‘Backyard’ winery helps push Michigan’s industry


Fenn Valley Vineyards associates more closely with Southwest Michigan wineries, many of which focus largely on the Chicago market. Courtesy Fenn Valley Vineyards

Brian Lesperance would like to think of Fenn Valley Vineyards and Wine Cellar as Grand Rapids’ hometown winery.

Lesperance, the winery’s marketing director, sometimes wonders why Grand Rapids wine lovers more closely associate with Traverse City wine country when Fenn Valley is less than an hour away.

“Our proximity to Grand Rapids is something that is oddly challenging,” Lesperance said. “I have this theory that we take for granted things in our backyard.”

He did concede the state’s southwest wineries generally may have a more “blue collar” ambiance, offering a different vibe than the resort-like vineyards on the Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas near Traverse City.

Lesperance said he also realizes Fenn Valley is on somewhat of an “island,” geographically speaking. Where the northern wineries are able to pool their resources and market to Grand Rapids as a destination, Fenn Valley is associated with the Southwest Michigan wineries — some as far as two hours southwest of Grand Rapids — that largely focus on the Chicago market.

Being the monkey in the middle hasn’t hampered the growth of the company that was founded in 1973 by Lesperance’s wife’s father and grandfather, Doug and Bill Welsch, when the Michigan wine market was nearly nonexistent.

“At the time, it didn’t make a lot of sense,” Lesperance said of the endeavor. “Now, looking back, it looks logical.”

At the time, wine makers in Michigan had little experience in the craft, and growing the fragile European grape vitis vinifera was a major challenge. Still, Americans were getting excited about wine because of the momentum of California’s industry in the 1970s, Lesperance said.

It was slow going in Fennville for many years, until the Michigan market finally began to heat up in the 1990s. Part of that was having learned a lot about growing grapes and making wine from years of experience, but the early beginnings of the local produce movement also contributed to the success.

“We stayed ‘Steady Eddie’ for a while,” he said. “Then in the early 1990s, we were getting better at making wine and had better grapes. We started taking wine to international competitions and performing well, and people started to notice us more.”

Quality grapes are crucial to quality wine, and it took a long time before growers hit their stride in Michigan. Lesperance said the climate is chillier than traditional wine-growing regions in Europe, but certain qualities make some regions of Michigan ideal.

“These grapes evolved to live in an environment without a lot of good soil or water and a lot of sun, heat, and a long growing season,” he said.

Michigan’s microclimates include areas that are in close proximity to Lake Michigan, where the growing season extends into the fall and the temperatures are generally milder during the winter. The lakeshore climate also stays chillier longer in the spring, delaying the growth of buds so they are less likely to suffer late frost damage. The soil type along the coast is sandy, which means the large amounts of rainfall are drained quickly and efficiently.

He said the Grand Traverse area is generally better for producing white wines while Southwest Michigan is better for red wines.

“Those elements all explain why the Southwest Michigan area works so well for the delicate grapes.”

The climate isn’t perfect, however. Early in the history of the Michigan — and American — wine industry, consumers largely favored classic European styles. A reliance on European grapes can place Michigan wineries in a vulnerable place if winters are harsh, as the last two have been. The “polar vortex” of 2013 likely cost the wine industry $3.5 million, according to Linda Jones, program manager at the Michigan Grape and Wine Council.

Last winter also took a toll on the grape crop, wiping out approximately 50 percent of it. Lesperance said wineries need to have a balance of European and hybrid grapes that are cold-weather hardy to have a better chance to survive harsh winters.

“A lot of growers are diversifying a lot better so they don’t have another zero-crop year. I don’t think we’ll see that again,” he said. “If we have wine some years and don’t have it other years, restaurants and retailers don’t like that.”

Low production because of harsh winters hasn’t helped the Michigan industry battle perceptions that it produces lesser wines than its counterpart in California.

“We’re up there in top wine-producing states, but we’re relatively unknown,” Lesperance said. “Part of it is the growth in our state is so robust that we have little wine to export out of state. It’s a good problem to have, but it doesn’t help us gain notoriety beyond our region.”

Lesperance said a few mild winters will greatly help build the Michigan industry. He expects in 10 years the amount of wine produced in Michigan will be about double its current output. He said a lot of grape acreage has been planted in Michigan in the last few years, but many of those grapes won’t be ready for wine production for another couple of years.

Currently, of the 50,000 cases a year Fenn Valley produces under the Fenn Valley brand — 120,000 gallons — about 50 percent of grapes used are from the 245-acre Fenn Valley vineyards.

That doesn’t count the nearly 60 percent of bottled product Fenn Valley produces that is made for other companies, nor the bulk wine it produces.

Lesperance also noted a huge rise in hard cider production at Fenn Valley, which he said is more fun for him. “It’s fast and instant gratification,” he said. “With wine, you get one shot. With cider, I have new juice 12 months of the year.”

Most of the cider is bulk product, which accounts for approximately 125,000 gallons of the sales. He said the current hard-cider market growth eventually will slow down, but its historic presence prior to Prohibition should mean it will stick around for the long haul.

When it comes to wine, however, Lesperance and the Fenn Valley staff curate approximately 40 different wines. He said the company maybe “should do some pruning,” but that is how its wines get a following, however small it might be. The wide array of wines is a result of its location, he said.

“Right or wrong, we took this approach that we’re a destination spot — you don’t happen upon us. We need something for every taste,” he said. “If someone gets to Fennville, they deliberately ended up here and want something they’ll like.”

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