Southeastern Michiganders can get a taste of Leelanau a little closer to home with the opening of VinBar — a new joint venture between the L. Mawby, Good Harbor, and Black Star Farms wineries — in downtown Ann Arbor.
The collaborative tasting room quietly opened its doors to the public in mid-August at 111 W. Liberty St., a few doors off Main Street, and features about two dozen offerings from the three Leelanau County wineries.
“Good Harbor, L. Mawby, and Black Star Farms had all been thinking about opening up a second — or in some cases, a third — tasting room in various regions of the state,” says Taylor Simpson, Good Harbor sales marketing and distribution manager. “When we realized that we all had a similar concept and vision, the idea of opening a tasting room together sounded appealing and made sense.”
Mike Laing, winemaker for L. Mawby’s M. Lawrence brand, said the fact that the three wineries produce complementary styles of wines made the partnership even more logical. Lee Lutes, head winemaker for Black Star Farms, agreed that the collaboration felt natural, since it involves three of the longer-established wineries on Leelanau Peninsula.
The trio tapped Ann Arbor as the place for the project because they agreed that it represented a hole in their current distribution, says Lutes.
While Lutes believes Ann Arbor consumers have at least some familiarity with the three brands involved, the wineries found that their southeastern Michigan distributors were having difficulty securing placements on store shelves and restaurant wine lists. Through VinBar, he said, they can “take it right to the market.”
“We are hoping to introduce a wider audience of Michigan consumers to our wines in an atmosphere that will diversify the bar scene in downtown Ann Arbor,” Laing said.
VinBar’s target market is Ann Arbor’s year-round residential population, along with nearby restaurateurs. VinBar may stage special events specifically aimed at attracting the eye — and palate — of local chefs and sommeliers.
An ingrained enthusiasm for buying local also made Ann Arbor attractive.
“Next to Traverse City and Grand Rapids, it’s the one other city in Michigan that is really focused on the locavore movement,” says Lutes. “They’re big local supporters. They’ve got a lot down there in terms of local food, pulling in from the local farmers. It’s a foodie town. We thought, why not make our wines (their) local wines?”
VinBar’s space on Liberty boasts a charming Italian-esque storefront exterior and what Lutes describes as “old-school, classic” mercantile ambience inside. Original thick plank flooring and dark wood tables and chairs give it a warm, homey vibe, as do the curving window seat and plush armchairs that create cozy conversation space. The silver-topped bar and coordinating bar stools add a touch of modernity.
VinBar can accommodate just over 30 people, which Lutes says was by design.
“The hope is to have it be comfortable and warm and welcoming,” he said. “It’s a space that people can have a little intimate time with our staff down there, and learn a little more if they want to.”
Beyond that, Simpson said, “We hope to use the space to host events with the Ann Arbor community, and want to work with the local restaurants and retailers as well in order to help spread the word about the growth and overall quality of Michigan wine.”
VinBar’s list includes a mixture of reds, whites, bubblies, and hard ciders from the three parent wineries, priced by the half-glass, glass, and bottle. Offerings include a special L. Mawby traditional-method sparkling wine, VinBar Stadium Cuvee, and Black Star Farms’ Peninsula Merlot, of which VinBar General Manager Kate Nordby says only 30 cases were produced. Also on the menu: Black Star Farms’ 2012 Arcturos Winter Harvest Riesling, named Best in Class Dessert Wine at the 2014 Michigan Wine Competition.
Since the location has a spirits license, Lutes says they plan to offer brandy sampling and cocktails, too. Sweet and savory nibbles like olives, cheese, and shortbread are available, but “we’re definitely not a restaurant,” says Lutes. The focus remains on the beverages.
VinBar’s staff members are assessing initial traffic patterns — bound to be thrown into a tailspin on Football Saturdays in Ann Arbor — to set hours of operation. They’re tentatively set at 3-10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 3-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and noon to 8 p.m. Sunday.
Visitors should call ahead, 734-368-9750, to verify hours.
Meanwhile, in East Lansing…
VinBar isn’t the only collaborative effort to set up shop in a college town in 2014. Last spring, St. Joseph-based White Pine Winery teamed up with Red Cedar Spirits and Uncle John’s Fruit House Winery to launch a joint tasting room in East Lansing. The venture arose out of a longstanding friendship and professional relationship between Dave Miller, the winemaker and owner at White Pine, and Red Cedar Spirits owner Kris Berglund. They teach a course together at Michigan State University called “fermented beverage technology.” Their shared facility features wines from White Pine, hard cider from Uncle John’s, cocktails made with Red Cedar Spirits products, and various small bites, including items culled from the Michigan State University Dairy Store.
For more information, visit facebook.com/RedCedarSpirits.
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 six Michigan wineries, located in Shelby Township. Contact her at email@example.com.