Road Tripping Through West Michigan’s Wine Coast

By Dianna Stampfler

Visitors have been traveling the Lake Michigan shoreline for generations, drawn to the cooler climate, sugar sand beaches and quaint coastal towns. This region – known as Michigan’s “fruit belt” – is also deeply rooted to the agricultural industry with vineyards, orchard and farms dotting the landscape.

Mariano Meconi, founder of St. Julian Winery, recognized the value of this grape growing region when he moved his Canadian operations (via Detroit) to West Michigan in 1936. Today, Michigan’s oldest and most decorated winery is run by the fourth generation of the family, offering tasting room experiences at their production facility in Paw Paw, as well as in Union Pier, Dundee, Frankenmuth, Rockford and Troy. Here, visitors can sample from an expansive portfolio of wines, ciders and spirits produced by one of the first female winemakers in the state, Nancie Oxley.

St. Julian is among 21 wineries within the Lake Michigan Shore AVA (American Viticultural Area) – one of five such federally recognized regions in Michigan that stretches along US-31 from the Indiana state line north to the Straits of Mackinac. It is this proximity to Lake Michigan (the second largest of the Great Lakes by volume, third largest by area and the only one entirely within the United States) that provides the ideal terroir – climate, topography and soil – for growing wine grapes.

The next generation of winemakers are honing their skills on the campus of Lake Michigan College in Benton Harbor. This is the Midwest’s first commercial teaching winery, where students buy fruit from local growers to produce their own wines which are then bottled, marketed and sold within the Welch Center for Wine & Viticulture under the Lake Michigan Vintners brand. The tasting room is open to the public on Fridays and Saturdays, Noon to 6pm.

While a handful of wineries can be found along Lake Michigan’s central coast from South Haven north to Beulah, it is the Traverse City region (Leelanau and Grand Traverse counties) which boasts the largest concentration of Michigan’s wineries, with nearly three dozen.

The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is one of Michigan’s premier vacation destinations, with historic sites like the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive (and covered bridge), Port Oneida rural district, Glen Haven village and Leland’s Fishtown – with its preserved fish-shanties-turned-retail-shops (like Carlson’s Fishery and the Village Cheese Shop). Just a couple blocks away, Verterra Winery uses estate-grown grapes for its various wines like the 2021 Dry Riesling which won a “Double Gold” at a the latest Pacific Rim competition or the 2018 Reserve Red Cab/Merlot which was aged in French oak for 18 months. You’ll also find some stellar restaurants nearby including The Cove, The Bluebird and The Riverside Inn.

Mawby Vineyards & Winery, south of Suttons Bay, is all about the bubbles. They produce a variety of sparkling wines, from sweet to dry and white to pink, with fun and creative names like Freestyle, Grace and Sex (if you visit the tasting room, be sure to ask for the back story about this one). They even offer two styles in 4-pack cans – perfect for a day on the beach, boat or trail.

If you’re a fan of the History Channel show “The Curse of Oak Island,” you’re likely familiar with Mari Vineyards on the Old Mission Peninsula. Perched on an east facing bluff, this 31,000-square-foot Tuscan-style production facility and tasting room is a must visit for wine lovers. Sean O’Keefe – one of Michigan’s premier winemakers and son of Edward O’Keefe, the late wine pioneer and founder of Chateau Grand Traverse – utilizes 100 percent estate-grown grapes to craft Mari’s Italian-influenced wines. European style grapes such as Nebbiolo and Sangiovese are grown alongside Merlot, Cab Franc and Riesling, then nurtured to perfection in a proprietary Nella Serra hoop house. Upon harvest, the fruit is carefully crafted and aged into an impressive and ever evolving collection of wines. Visitors can order a flight, glass or bottle and congregate in one of the indoor seating areas or on the patio (complete with a fireplace, making it accessible year-round). Private tours take visitors to exclusive places like the wine cave, with its one-of-a-kind 32-foot-diamater Oculus. Here, light shines down from the middle of the vineyard over a large compass rose, which points toward the sun’s solstice position.

Michigan’s newest AVA is the Tip of the Mitt, established in 2016, home to the Petoskey Wine Region. This area is rich with cold-hardy hybrid grapes that produce flavorful wines like Marquette, Frontenac Gris and Catawaba, among many others. These distinct varietals drew big attention throughout the state in 2017 when Walloon Lake Winery was awarded a “Best of Class” Double Gold Medal in the Dry Red category for its North Arm Noir at the annual Michigan Wine Competition – a rarity for a hybrid wine.

