If you are aware of Michigan wine, you more than likely think of Traverse City and the wineries at the northern reaches of the Lower Peninsula. Well hold onto your hat, because the region that hugs the shore of Lake Michigan southwest of Grand Rapids is poised to emerge as a top wine-tourism destination.
Southwest Michigan has historically been one of the primary suppliers of grapes for Welch’s grape juice. In recent years, as demand declined, much of the land was and continues to be converted to wine grapes. Indeed, the moderating effects of Lake Michigan make the region so ideal for growing most vinifera, that it now produces 80% of the fruit used in Michigan wine and may be poised to export wine grapes outside state borders. Many Bordeaux, Rhone, Italian, German and Austrian varieties thrive alongside a host of hybrid grapes.
Relocating to the region in 1936, St. Julian Winery was the first local winery of the post-prohibition era. With 103 different labels and averaging about 250,000 cases annually, it is also the state’s largest producer. While they do sell lines of popular, lower-quality wines, they also produce labels that are world-class contenders. And they are not alone.
Today there are 23 wineries in Southwest Michigan and that number continues to grow. Karma Vista, Dablon, White Pine, Fenn Valley and a myriad of others are bottling wines of the highest quality. This has led many to refer to the region using the moniker “Napa of the Midwest.” While the comparison with Napa may be appropriate, it is also overused. In any case, the Lake Michigan shore is a tourism destination in its own right and offers much more than just wine.
Rising from the Ashes
At the center of this largely undiscovered wine region are the cities of Benton Harbor and Saint Joseph. Industrial decline over the last few decades resulted in opportunities for other sectors of the economy.
Artists flourished as idle warehouses and factory buildings were converted for use as studios. The ‘Box Factory’ in Saint Joseph has been reclaimed as a multi-use space dedicated to visual and performing arts. The arts district around Water Street in Benton Harbor is teaming with similar workspaces. Indeed, spend a little time exploring and you will uncover numerous studios, small farm to table cafes and other supporting businesses tucked away in various corners of these two lakeside cities.
Similarly, Michigan’s fruit belt suffered as large west coast growers increasingly shipped their produce across the country, but subsequently reinvented itself. Many farms converted to a u-pic strategy that affords visitors an opportunity to harvest their own fruit. Everything from berries to pumpkins make this a multi-seasonal, family-friendly activity. It is both a growth industry and a popular attraction.
Beaches, Water Sports and More
The Great Lakes have more miles of beachfront than the east and west coasts combined. Pristine public and private beaches draw tourists from around the country. Only the absence of salt in the water differentiates Lake Michigan from the Atlantic and Pacific. All of the typical beach watersports can be enjoyed and that includes surfing. Yes! Weather on the lakes creates waves large enough for board sports.
More than 50 lighthouses on Lake Michigan are indicators of the regions long and vibrant maritime history. The Saint Joseph North Pier Lighthouse is one local example. Others can be reached with only a short drive north or south.
Of course, boating of all types is an important regional activity. Yacht harbors and marinas are a prominent feature in and around both Saint Joseph and Benton Harbor.
Brewing and Distilling
The post-industrial era has seen a huge surge in regional microbreweries and craft distillers. Kalamazoo, just an hour east, is one of America’s great centers for craft brewing, but small-batch producers are also a feature along the lakeshore. Watermark Brewing in Stevensville and North Pier Brewing in Benton Harbor are just two examples.
Michigan is ranked fourth in the country for its number of distillers. A great example is just a short drive south in Three Oaks. Journeyman Distillery is “grain to glass” operation performing all parts of the distilling process from locally sourced ingredients. A range of distilled spirits is produced, but the line of award-winning whiskies is simply stellar.
See for Yourself
Southwest Michigan is a place that simply must be experienced. The combination of water, wine, art and much more offers something for nearly everyone. It left me planning a return visit. But don’t take my word for it. See for yourself.
Planning Your Trip
The best overall planning resource is the Southwest Michigan Tourist Council website: www.swmichigan.org