Grapes take a stand
The 2011 Michigan Fruit Inventory found that 680 acres in Leelanau County devoted to grapes, nearly 60 percent higher than the tally of 2000 when just 275 acres were counted. Likewise, the number of farms in the county growing grapes nearly doubled from 20 to 39.
The trend carried across northwest Michigan where the number of acres planted in wine grapes increased 62 percent over the 11-year span.
“We’re at a unique time in the agricultural history of the county,” said Don Gregory of Cherry Bay Orchards, which has hundreds of acres in cherries and apples and most recently added wine grapes to diversify its business. They came with the purchase of a winery, Chateau de Leelanau, located at Hilltop Road and M-22 south of Suttons Bay. “If we were to come back 100 years from now, I wonder if there’ll be more grapes than cherries.”
That’s a good question given the results of the same fruit survey released in July with a more than 1,000-acre drop in cherry acreage on the peninsula over the same time period. Between 2000 and 2011, the number of county farms growing red tart cherries fell from 143 to 107; sweet cherries, 137 to 107.
Some 400 of those acres no longer producing cherries were lost between 2006 and 2011.
Up until this year, an over abundance of red tart cherries has driven the price of cherries down, necessitating a federal marketing order to balance supply with demand. At the same time, the number of wineries in the county have grown to more than 20 with two more tasting rooms set to open yet this year: Blue Stone Winery on Sylt Road and Laurentide, at
Popp Road and M-204.
Local wineries are turning out award-winning products not only recognized statewide, but beyond the borders of the Great Lakes State. Leelanau Peninsula wines took four of the seven “best of” titles at the Michigan Wine & Spirits Competition last week.
“Wine grapes in southwest
Michigan is something that they’ve been doing a long time. They certainly know what they’re doing with that crop,” said Irwin (Duke) Elsner, Michigan State University small fruit specialist. “But it’s the climate and growing conditions in Leelanau that produce fruit with far fewer disease issues. And when you give a winemaker good fruit, they can make great wine.”
Vintners in Leelanau County and all of northwest Michigan generally have better growing conditions than their counterparts downstate.
“It’s brighter and there’s less rain and humidity,” said Elsner, who grew up in the grape-growing downstate. “That’s ‘hellish’ country in terms of humidity.”
Growing conditions are also dictated by site selection, which is something that Dan Matthies of Lake Leelanau has studied over the years. Through his business, Peninsula Properties, Inc., Matthies matches prospective wine producers with grape acreage.
“We don’t have enough acreage in grapes to meet the demand of the wine industry in Leelanau County, “ Matthies said. “We’re 500 acres short.”
It’s dark, sandy loam soil, proximity to Lake Michigan and the inland Lake Leelanau stretching up the middle of the “Little Finger” make Leelanau a great place to grow grapes.
At $15,000 per acre, the cost of planting grapes seems pricey compared to tart cherries or other fruit. But the payoff can be bigger, which is a contributing factor to growth in the industry.
“Many (vineyards) sell all the wine they make each year,” said Andrew McFarlane, spokesman for the Leelanau Peninsula Vintners Association. “People are discovering our wine region and are buying our wine. This reduces the price which leads to broader distribution which in turn leads to planting more vineyards.”
While there has been no documentation to suggest that cherry orchards are being replaced by vineyards, anecdotal evidence is there. And the trend may pick up steam as local tart cherry growers cope with the financial implications of this year’s crop— or lack of a crop.
“I’m seeing a change among the farmers and I’ve had some call me to see about selling a portion of their cherry acreage for grapes,” Matthies said.
Leelanau wine industry pioneers said years ago that a number of wineries would have to open on the peninsula for it to be considered a “destination” for wine tasting.
But when is “enough” too much?
“Is there a point of ‘critical mass’ when the average operation sees diminished intake? I don’t know,” Gregory said.
McFarlane, who agrees the biggest limitation for the wine industry locally is a lack of grapes, believes that growth will continue.
“There may be a point where we have too many (wineries). But we’re not even close today,” he said.