Tucked in off US-131 between Walloon Lake and Petoskey sits Boyne Valley Vineyards – easily recognizable by the pale yellow 1952 Chevy 3100 truck parked on a roadside bluff (unless it is winter, when you might spot a vintage snowcat). Down the dirt drive, a monitor barn style tasting room features plenty of windows and natural light, with modern yet rustic decor. This is a popular place for guests to order a glass (or bottle) of wine and a charcuterie, hummus or dessert plate, before settling in near the fireplace, outside on the patio or on the elevated Tree House deck. Live local music is offered every Friday and Saturday, year-round. Winter means snowshoe hikes through the nature preserve adjacent to the tasting room property or cozying up inside one of the patio igloos with a small group of friends.

Heading north out of downtown Petoskey, 3.5 miles past the historic 1875 Bay View summer resort colony, is Petoskey Farms Winery. You’ll be hard pressed to find a better place to soak up the fall colors than the 60-foot-long outdoor covered patio overlooking the 11-acre vineyard and 22-acre scenic pastures. Less than a mile away, is Michigan’s sweetest tasting room – Maple Moon Sugarbush & Winery, which opened in 2015 as America’s first maple winery. This family-run business offers a variety of fruit and hybrid grape wines all crafted with maple syrup from their wooded 80-acres. Wines like Maple Marquette, Maple Blanc and Maple Royal (a mouth-watering dessert wine) are actually fermented directly from the sugars in the syrup. In the tasting room, you can also purchase pure maple syrup and candy, ice cream, jam, salsa, granola and other delicious treats.

 

RESTAURANTS

Tabor Hill Winery began production operations in Buchanan (Berrien County) in 1972 and a decade later opened a fine dining restaurant – the first of its kind in the state. Overlooking the lush sloping vineyards, this modern eatery even offers al fresco seating when weather permits, with lunch and dinner service Thursday through Sunday. While you’re there, be sure to check out the Mt. Tabor Trails which connects this winery with its sister property, Round Barn Winery, via a series of scenic loops (and yes, you can take your adult beverage with you for the walk).

The Fennville area is an AVA within an AVA, and this little Allegan County village is bursting with culinary and agricultural offerings. Salt of the Earth is touted as a rustic American eatery, with a hyper-local menu straight from the farm (including their own chef’s garden just steps from the kitchen). Not only is the mouth-watering food menu sourced from nearby growers, but the beverage menu is also Michigan-centric – from beer to wine to spirits. Music lovers will also find plenty of opportunities to check out local artists who are scheduled throughout the year on the small stage area within the bar dining area. This foodie town is also home to Fenn Valley Vineyards, Virtue Cider, Michigan Wine Co., Evergreen Lane Creamery, Gold Coast Farms and Crain’s Pie Pantry – which produces fruit wines in addition to operating a seasonal restaurant and bakery (with the best pies around).

The Village at Grand Traverse Commons is one of Traverse City’s most visited sites. Once home to the Northern Michigan Asylum (Traverse City State Hospital), this revitalized district is a work in progress graced with a handful of restaurants (Trattoria Stella, Spanglish, PepeNero and Red Spire), coffee shops (Cuppa Joe and Higher Grounds) and the state’s first urban winery – Left Foot Charley. If the weather permits, gather with friends on the patio and enjoy a glass (or bottle) of Blaufränkisch, Island View Pinot Blanc, Kerner or Le Caban Riesling from award-winning winemaker Bryan Ulbrich, along with a tasty charcuterie plate. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch an evening where live local music is featured.

M-119 is one of the most picturesque drives in Michigan, stretching from just north of Petoskey through Harbor Springs and up to Cross Village. A route highlight is Pond Hill Farm (open Wednesdays through Sundays), where you’re invited to sample wine, cider and beer paired with woodfired pizzas, sandwiches and salads. This year-round destination is all about family, with a pumpkin patch (and catapult) in the fall and a sledding hill and Christmas tree farm in the winter (among other activities).

 

LODGING

The southwest corner of Michigan is known as Harbor Country, a collection of eight charming communities where folks like film critics Siskel & Ebert, author Carl Sandburg and Chicago gangster Al Capone once lived, vacationed or hid from the law. Historic properties like Lakeside Inn, Garden Grove Inn and The Inn at Union Pier still welcome visitors to this “Hamptons of the Midwest” region. Further north in St. Joseph, The Boulevard Inn offers spectacular views of Lake Michigan overlooking Silver Beach (with its whimsical carousel) and the 1907 range lighthouses, within walking distance to the quaint downtown shopping district.

