Linda Jones didn’t grow up in this state — or even in this country.
So when she arrived in Michigan in 1998 and accepted a job with the state’s Department of Agriculture, her reaction was similar to many non-Michiganians, and even local residents, at that time, who would ask: “We make wine in Michigan?”
“I remember hearing that comment at many of the consumer tastings I attended that year,” Jones says. “We don’t hear that comment anymore.”
Today, Jones is arguably more familiar with Michigan wine than most, and has played a significant role in increasing public awareness of the state’s up-and-coming wine industry.
For nearly two decades, Jones worked as program director (synonymous with executive director) for the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council, a program under the Department of Agriculture umbrella that’s responsible for promoting exactly what the name suggests.
The council comprises a dozen individuals: winery representatives, grape growers, restaurant and retail professionals, state officials, and members of the public. The purpose, Jones says, is “advising the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development on the optimal deployment of resources.”
Jones’ responsibility was to ensure the council program complied with the 1985 law that created it. Council members make policy decisions; the staff implements them.
Jones retired from the position late last year, citing eventual plans to return to her native British Columbia, Canada. Her husband will retire in the near future, and they’d like to be closer to their adult children and extended family.
The council is “in a good place right now,” with “a very capable and stable staff” and “a solid group of council members,” she says.
“The Michigan wine industry has become an integral part of how I define myself,” she says. “It was never going to be easy to turn the page and move on to something different.”
Growing an Industry
Jones moved to Michigan from Ontario so her husband could accept a professorship at Michigan State University. That was eight months before she accepted the position with the Department of Agriculture. At the time, her familiarity with the area was nil.
“I knew nothing about Michigan prior to moving here,” she admits, “except that Detroit was on the other side of the border from Windsor.”
Over her time here, Jones says, she fell in love with the state and has learned a great deal about Michigan wine and wine in general.
She believes Michigan’s wine industry has come a long way, not just in quantity — there were only 19 wineries when she started, compared to around 120 now — but also in quality.
“Every emerging (wine) region passes through phases of growth and develops a toolbox of well-suited grape varietals and industry expertise for which they can become known and which can support the wineries financially as they grow,” she says. “Michigan is no exception. It takes time, money, and a willingness to take risks from both the public and private sectors to move a wine industry along a continuum of increased success year after year.
“The variation Michigan experiences in climate from year to year poses a lot of challenges for the industry, but I feel that the collective experience of the past 25 years is helping the industry to make better decisions.”
For consumers who don’t think Michigan when they think wine, Jones advises an open mind — and palate.
“I ask people to set aside their preconceptions about wine that are based on their experiences with wine from other regions, and be open to evaluating — without bias — the wines we produce in Michigan,” she says. “The grape varietals may be unfamiliar, but the quality is there, if you are willing to look for it.”
Jones says she wishes consumers would have the same attitude about top-quality Michigan wine as they seem to have about craft beers. Sometimes, getting the best of the best means spending a little more.
“I like to think of estate wines like limited edition art: There is only so much wine that can be produced from a vineyard in a growing season, and there is no opportunity to go and ‘make more’ to meet consumer demand,” she says. “Consumers should appreciate these ‘fleeting moments in wine’ and reward the estate wine producer for taking the risks and delivering the quality wine from whatever challenges that particular growing season has provided to them.”
A Grand Vision
Gordon Wenk, chief deputy director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, called the Michigan wine industry’s growth during Jones’ tenure “tremendous.”
“Linda’s consummate professionalism and plucky spirit brought new awareness to the quality of Michigan wine, blended wine with tourism and made the Michigan Wine Competition a place where wine judges from across the country wanted to participate,” he says.
Held every August in Lansing, the Michigan Wine Competition attracts winemakers, wine writers, sommeliers, and other industry professionals from within the state and far beyond as judges. Contenders include a varied slate of reds, whites, sparkling, and dessert wines.
Christopher Cook, superintendent for the Michigan Wine Competition (and chief restaurant critic for Hour Detroit), agrees that Jones “solidified the (competition) as an important tool for broadcasting the wine industry’s successes.”
Cook presented Jones with a 1930s Spanish military medal of bravery as a token of his appreciation during the 2015 Michigan Wine Competition, the last under Jones’ watch.
“It’s quite beautiful and … I thought it was fitting in part because of the look of the medal, but also (because) Linda has slogged in the trenches of government and the wine industry for a long time to make people believe in this industry,” Cook says. “That hasn’t always been an easy task, for sure. I just thought it worked for the occasion, somehow.”
Karel Bush, previously the council’s promotion specialist, has been tapped to assume the program director role. Bush says Jones will be missed.
“After working side-by-side with Linda for 15 years, I can tell you I have not met another person more dedicated to the success of the Michigan grape and wine industry,” she says. “She has helped build the industry through her leadership, and I look forward to continuing her important work.”
Wenk points to CNN’s recent declaration of Michigan as one of 10 “up-and-coming” wine regions worldwide as a testament of Jones’ work and the legacy that will continue long after her departure.
“Linda has a grand vision for the future of Michigan wines,” he says. “She shared it with all of us, and made us all feel a part of what a fabulous journey it will be.”
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 (coming in 2016) Auburn Hills. Contact her at email@example.com.