Tip of the Mitt Shakes Up the Michigan Wine Map

State gains first new AVA in nearly three decades
Mackinaw Trail Winery in Petoskey is one of the wineries that will be affected by the new AVA.

Come 2017, Michigan wine lovers may notice a new phrase on bottles at their favorite wineries and retailers: Tip of the Mitt.

After years of apply, wait, and repeat, winemakers and grape growers in a six-county segment of northern Michigan are celebrating the establishment of the new Tip of the Mitt American Viticultural Area, approved by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau in late July.

AVAs are federally designated subdivisions of a larger wine region that, in terms of grape growing, exhibit characteristics distinctive from surrounding areas.

The expansion of Michigan’s AVAs from four to five is a significant milestone. According to Karel Bush, executive director of the Michigan Grape & Wine Industry Council, Tip of the Mitt is the state’s first new AVA in nearly 30 years.

The Straits Area Grape Growers Association — founded to promote viticulture north of the 45th Parallel — submitted the latest application for the Tip of the Mitt AVA designation in November 2013 after two previous unsuccessful applications.

“Needless to say, we were excited and relieved to finally have achieved the AVA approval,” says Brendan Prewitt, a SAGGA board member and owner of Cheboygan-based Harvest Thyme Farm & Vineyards. “We’re excited about the opportunities that the AVA brings with it and look forward to continuing to build the Tip of the Mitt into a respected viticultural and winemaking region.”


Meet Tip of the Mitt

Since the Tip of the Mitt area is surrounded by water on three sides, the group needed only to prove what set it apart from the region adjacent to the south, says  Prewitt.

“To do this, we looked at the climate and soil type data to make our case,” he says. “When we compared the historic climate data to the region to the south, we found three main differences.”

The AVA has a longer frost-free growing season by an average of 19 days, “likely influenced by the lakes,” says Prewitt. It also has 251 more “growing degree days” than the region to the south. In addition, its climate is generally less extreme, with fewer sub-zero days, warmer monthly average lows and warmer extreme lows.

The AVA’s soil is sandier and less heavy, Prewitt says, explaining that means it “would heat up faster in the spring, to make the argument that not only would the grapes produced within the AVA be of higher quality, but that the climate would also allow growers to grow varieties that likely either would not ripen during the shorter season or would not survive the extreme winter lows that exist to the south of the AVA.”

In fact, the AVA is too cold to grow traditional vinifera grape varieties like cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and riesling, Prewitt says. Instead, the area’s growers depend heavily on newer hybrid varieties like Marquette, La Crescent and frontenac gris “that can provide a full crop … in spite of low winter temperatures and short, cool growing seasons,” he says. “We want the Tip of the Mitt to convey the mastery of growing grapes in a challenging climate and the production of top-quality wines from these relatively new grape varieties.”

The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau requires that the AVA’s name be representative of the entire region. Identifying one that was appropriate for an AVA spanning 2,760 square miles and six counties — Charlevoix, Emmet, Cheboygan, Presque Isle, and parts of Antrim and Alpena — was a bit of a challenge.

“The only name that we could readily prove represented our member growers as far southwest as northern Antrim County and as far southeast as northern Alpena county was Tip of the Mitt,” he says. “To do this, we gathered a sizable list of businesses, events and photographs that have the name ‘Tip of the Mitt’ in them throughout the AVA region.”


Michigan’s Fab Five

With the addition of the Tip of the Mitt, Michigan now has five total AVAs.

Even the most avid Michigan wine fans may not be familiar with the first: Fennville, established in 1981. It’s rare to see it on a bottle, since Fenn Valley is the only winery within that AVA and because the Fennville AVA is encompassed by southwestern Michigan’s larger and more widely known AVA, Lake Michigan Shore.

Lake Michigan Shore’s AVA was established in 1983. The other two AVAs, Leelanau Peninsula and Old Mission Peninsula, are both in the northwestern part of the state around Traverse City. Leelanau’s AVA was approved in 1982; Old Mission’s came in 1987.

“There hasn’t been a new AVA in Michigan since 1987, so this is pretty exciting — not just for Tip of the Mitt, but for the entire state,” says Bush.


The ABCs of AVAs

So what’s the point of an AVA, anyway?

Wine is about a sense of place. A Riesling vinified and vitified in Germany, for instance, will share some general varietal characteristics with a riesling from Michigan, but they are far from identical. The unique growing conditions specific to the area play a role in the wine that results.

Getting even more particular, a Riesling from the Leelanau Peninsula AVA will experience slightly different conditions than one grown in the Lake Michigan Shore AVA.

AVAs also are useful for marketing and consumer recognition purposes.

“Acquiring this AVA is an important step for wineries in that region,” Bush says of Tip of the Mitt. “It gives them a level of credibility in the world of wine, and for the consumer, there is a certain status for wines that display an AVA.”

In order for an AVA to appear on a label, that wine must contain at least 85 percent grapes from that region. The threshold is lowered to 75 percent for including a county or state on the label. Such labeling is especially of note to consumers interested in ensuring that the wines they’re buying are crafted from Michigan-grown grapes.

Dustin Stabile, head of production at Mackinaw Trail Winery, says the Tip of the Mitt AVA’s approval will finally allow his Petoskey-based winery to add “estate grown” designations to some of its labels. The prestigious phrasing indicates that 100 percent of grapes used to make the wine come from vineyards that are under the producing winery’s control, but it can’t be used without an AVA attached, explains Bush.

The new flexibility “in turn gives us more avenues for marketing,” Stabile says. “It was perfect timing, as this will be our first significant harvest on our estate vineyard.”

Prewitt believes the AVA’s establishment will provide the area’s grape growers and wineries “with an important branding and marketing opportunity at a time when wine-related tourism is on the rise.”

As grapes harvested this year will be eligible for the Tip of the Mitt designation, Prewitt anticipates consumers can expect to begin seeing the phrase on labels within the next six to 12 months.

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 Auburn Hills. Contact her at cort@michiganbythebottle.com.