Three wineries in the Traverse City area feature on-site B&Bs including Black Star Farms in Suttons Bay, as well as Chateau Grand Traverse and Chateau Chantal both on Old Mission Peninsula. Brys Estate Vineyard & Winery, in the heart of the Old Mission Peninsula, has converted its former barn into a charming 2-bedroom, 2-bath, 1,000-square-foot Guesthouse. While on site, be sure to check out the Upper Deck along with its Vineyard Overlook (a popular place for photos and selfies, with the vines as a backdrop).

Antrim County’s WaterFire Winery not only produces a small menu of exceptional wines, but from April through December they welcome visitors to the Torch Lake Vineyard Retreat, a quaint AirBnB unit attached the tasting room. Located on a former 26-acre cherry orchard, this is Kewadin destination is the first Sustainability in Practice (SIP) certified winery outside of California.

Charlevoix is renowned for its rustic “hobbit houses” built out of a collection of boulders and rocks by famed architect Earl Young during the 1920s-1930s. One of his larger public buildings, The Lodge, was opened in 1959 and within the past few years was rebuilt as the elegant three-story, 56-room boutique Hotel Earl (complete with a main level lounge and rooftop bar). About three miles southeast of town on M-66, another massive stone structure – Castle Farms – welcomes visitors to explore its grounds, gardens and The 1918 Cellars Wine Tasting Room. Both indoor and outdoor seating is available for those who wish to sample a flight, sip a glass or savor a bottle of these regional wines. They also host live music every Wednesday evening and the limited-seating farm-to-table dinners (Sept. 20 and Oct. 11) are a real treat.

Stretching out along Little Traverse Bay just southwest of Petoskey is the classic Inn at Bay Harbor featuring picture perfect rooms, a relaxing spa, waterfront Cabana Bar and Vintage Chophouse. Steps away, downtown Bay Harbor offers additional restaurants and shops, as well as the Great Lakes Center for the Arts with year-round concerts and theatrical performances, in an upscale and intimate setting. Many of the Petoskey Wine Region tasting rooms are also nearby, including Mackinaw Trail Winery, Resort Pike Cidery & Winery, Rudbeckia Winery and Spare Key Winery.

 

EVENTS

September 9-11
Paw Paw Wine & Harvest Festival

September 10 & October 8
Wine on the Water Cruise
(Star of Saugatuck)

September 15-October 2
ArtPrize – Grand Rapids

September 16-18
Love Local Weekend – St. Joseph

September 17
Balloons Over Bay Harbor

September 17
Manistee Hops & Props

September 19-14
Grand Haven Restaurant Week

September 23
Michigan Distilled Festival
Kalamazoo Farmers Market

September 23-25
Harbor Springs Festival of the Book

September 28
unWINEd Aboard the Aquastar – Muskegon

October 1-2
Blue Coast Artist Studio Tours
(South Haven to Saugatuck)

October 1-31
The Hunt for the Reds of October

November 4-6 & 11-13
Toast the Season – LPVA

October 6-9
Fennville Goose Festival

October 16-18
Charlevoix Apple Festival

October 15-16
Arts & Eats Tour (Allegan & Barry County)

October 22
Food, Wine & Art Experience – Benton Harbor
(ARS Arts & Culture Center)

October 22
Fall Finale Art & Wine Walk – Suttons Bay

November 4-12
Grand Rapids Restaurant Week

November 18-19
Grand Rapids International Wine, Beer & Food Festival
grwinefestival.com

 

MICHIGAN AVAs

Michigan boasts five federally recognized AVAs (among more than 260 nationally):

Fennville AVA (Established in 1981) – 75,000 acres
Leelanau Peninsula AVA (Established in 1982) – 75,000 acres
Lake Michigan Shore AVA (Established in 1983, Amended in 1987) – 1,280,000 acres
Old Mission Peninsula AVA (Established in 1987) – 19,200 acres
Tip of the Mitt AVA (Established in 2016) – About 100 acres

 

MICHIGAN WINE TRAILS

Lake Michigan Shore Wine Trail

Leelanau Peninsula Vintners Association

Wineries of Old Mission Peninsula

Traverse Wine Coast

Petoskey Wine Region

Southeast Michigan Pioneer Wine Trail
thepioneerwinetrail.com

Reprinted from the 2022 Fall/Winter issue of Explore Michigan magazine.

 

Dianna Stampfler has been writing professionally since high school. She is the president of Promote Michigan and the author of Michigan’s Haunted Lighthouses and Death & Lighthouses on the Great Lakes, both from The History Press.