Southwest Michigan Gems

Wineries along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan may not be as well-known as their brethren up north on the Leelanau and Old Mission Peninsulas, but that could change soon, with quality accelerating rapidly and more wine enthusiasts discovering the up-and-coming wine-producing region known as the Lake Michigan Shore Wine Trail.

“We’re at a tipping point,” says Dave Miller, co-founder of White Pine Winery who is considered one of the vinifera grapevine-growing pioneers of Southwest Michigan. Known affectionately as “Dr. Dave” courtesy of his Ph.D in viticulture, Miller recently told a group of eager oenophiles from Ohio, Michigan and Virginia at his winery’s tasting room that he and other winemakers in the region are “getting better science in the vineyards and in the cellars” – and the results are showing up in the bottle and in the glass.

The Lake Michigan Shore Wine Trail is Michigan’s largest American Viticultural Area (AVA), extending from Fennville in the north, to Kalamazoo to the east, and south to the Michigan/Indiana border. Among its most convenient bases for exploration of the region is St. Joseph (“St. Joe” to the locals), a quirky town located at the confluence of the St. Joseph River and Lake Michigan, and home to Dr. Dave’s White Pine Winery tasting room. The town boasts beautiful beaches, a super-sized corporate employer (Whirlpool is headquartered there) and proximity to some of Western Michigan’s hottest tourist destinations. And it’s less than an hour from the Saugatuck/Douglas area and adorable Holland.

St. Joe is only about two hours from Chicago and three-and-a-half hours from Detroit. From here visitors can explore Southwest Michigan’s culinary and fermented-fruit scene; go surfing, kayaking or lighthouse climbing; and soak up some local art and history.

That’s exactly what my husband and I did last August after spending a weekend on the Saugatuck River watching everything from “doughnut dinghies” to enormous yachts motoring their way towards Lake Michigan.

We caught up with our cadre of wine enthusiasts at St. Joe’s lovely Inn at Harbor Shores. We headed north to check out Crane’s Pie Pantry Restaurant & Winery. Crane’s is a pie lover’s paradise. That’s not to discount their savory entrées or signature apple-cider doughnuts, but it’s probably the only place I’ve encountered that offers a pie-flight dessert in which all the fruit is grown on the premises.

The Cranes are fifth-generation fruit farmers, so it made sense to open a winery and begin selling hard cider and wines in their Fennville tasting room (they also have one in Saugatuck). Their Nepotist-Bourbon Barrel-Aged hard cider is an interesting combination of bourbon and apples. Because I’m addicted to Michigan cherries, my favorite fruit wine was their Michigan Cherry, evocative of liquid pie. It’s heavenly with a chunk of dark chocolate.

“Wine is one of those things where being small is a good thing,” notes Joe Herman, owner of Karma Vista Vineyards in Coloma. Karma Vista’s tasting room offers beautiful vineyard views along with a living-room vibe. Herman says Karma is known for its Syrah and Pinot Noir. Indeed, its 2014 Reserve Syrah won a gold medal in the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.

Dablon Winery & Vineyards in Baroda features one of the most stunning tasting rooms in the area. Its winemaker, Rudy Shafer, has been making wines “like the French” since the mid-2000s.

Shafer says grapes are hand-picked, and primarily French oak barrels are used for aging. Although Dablon’s best-selling white is a Riesling, I went gaga for the 2017 Pinot Grigio. It boasts pear, honeydew and melon aromas, a textured mouthfeel and a surprising minerality that balances the fruitiness.

Every oenophile sojourning through Southwest Michigan should make a trip to St. Julian Winery and Distillery. St. Julian’s effervescent Nancie Oxley, vice president and winemaker, worked with Dr. Dave before he opened White Pine. It’s an impressive operation with 103 labels, distribution in eight states and five tasting rooms. The large size does not mean quality has been compromised.

Among the winery’s three levels of selections are Red, White and Blue Heron (value wines); the Reserve selection (mid-priced); and Braganini labels (high-end). Everyone can find something to savor. Plus, St. Julian makes hard cider, cream sherry, fruit brandies, rum, gin and vodka.

Oxley possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of Southwest Michigan winemaking history.  She casually mentions that the renowned British wine critic and journalist Jancis Robinson (author of The Oxford Companion to Wine) once visited St. Julian. Robinson so enjoyed the winery’s Solera Cream Sherry, she described it as “the best sherry she’d had outside of Spain,” Oxley says. And indeed, in Robinson’s iconic book, she singles out St. Julian for praise for its “delicious sherry styles.”

There’s more than great wine-tasting in this region. We had a blast checking out the historic lighthouse at St. Joe’s Tiscornia Beach, hiking the trails at pristine Silver Beach and conceptualizing sand-dune surfing at Third Coast Surf Shop (it was too rainy to rent any equipment). We also consumed memorable breakfasts at the Mason Jar Café in Benton Harbor. The must-stop for dinner is Tosi’s Restaurant, a family-owned institution in Stevensville where guests can listen to Italian language lessons in the restroom. (Who needs Babbel?)

Relax and linger after your feast. In fact, you might want to linger in Southwest Michigan for as long as possible.

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