Michigan Wines

Michigan winemakers unsure about effects of mild winter

It may be the off-season, but Michigan wineries don’t exactly hibernate in the winter, though some cut back on hours or close for a while. But if you’re a frequent visitor in the summer, now is the time to beat the lines and get a jump on the new vintages, especially at the larger spots.

But first things first: the mild weather, which means you’re in luck on the roads, though vintners have had a mixed response to the winter that wasn’t.

“Essentially, we’ve had no snow cover,” says Mark Johnson, winemaker at Chateau Chantal at the tip of Old Mission Peninsula outside Traverse City. “The vines are not as winter-acclimated as they should be. Spring brings the potential of hard frost. When buds start pushing out and you get 29 degrees, you’re talking about killing vines.”

Lee Lutes, winemaker at Black Star Farms, concurs. “It’s wacky. I was in vineyards last week, on bare grass that almost looked green like springtime,” he says.

The problem is that growers count on snowfall to blanket and insulate the vines to protect them from the usual frigid temperatures.

The southwest, on the other hand, has been getting average snowfall, but according to Joe Herman, owner of Karma Vista Winery in Coloma, just inland from Lake Michigan, “it melts right away.” The wineries in that area got their biggest snowfall of the year last weekend — 18 inches.

“We have two hurdles in Michigan — winter and spring,” Herman says. “In spring, once you see some green in the vines, 32 degrees is your enemy, not zero.”

Duke Elsner, small fruit extension educator with Michigan State University in Grand Traverse County, is hopeful.

“It’s such a strange year that we are at risk for trouble, but it hasn’t happened,” Elsner says. “Vines are not as cold-hardy as they should be. But here it is, the second half of February, and we might get through this. If we don’t get an extremely cold event we’ll be OK.”

Meanwhile, you’ll find some destination experiences at the tasting rooms:

Romancing the Riesling, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 18: All the wineries on Old Mission Peninsula will serve a Riesling with a food pairing. Tickets are $15 and are available at the wineries or online.  Chateau Grand Traverse will host a Riesling tasting and seminar at its inn from 1-2:30 p.m. hosted by the winery’s Sean O’Keefe. Tickets are $25. Space will be limited, so call (231) 223-7355 for a reservation. You can purchase a combo ticket for both events for $35.

Wine seminars, cooking classes at Chateau Chantal: Winemaker Mark Johnson leads all-day classes that include a tour of the Old Mission Peninsula cellar, vineyard walk, wine tasting, peasant’s lunch and six-course dinner with wines. Dates are March 31 and April 28. Cost is $145. Cooking classes with chef-educator Nancy Krcek Allen, chef-instructor Lynne Brach and chef Perry Harmon are set for March 3, March 10 and March 24. Hands-on classes run from 12:30-4:30 p.m. and include wine pairings. Cost is $125. Call (800) 969-4009 or go online.

Tours at Tabor Hill Winery: View the wine cellar and a video on tours that run every half-hour from noon to 4:30 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays through April. In good weather, visitors can visit the vineyards and winemaking facility. The restaurant, with views of the vineyard, is open from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. Reservations on weekends are suggested. Tabor Hill is in Buchanan, in the southwest corner of the state.