“Cold hardy.” It’s a term that describes the Indian River area to a T. With soaring summer temperatures in force last week, it’s easy to forget the bone-chilling February weather. Conditions here make winter ideal for snowmobiling and ice fishing, but wreck havoc on tender vegetation.
Traditional grapes such as Chardonnay, a green-skinned variety used to make white wine, and Cabernet Sauvignon, the king of red wines, can’t stand up to our winter weather. But newly developed hybrid grapes designed to thrive in Northern Michigan have opened up a new opportunity for fruit growers and wine makers and have revolutionized the wine-making industry.
“Our wines offer intriguing flavors that reflect our area’s unique growing climate,” explains Rachel VanValkenburgh, marketing director for the new Seasons of the North Winery LLC, located at 9090 West M-68 Hwy, just three miles west of the National Shrine of the Cross in the Woods here.
VanValkenburgh and her husband, Sid, are co-owners of Seasons of the North, along with her parents, Mike and Brenda Passino of Indian River. Together, they represent over 40 years in combined business experience. The four partners are taking hands-on management roles in the company, and have hired additional, seasonal staff.
Seasons of the North is a small, premium winery offering distinctive, quality wine with an emphasis on local production. The business offers a Tasting Room located next to a roadside vineyard. The on-site vineyard is being supplemented by a second vineyard in an agricultural area 15 miles away in Afton.
“The winery's uniqueness comes from the unique varieties of grapes that are perfectly adapted for the climate of northern Michigan”, says VanValkenburgh. The wine grapes grown are French/American hybrids — crosses between European and U.S. native varieties. “Such hybrids are resistant to disease and cold and are popular because of their unique and intriguing flavors”, she says.
The varieties the winery will start with are all from these signature, cold-hardy wine grapes: Foch, Seyval Blanc, Traminette, Cayuga and Ives, plus locally grown fruit including pears and strawberries.
The resulting wines will be sold out of the Tasting Room located in the front of the winery structure. The 1,500-square-foot, single-story building’s production area also includes a tank and cooperage storage section; a small laboratory for wine chemistry and analysis; and a finished product storage area. An outside crushing and pressing pad will be attached under a protective roof structure.
“At Seasons of the North Winery, our passion is creating a new tasting experience,” says VanValkenburgh. “Our mission is to encourage wine drinkers to enjoy local wines that perfectly compliment local foods. Handcrafted wines from home-grown fruit offer the best that Up North has to offer – all conveniently located just off the shores of Burt Lake, only minutes from I-75.”
Seasons of the North Winery is part of the newly formed Bay View Wine Trail, which has nine other wineries in Petoskey, Harbor Springs, and Charlevoix. Maps and descriptions of the new trail are available at Seasons of the North. The new businesses also have an organization for grape growers called the Straits Area Grape Growers Association (SAGGA).
Seasons of the North plans on producing and purchasing only local fruit once it becomes available. As production increases, Seasons of the North also will utilize other distribution channels besides the Tasting Room — local restaurants and businesses — to reach customers.
Seasons of the North is sure to become a boom to area commerce, as wineries have proven to be popular tourist destinations in the state, attracting more than 1 million visitors annually, according to Michiganwines.com, the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council’s Web site. The wine industry already contributes $300 million annually to Michigan's economy, says the site.
Our state is the fourth largest in grape growing, says Michiganwines.com, and eighth largest in wine grape production in the nation. Michigan's 90-plus commercial wineries produce more than 1 million gallons of wine a year, making Michigan 13th in wine production, according to the site.
Recent research shows that Americans have become the biggest wine drinkers in the world, even more than in Italy and France. In 2009, for the first time in their history, Americans drank more wine than the French and became the largest wine consuming nation by volume worldwide, according to the trade show Vinexpo and International Wine and Spirit Research. Americans consumed the equivalence of 3.73 billion bottles of wine — 15 per person in 2011, making it the top global consumer of fermented grapes. Wine (35 percent) has even closed in on beer (36 percent) as America's favorite alcoholic beverage, a 2011 Gallup poll indicates. Consumption is expected to grow around 10 percent over the next four years.
While capitalizing on the trend, Seasons of the North Winery plans on distinguishing itself by being and staying local and will be part of the Pure Michigan campaign and the Buy Local, Shop Local effort promoted by nearby businesses. In addition to wine, Seasons of the North plans on selling jams and jellies from area producers and will feature local artists' paintings, carvings and other artwork.