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Booming demand and harvest shortfalls
push northern wineries to out-of-state suppliers

Bowers Harbor 2010 Pinot Gris

by Joel Goldberg

Spot the difference between those two bottles?

Both are 2010 Pinot Grigio, sold by Bowers Harbor Vineyards on Old Mission Peninsula. The label on the left affirms that most of the grapes grew in "Michigan, USA".

The bottle on the right carries no geographic designation. But it's made from grapes that grew in Washington State, according to a winery employee.

This isn't something Michigan winery owners or winemakers are eager to discuss. Most of them built reputations on a commitment to locally-sourced grapes, frequently grown in their own vineyards. But sharply rising customer demand and shaky weather that's hammered yields for two straight vintages have forced some northern Michigan wineries to adjust their business strategy, at least short-term.

The adjustment: they're now buying out-of-state grapes, juice and pre-made wines to augment shrunken in-state supplies.

Brys Estate Harvest Celebration: Attendance up 67%
Brys Harvest Celebration: Attendance up 67%

At Old Mission's Brys Estate, long a strong proponent of estate-grown wines, operations manager Patrick Brys lays out the stark facts.

"We had two bad years back-to-back, 2009 and 2010," Brys said. "In 2010, the grapes were wonderful but the crop was down 40% because of a frost on Mother's Day."

An unusually cool summer the preceding year, in 2009, forced growers to reduce yields and left many wineries unable to ripen grapes sufficiently to make satisfactory wine, especially the later-harvested red varietals.

But if crop yields are down, demand is up -- way up. On Saturday, October 8, over 1000 tasters jammed Brys Estate for its annual Harvest Celebration, a 67% increase from last year. Patrick Brys called it "our most successful day ever."

The result?

"Last winter, we closed the tasting room doors from December 1 to April 1, because we didn't have wine to sell," Brys said. "No business can continue to do that."

So this year, for the first time, Brys is producing and selling wines with grapes from west coast growers. Four of the nine labels in its current portfolio carry an "American" appellation, indicating non-Michigan grapes or blends of local and out-of-state sources.

Likewise at Traverse City's Left Foot Charley, where attendance at this month's lightly-publicized "Harvest Festivus" still jumped 25% from last year, owner / winemaker Bryan Ulbrich said that unavailability of Michigan grapes led him to purchase red and white wines from Washington State to serve from the open taps in his tasting room.

Bryan Ulbrich of Left Foot Charley
Left Foot Charley's Bryan Ulbrich: A little bit of guilt

"We used it to fill in for the summer, because we didn't have the wines available," he said. "I had a little bit of guilt, but I've gotten over it. I've taken my hairshirt off."

Left Foot Charley's "Loose Red" is a blend of Petit Verdot and Syrah; the "Loose White" is Chenin Blanc. Both are available by the glass or to take out.

Ulbrich notes that many of his customers enjoy sipping a glass of inexpensive wine when they drop by the winery  "We don't hide it from our customers; the tasting menu says that these wines come from Washington," says Ulbrich.

Bowers Harbor is less forthcoming about the origin of its bottles of out-of-state Pinot Grigio. The front label has no geographic designation, and the side label carries the same message as the winery's other bottling: "The Northwest Corner of Michigan's climate is similar to the Alto Adige Region in Northen Italy. Our cool climate viticulture produces quality, flavorful Pinot Grigio."

But do their customers even care?

Most customers don't concern themselves with the  grapes' origins, according to Patrick Brys. He estimates that no more than 5% of his visitors actually notice that the winery is using non-Michigan grapes, although the tasting room staff is trained to explain the difference between those and the estate-grown wines.

"They're more interested in how the wine tastes than where the grapes are from," Brys said.

Nonetheless, he is eager to return to Michigan sources for his grapes. With eight acres of new vines coming into production and a bumper crop currently being harvested for 2011, Brys anticipates that all wines from this vintage will be 100% estate-grown, with one possible exception.

Ulbrich, whose urban winery depends on purchased grapes from outside growers, is less certain about whether out-of-state wine will continue to figure in Left Foot Charley's future.

But one thing's for certain: any out-of-state wine he might buy this year won't come from Washington State. The tables are turned in 2011; while northern Michigan is harvesting a large crop, Washington State vineyards experienced a Michigan-style late spring, cold summer, and drastically reduced grape yields.

"The fellow in Washington I bought wine from last year already called in August to say he wouldn't have anything to sell me this year," Ulbrich laughs.

UPDATE: Three days after this story was published, an international group of winmakers and chefs promoting geographic truth-in-labeling of wine released a survey which purports to show overwhelming public support for wineries accurately listing the grapes' origin on all wine labels.

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This story was written for Regional Wine Week, a project of the folks at DrinkLocalWine.com. This annual week encourages wine writers around the country to focus on what's happening at wineries in their own states.

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