By Cortney Casey
Starting in 2017, Michigan wine lovers may notice a phrase they’ve never seen before on bottles at their favorite wineries and retailers: Tip of the Mitt.
After years of apply, wait, repeat, winemakers and grape growers in a six-county segment of northern Michigan celebrated the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau’s approval of the new Tip of the Mitt American Viticultural Area in July 2016. The expansion of Michigan’s AVAs from four to five was a significant milestone, as Tip of the Mitt is the state’s first new AVA in nearly 30 years. “There hasn’t been a new AVA in Michigan since 1987, so this is pretty exciting – not just for Tip of the Mitt, but for the entire state,” says Karel Bush, executive director of the Michigan Grape & Wine Industry Council.
The Straits Area Grape Growers Association (SAGGA) – founded to promote viticulture north of the 45th Parallel – submitted the latest application for the Tip of the Mitt AVA designation in November 2013, after two previous unsuccessful applications. “We’re excited about the opportunities that the AVA brings with it and look forward to continuing to build the Tip of the Mitt into a respected viticultural and winemaking region,” says Brendan Prewitt, a SAGGA board member and owner of Cheboygan-based Harvest Thyme Farm & Vineyards.
According to Prewitt, the AVA is mostly too cold to grow traditional vinifera grape varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Riesling. The area’s growers therefore depend heavily on newer hybrid varieties such as Marquette, LaCrescent and Frontenac Gris, “that can provide a full crop…in spite of low winter temperatures and short, cool growing seasons,” he says. “We want the Tip of the Mitt to convey the mastery of growing grapes in a challenging climate and the production of top-quality wines from these relatively new grape varieties.”
Dustin Stabile, head of production at Petoskey-based Mackinaw Trail Winery, says finding vinifera that can tolerate Tip of the Mitt’s climate has involved plenty of trial and error. “We tend to have colder winters than other AVAs in Michigan, so site selection and variety selection are very important,” he says. “We have been experimenting with some rows of vinifera varieties for the past few years, and on our new farm, we will be planting select (vinifera) vines for commercial production.”
Stabile says he wouldn’t be surprised if the fast-growing, fledgling AVA someday boasts 25-plus wineries. Prewitt believes the AVA’s establishment will provide local grape growers and wineries “with an important branding and marketing opportunity at a time when wine-related tourism is on the rise.”