As Michigan Wine Industry Grows, State Council Looks Towards Sustainability

Mar 4, 2015

Grape farmer Ed Oxley, holding a decades-old photo of his entire vineyard covered in feet of snow.
Credit Robbie Feinberg

Ever since Michigan farmers first discovered that certain wine grapes could grow in the fields of Southwest Michigan back in the 1970s, they’ve searched for ways to sell it. Now, the state’s Wine and Grape Industry Council is looking into a potential certification program for “sustainable” wineries and vineyards. But simply defining sustainability can be difficult, let alone certifying it.

It’s late morning inside the cavernous, concrete maze that makes up St. Julian Winery in Paw Paw, and the wine is flowing. Tiny vehicles maneuver through the madness, stacking boxes into mountainous heaps. Nancie Corum-Oxley, the winemaker here, leads me through the halls and shows off “the membrane” – a giant metal device used to squeeze the grapes.

Hanging on the side of the machine is a large map of Michigan. Oxley points to a tiny, outlined segment in the southwestern corner of the state. It’s mostly here, she says, that St. Julian gets its grapes. Making sure they grow can be a balancing act.

“Everybody always talks about how vintage is going, but we never talk about it until all the grapes are in the door," Oxley says. "Summer can be crazy, where there can be drought or a lot of rain. California cries if they get a quarter-inch of rain. We celebrate it. Then we can get hail and all kinds of things.”

For vineyards and wineries here, Lake Michigan is a double-edged sword. Heat rises from the lake and blankets towns like Paw Paw and Benton Harbor, giving them the mild weather that’s ideal for certain grapes to grow and mature. But it also means rain, flooding, fungi, and rotten vines. That doesn’t even take into account the potential for extreme winter colds that can destroy an entire year’s crop. That means anxiety.

“I’m always on the phone, checking my little weather app," Oxley says. "And then I’m texting my growers or they’re texting me saying, 'Can you come down and look at this?' And I say, 'Yeah, I can come down in an hour, or tomorrow, or whenever I can get down there next.'"

When you add it up, though, the pros still outweigh the cons. It’s why, despite the unpredictable weather, Michigan’s wine has morphed into a $300 million-per-year a industry. And as that industry matures, it’s finding new ways to balance those difficulties while still expanding.

One new way, according the Michigan Wine and Grape Industry Council, could be a new sustainability certification program for wineries and vineyards. Through a federal grant, the council has hired a firm to start mapping out what a state program rewarding wine makers and growers for sustainable practices could look like.

The first step, though, is determining what exactly “sustainability” is. It’s a tough question because it can be so broad. Cam Brown, a consultant with 5 Lakes Energy, the firm the state council hired to look into a program, rattles off a small list of what it entails:

“Winery water use, vineyard water use, winery wastewater quality, energy, energy efficiency…" Brown keeps going on like this for a while longer, but his point is that there are a whole lot of ideas to consider. He says most vineyards and wineries in the state are still young and learning how to operate. They’re not necessarily thinking about how much water or energy they use. That’s where the state council can step in.

"What we’re really trying to do is simplify all that information down and make it easy to use for Michigan’s wine industry and making sure that we’re recommending ultimately applies to the everyday business of growing grapes and making wine in Michigan," Brown says.

For eco-conscious consumers, a label could gives them options in the same way “organic” or “local” labels do. It means they can seek out that little “sustainable” label when they head to the store and maybe feel better about what they’re. The plan is still very much in its early stages, with 5 Lakes Energy surveying the state and country to understand what wineries are already doing and what they want to see in the future. The firm is expected to send its recommendations to the council this summer. 

What those recommendations could look like is anyone’s guess, but some have their own ideas. Like Paolo Sabbatini, a professor of viticulture at Michigan State University. Sabbatini says the state’s growers and makers need to follow one major rule if they want to be sustainable: protect Lake Michigan.  The first step in doing that, Sabbatini says, is limiting the chemicals that end up in the lake.

Chemical sprays are needed to protect vines against bugs and fungi that Michigan’s summer humidity brings. But Sabbatini says we need to be careful.

“The grapes are close to the lake, so we need to pay attention to everything that comes into the soil,” he says.

That step could end up being pretty easy. Most vineyards say they’re already limiting chemicals. And not for environmental reasons, but to save money.

“Well, for one, it’s very easy not to use too much because the stuff is so expensive," says Ed Oxley, a grape farmer in Lawton. "So from a cost standpoint, you just naturally are not gonna overuse something. But we constantly work with MSU and the plant pathologists and various chemical companies and new compounds that are safer, and we provide blocks of grapes for them to test different materials on that are more eco-friendly.”

The second step is water use. It’s something that may seem irrelevant, considering the huge lakes that surround Michigan. But Sabbatini says it could be an issue in the future.

“Now, water use is not a limitation in Michigan. We use as much water as we want. But it’s going to become an issue," Sabbatini says. "Because water in our future will become more important for drinking and for other uses. So we need to look at ways in which we can save water and recycle water would be something important to implement.”

That is something that many aren’t thinking much about, though a few wineries, including St. Julian, say they’ve already made changes to use less water. But most say the real question here is whether or not this kind of certification would actually mean more money for the wine business.

“There are a variety of different sustainability practices," says Leisl Clark, another consultant with 5 Lakes Energy. "And instead of them communicating by telling you these pieces, if there was a label on the wine that they get credit for, are you more likely to pull that bottle off the shelf and buy it, as opposed to the one without the label? And that’s part of the question, right?”

Unfortunately, it’s still a question without an answer. But the council hopes it will clear up by this summer when 5 Lakes Energy is expected to submit its recommendations.