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The History of Michigan Wine

Commercial wine making in Michigan first appeared in the 1800′s in the Monroe region along the Lake Erie shoreline. The state census of 1884 indicated that 24,685 gallons of wine were produced in Michigan. Of the 3,228 acres of vineyards, 1,550,702 pounds of grapes were sold. Notably, 12,335 gallons of wine — half of the wine production in the state – was produced in Monroe.[1] Wild varieties of grapes were used at first until larger quantities of varietals such as Concord, Delaware and Norton’s Virginia were planted.

In 1868, A.B. Jones planted several hundred vines in Van Buren County in southwest Michigan and named his farm, “Pioneer Vineyards” after having success with selling his grapes. [2] Several other vineyards followed and were planted in the area. Wine began to ship via railway across Michigan and to neighboring states, and by the early 1900′s, Michigan became one of the top wine producers in the Union.

Towards the end of the 1800′s, the vineyards in the Monroe area started to experience Grape Rot, a serious diseases of wild and cultivated grapes that’s most destructive in warm, humid areas, and the wineries were abandoned, making Southwest Michigan the premiere grape growing region. During prohibition, the wineries stayed alive by selling grapes to Welch’s Grape Juice Company. Surprisingly, during Prohibition, alcohol was a booming business along the Detroit River becoming a $215 million industry, second only to the auto industry. After 13 years of discord, Michigan is the first state to repeal Prohibition. [3]

After Prohibition, several wineries opened in Southwest Michigan, and Mariano Meconi relocated his wine business to Detroit from Windsor in 1934, renaming it Meconi Wines, Ltd. Meconi established today’s oldest, continuously-operating winery, which is now St. Julian Wine Company in Paw Paw and is still family-owned. [4]

Michigan Wineries specialized in sweeter wines through to the 1970′s to satisfy the drinkers of the era. Michigan law in the mid-20th century placed a tax of 4 cents per U.S. gallon on Michigan wine while other wine was taxed at 50 cents per U.S. gallon. State laws allowed wine that was made of at least 75% Michigan grapes to be sold in grocery and drug stores while fortified wines from out-of-state, could only be sold from state liquor stores. [5]

In the 1960′s, wine drinking became more popular among American’s and wine tastes began to change to dryer table styles. In 1972, the State of Michigan changed a law increasing the amount wineries had to pay farmers for grapes to receive a much-needed tax break. The combination caused several wineries to close and others to start producing wines more suitable to the public’s taste. Soon after Ed O’Keefe planted the state’s first large-scale planting of European vinifera grapes on Old Mission Peninsula, and began Chateau Grand Traverse. Several wineries followed, enticed by the Lake Michigan shoreline and open farmland.

In the 1980′s, 4 Michigan AVAs or Agricultural Viticulutural Areas were formed, Fennville, Lake Michigan Shore, Leelanau Peninsula, and Old Mission Peninsula. An AVA is a designated wine grape-growing region in the U.S. with boundaries defined by the U.S. Department of the Treasury Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB).

The Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council (MGWIC) was established in 1985 to provide research, education and promotion for Michigan grapes and wines. The Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council is a 10-member Council established by the Legislature to promote Michigan’s wine and wine grape-growing industries.

Today, the Michigan Wine industry plays a key part in Michigan tourism, attracting more than 800,000 visitors annually. Michigan’s 73 commercial wineries produce more than 1 million gallons of wine annually, making Michigan the 13thranked state in wine production, and bringing in more than $300 million annually to Michigan’s economy. [6]

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