2016-09-22 / Front Page

Vintners refill red wines

By Jay Bushen
Of The Enterprise staff

FRONTENAC GRAPES hang from a vine at the Northwest Michigan Horticulture Research Center in Bingham Township. Photo: MSU Extension FRONTENAC GRAPES hang from a vine at the Northwest Michigan Horticulture Research Center in Bingham Township. Photo: MSU Extension Sunshine, warm weather and the promise of a heavy, vintage crop have local vineyards buzzing in more ways than one.

Just ask Erwin “Duke” Elsner, who began harvesting grapes at the Northwest Michigan Horticulture Research Center two weeks ago.

Elsner, a small fruit educator for MSU Extension, said area growers have been happy to harvest in summery September temperatures — even if they aren’t thrilled about elbowing up next to busy bees and wasps.

“It’s a little hazardous, it’s no picnic out there,” Elsner said with a laugh. “You can’t please us entirely.”

The sting of lackluster harvests in 2014 and 2015 hurt local grape growers and winemakers much worse.

Red wine inventories featuring the flavor of Leelanau Peninsula vinifera grapes are running low at some wineries, placing county vintners in an unfortunate race against time.

“Three (bad years) in a row would have been disastrous,” Elsner said. “We had to bring in fruit from outside the area to satisfy some needs, so to finally get local fruit and a good quantity of it will put us back on our feet again for high-quality local material. Red wine grapes have a very good crop this year.

“We had a lot and we’re just running out of the last good year. There’ll still be a little gap in red wines as we get them through processing, but it’s good to have them back again.”

Lee Lutes, head winemaker and general manager of the winery at Black Star Farms, said some area vintners have had to choose between rationing local red wines or offering products made with grapes grown elsewhere.

Black Star Farms was fortunate enough to dodge the dilemma.

“We’re in better shape than many, but two or three years ago we were sitting on a bulging inventory,” Lutes said. “My partners and I were looking at each other and saying, ‘What are we going to do?’ In hindsight, it looks like we were brilliant in our planning. That bulging inventory helped carry us through those lean couple of years.”

A promising crop is just what vintners ordered, and this year’s haul has the potential of being just that.

A fairly mild spring and a warm summer gave grapevines an early start and a good chance to produce green tissue, Lutes said, setting up a September that has treated growers with quality ripening conditions so far.

“As long as this continues into October, this could be one of the great years — could be,” Lutes said. “As we all know in Michigan, the weather can change on us in a heartbeat.”

Grapes began ripening earlier than usual this year due to warm temperatures, Elsner said, putting most varieties ahead of schedule.

That’s a big plus for growers and vineyard managers who have more time to see fruit ripen before fall frosts.

An earlier harvest also gives grapevines more time to mature wood and move nutrients to their roots buried beneath the soil, Elsner said.

“The grapevines will be healthier going into winter,” he said.

Doug Matthies, owner of Big Paw Vineyard Services, used three words when asked to describe this year’s harvest on Monday — “so far, epic.”

The 2016 harvest has a chance to rank “right up there with 2012,” Matthies said, making his 11- to 12-hour harvest shifts seem a little bit sweeter.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” he said. “It’s going to take us 35 days to pick everything, but the vintage is excellent and we’re really excited.”

So, too, are local wine connoisseurs who appreciate their pinot noirs and cabernet francs made right here in Leelanau County.

Lutes said locals hoping to take in views of area vineyards while missing fall-color traffic shouldn’t hesitate to make their rounds.

“There’s probably not a better time to get out and visit the wineries,” Lutes said. “October is always a very busy month. I encourage people to get out ahead of the color-season push, in the next couple of weeks. Once the colors start changing, we see people from all over the country. It makes the tasting rooms very crowded.”

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