To say that 2017 was a pivotal year for Josh Morgan would be putting it mildly.
In the span of only a few months, Morgan got married, bought a house, and moved to Petoskey, leaving his longtime role behind the scenes at Black Star Farms for the new head winemaker position at Petoskey Farms Vineyard and Winery.
Since its establishment in 2014, Petoskey Farms had relied on custom crush facilities for its wine production. But Tracie Roush, who owns the winery with her husband, Andy, says they knew in 2017 that “the time had come to take another leap of faith” and consolidate all manufacturing operations in-house — which meant hiring their own winemaker.
That winemaker arrived in the form of Morgan, an affable young 30-something looking for a chance to make his mark on the Michigan wine industry — even if it meant uprooting amid the busiest year of his life.
“July was insane, in a good way,” Morgan says. “I took the job at Petoskey Farms in May, but continued working at Black Star Farms until July. During that time, we sold my wife’s house, but July was the month everything started to just fly.
“We found our house in Petoskey — though we didn’t get occupancy until the middle of harvest, so we had to live with the in-laws for a month — got married, started working here at Petoskey Farms, and then, shortly thereafter, left for Alaska for our honeymoon. It was one of those (moments where) I blinked and before I knew it, harvest was upon us.
“It challenged me, but truthfully, I would not have had it any other way,” he adds. “I’m so happy with how this summer turned out. The 2017 vintage will forever have a special place in my heart.”
Winemaking wasn’t originally in the plans for Morgan. A native of Mio, Mich., he earned his bachelor’s degree in parks and recreation management from Central Michigan University and moved to Traverse City after landing a job there. When that career wasn’t all he’d hoped, he sought a job to hold him over while he attended firefighter school.
In July 2008, Morgan began working in Black Star Farms’ tasting room. Just a few weeks later, they needed help with bottling, “and the rest is history,” he says. “I fell in love with the concept of making wine.”
Morgan spent six years at Black Star Farms’ Old Mission facility, learning everything he could from Vladimir Banov, the production winemaker there, specializing in white wines, fruit wines, and distillation. In 2014, he shifted to the Suttons Bay production facility and took over as cellar master for red wine production.
Morgan says his favorite aspect of Black Star Farms was “the family atmosphere of it.
“It was a place that, if you needed help doing anything, someone, from any department, was there to help you,” he says, specifically recalling their support when his father was diagnosed with cancer and underwent major surgery at the Mayo Clinic. “It meant the world to me. Companies like that are few and far between.”
Banov and Lee Lutes, head winemaker at Black Star Farms, also taught him “how important the little things are, the attention to details,” Morgan adds.
“When you are burning the midnight oil during harvest and you take the time to do that one addition that you are dreading because you know it will take another hour … those details go a long way to creating a great product,” he explains. “I credit a lot of that ‘You don’t go home until the wine doesn’t need you anymore’ mentality to Lee Lutes.”
“The transition to Petoskey Farms … was appealing from the standpoint that I wanted to step out on my own and try something new,” Morgan says. “Working with almost all hybrids was exciting to me, as it’s something that not many wineries in Michigan are doing. I am looking forward to taking everything I learned at Black Star Farms, the care and attention to detail, and try to apply that to grape varietals that are just being released and new to our region.”
Amusingly enough, the humble Morgan didn’t even realize that his job interview — a sit-down family dinner with the Roushes and their friends — was just that. He thought the Roushes were interested in consulting, or picking his brain about other head winemaker candidates. It wasn’t until he was in the car headed home afterward when he said to his now-wife, Sarah: “That was an interview, wasn’t it?”
Tracie Roush calls Morgan’s arrival “divine appointment” and says her family is “grateful and humble” to have him on board.
“After much prayer and wondering who would be filling that huge seat, in walks a guy sharing the same dreams and values as our own,” she says. “Not only is he gifted in winemaking, he is a humble man that cares for people as much as he does each individual wine. He is meticulous with every step of the winemaking process, treating each varietal as one would their own baby — attentively, particularly, delicately.
“Josh came ready, willing, and able to do it all: make the highest-quality wine while collaborating with the entire community and region for the common good,” she adds.
The 2017 harvest — Morgan’s first at Petoskey Farms — was a smaller one for him than those of the previous decade, but challenging in its own way.
“To put this harvest into perspective, Black Star Farms processes around 650 tons — sometimes more, sometimes less — of grapes every year,” he says. “At Petoskey Farms, we processed around 36 tons. This was the first full grape harvest at Petoskey Farms, and it went surprisingly smooth.
“It definitely was a workout, as we didn’t have a rotator for our forklift to rotate the bins into our crusher-destemmer,” he adds. “We had to hand-shovel the grapes into the destemmer. I can say, though, this is the closest I feel like I’ve been to my grapes in the 10 harvests I’ve been a part of. It was also one of the better vintages we’ve had in years, as that late season sun really made this harvest something special.”
Pressed to choose a favorite grape to work with, Morgan picks pinot noir.
“As Lee Lutes puts it so perfectly … it’s the ‘heartbreak grape,’ ” Morgan says. “In great years, pinot noir is beautiful, but as Michigan can prove, it can turn on you in a second. The thrill of the chase for the perfect pinot noir makes me love it.”
Winemaking isn’t Morgan’s only passion: He’s also still active in the firefighting profession. While at Black Star Farms, he finished fire school and landed a position with the Grand Traverse Metro Fire Department. Now, he serves as a firefighter for the Petoskey Department of Public Safety.
“I’ve been a firefighter and medical first responder as long as I’ve been into making wine,” he says. “Being a firefighter for me is about giving back to my community and being there to help people in their moment in need.”
And even though his career took an unexpected turn from his original plans, Morgan says the underlying principles that drove him to pursue the parks and rec path still apply today.
“The customers are the reason I do this — to create an experience,” he says. “It’s why I got into recreation management. I wanted to create something where people could get away for the day, shut off the outside world, and just enjoy the company of their friends and family … and in wine, we can do that.”