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Michigan wineries could run out of grapes

Peter Payette

Vintners in Michigan could have another disaster on their hands this year. Last year, Michigan vineyards produced about one fourth of the grapes grown in a normal season. The results could be about the same this year and that might leave wineries with little in the their cellars.

Mark Johnson says he was told this day could come. He’s been growing grapes on Old Mission Peninsula since the early 1980s. The first vines were planted in the region in the mid-1970s, and in those days faculty at Michigan State University said it was a bad idea because popular European grape vines can’t handle temperatures too far below zero.

Johnson figures people like him were a little naive. They threw caution to the wind and went with their “gut feeling.”

“This is about as close to heaven as we’re gonna get,” he says. “And there should be a vineyard in heaven, so we’re planting.”

The view of Grand Traverse Bay from Chateau Chantal is heavenly. But these days, Johnson is thinking about those early warnings from MSU as he surveys frostbitten vines and widespread damage.

Temperatures five degrees below zero or colder are a problem for grapevines and that happened at least three times this winter. Johnson says the coldest recorded temperature on Old Mission Peninsula was 19 below.

And the previous winter was also cold and deadly. Last fall, Chateau Chantal produced just 75 tons of grapes in a vineyard that can produce 300 tons in a good year.

2013 was a bumper crop and Johnson says they have plenty of wine to get through this summer. But if this year’s crop is as bad as last year’s, he says wineries in Michigan will be importing grape juice to make wine for 2016.

“If we don’t have it ourselves,” he says. “We can’t just close the doors. So all the wineries are going to have to be looking to supplement whatever they have with juice from somewhere else.”

Nobody knows whether this year will be as bad as last year, but the signs are troubling. Duke Elsner is with MSU Extension and says in addition to frozen buds it appears the vines themselves were damaged more this winter.

“It is possible for some recovery of the woody tissue,” he says. “And so it will really be a roll of the dice for a while waiting to see how well they recover.”

Looking for a silver lining

Vintners like Bryan Ulbrich at Left Foot Charley are planning for the worst while trying to make the best of it. Ulbrich figures there is a chance to draw attention to how precious the grape crop is in northern Michigan.

“We get one harvest. We get one chance to make the wine,” he says. “So we’re going to kind of use this as a way to teach the public about how special our wines really are and part of that specialness is there are going to be some years when they’re not as widely available.”

If Ulbrich does have to order grapes to keep his tasting room in Traverse City going, he says he’ll make it clear those wines are not Michigan wines. He did that with cider in 2012, when the apple crop in Michigan was frosted out and Left Foot Charley imported apples.

“So we had a cider called Empty Bushel,” he says. “And we said, ‘Look, this is from New Hampshire. This is the story of how this community of agriculture does work together to help each other out in tough times.’”

He is also looking hard in the back of his wine cellar. Ulbrich says winemakers have a kind of rainy day fund because they’re always setting aside cases of wine and trying to forget about them.

“There are years I’ve said, ‘Whoa, you’re squirreling away way too much,’” he recalls. “Then this comes around and I say, ‘You have a great opportunity to start showing these things.’”

Ulbrich plans to release some of these older vintages to keep his supply up. Some are wines that might have remained in the cellar out of reach of the public.

“A lot of those wines I save for wine writers and people from out of the area who are trying to understand the breadth of our industry,” he says. “Now this will give us the chance to do that on a little bigger scale with everybody.”

Peter Payette is the Executive Director of Interlochen Public Radio.