebook pages or business websites; a winery may list its normal hours of operation while neglecting to mention holiday hours. A quick phone call can alleviate a lot of hassle.
• Don’t wait until you’re in the car to plan your wine trail route. The Lake Michigan Shore trail is quite sprawling, stretching north to Fennville and South Haven; east to Kalamazoo, Paw Paw, and Mattawan;, and south to Berrien Springs, Baroda, and Buchanan. We half-heartedly planned our sequencing while cruising down I-94, but then I became more interested in taking a nap. This resulted in us pinballing all over Southwest Michigan. It was scenic, but time consuming — time we could have spent drinking wine.
• Don’t overestimate how many wineries you can cram into one day. We are repeat offenders on this one. We start chatting with tasting room staffers and suddenly, the afternoon is gone.
We were fortunate enough to make it to Dablon, a new winery growing unusual (to Michigan) grapes like tannat, petit verdot, and malbec. The Baroda-based tasting room alone is worth the visit, with soaring ceilings, vineyard views, and a warm stone and wood interior complete with fireplace and leather sofas. But we missed out on another new winery, Cogdal Vineyards in South Haven, and several familiar favorites.
• If you like to eat as much as I do — and have a propensity to be disappointed if every vacation meal isn’t one to remember — don’t leave your dining choices to chance. There are too many great restaurants in the area to risk missing (and, as we learned, some of the best are closed on Mondays).
Favorites in the region include Salt of the Earth in Fennville; Tabor Hill Winery’s restaurant in Buchanan; and Fandango, a tapas joint in Kalamazoo. A silver lining in our wanderings this trip was discovering Food Dance, also in Kalamazoo.
After all of our strikeouts, there’s one stop I didn’t dare leave to chance. I was so intent on eating at Joe’s Café Breakfast House — which we discovered by accident two years ago — that we drove by Monday night to make sure it was still there in anticipation of Tuesday (and Wednesday) breakfast. Nestled in a strip center on M-139 in St. Joseph, this Latin-influenced hidden gem whips up breakfast classics (some with Mexican spins) and traditional Mexican lunch fare. The portions are huge, the food is delicious, and the ambiance is sunny and cheerful.
Our major regret was finding Plank’s Tavern on the Water, the Inn at Harbor Shores’ waterside restaurant, too late. We didn’t get a chance to dine there, but wished we had after swinging by on a recommendation. We bought glasses of Southwest Michigan wine and parked in Adirondack chairs facing the water for hours one night, vowing to both eat there and stay at the inn someday.
• Don’t go in with preconceived notions about the southwest part of Michigan playing second fiddle to its northwestern counterpart. This isn’t a sin I’ve committed personally, but one I’ve witnessed enough that it merits mentioning. With its dazzling views of the bay and resort-like atmosphere, Traverse City and its surrounding peninsulas seem to get all the glory. But Southwest Michigan is truly legit wine country with its own charms and strengths. With a slightly different growing season and different weather patterns, you’ll find more cabernet sauvignon and syrah down here. Many of the winery owners are the same people who get their hands dirty in the vineyards. The endless fields provide a serene, pastoral landscape, and visitors longing for water views can soak up plenty with a stroll along Lake Michigan in St. Joseph and South Haven.
• In a similar vein: Don’t assume you know a winery because you’ve had their supermarket offerings. Case in point: St. Julian in Paw Paw. (While no longer a technical member of the LMS trail, they formerly were and are located in the vicinity.) Consumers familiar with their Heron line of wines may dismiss them as a bulk wine producer, but St. Julian’s repertoire actually has far more breadth and depth than what their grocery store presence would suggest. Their Braganini Reserve line, sold only in the tasting room, boasts a delicious Meritage and Cab Franc, among others, and their Solera Cream Sherry and Catherman’s Port are steals when it comes to dessert wine.
What are your strategies for traveling Lake Michigan Shore Wine Trail? Comment below and let us know!
For more information on the LMS Wine Trail, visit lakemichiganshorewinetrail.com.
Cortney Casey is a certified sommelier and cofounder 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, joint offsite tasting rooms in partnership with multiple Michigan wineries, located in Shelby Township and Royal Oak. Contact her at email@example.com.