Wine has a bad habit of being elite and exclusive. The Michigan Wine Collaborative is looking to change that.
By Sedale McCall
You may know that the Michigan wine industry is a big part of the American wine scene. It’s the fourth largest grape-growing state, and produces more than 3 million gallons of wine a year. There are over 200 wineries in the state and 3,375 acres under vine.
However, you may not know that Michigan was among the first wine growing regions in the country. In fact, Finnville, Michigan’s first AVA, was the third state to have an AVA in the United States. The Midwest was the birthplace of wine in the US, in Missouri.
However, like many wine regions, wine quickly became a product for the elite. A situation Michigan is trying to change.
“What people forget, is that the wine industry, traditionally, has been doing a great job at being exclusive. They’ve done a great job at being elite. They have focused on a particular demographic that isn’t really sustainable,” said Brian Lillie, Director of Hospitality and Distribution at Chateau Chantal and Marketing & Communications Chair of the Michigan Wine Collaborative. “Michigan has been looking for their story. Michigan wine is something that when people discover it, they have to share it. Whether it’s with sunsets, food or family, it brings people together. Michigan wine unites us, it’s an inclusive community that wants to share their story with the world.”
The Michigan Wine Collaborative
The Michigan Wine Collaborative (MWC) is an organization designed to market, promote and support the Michigan wine industry. They include all sorts of wine professionals from wineries and growers, to researchers and educators, to hospitality and media. The organization’s mission is to amplify the Michigan wine brand, provide resources and foster community in the industry.
In the summer of 2020, MWC formed the Inclusion & Expansion Committee (IEC) with a missing to “to provide representation and advocacy to underserved people in order to increase inclusion and expansion of the Michigan wine industry through increased consumption and sales of Michigan wine, increased tourism, and a diverse recruitment pipeline to the industry.” The committee was pulled together in collaboration with George Walker III, currently the winemaker of Wade Cellars, who was running an organization called Graped Out with a similar mission.
“I was talking with George Walker who started Graped Out, that was making wine more accessible and approachable. He wanted to reinforce that, and I wanted to make a priority of MWC to bring more people into the industry and expand it,” says Emily Dockery, Executive Director of MWC. “George and I recruited a team that became the IEC and wrote a letter to the wine industry, imploring them to lean in, make opportunities available and provide opportunities and mentorship for the Michigan wine industry.”
In the letter, MWC takes a first step toward expanding the Michigan wine industry. They are setting up a fundraiser that would provide a scholarship for an underserved wine enthusiast. The candidate would be able to either participate in a WSET (Wine and Spirits Education Trust) Level 2 course or their first year in the VESTA program. VESTA is the Viticulture, Enology, Science and Technology Alliance, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, in partnership with university systems across the region.
Now, in 2023, the organization is taking another step toward their goal of providing these resources to unrepresented groups. MWC has pulled together multiple groups within the organization to produce a wine they are calling The Dream Wine Collaboration.
The Dream Wine Collaboration
In many ways, this project is winemakers doing what they do best, selling wine. The project will fund the IEC’s scholarship fund, which still creates opportunities for learning via WSET and VESTA. However, the fund will provide opportunities for two underrepresented minorities this year, instead of one. But the most important word in the project’s title isn’t “wine”, it’s “collaboration.”
What was most interesting about this collaboration was the different groups of people involved. The project features Detroit-based wine bar/shop House of Pure Vin, wine brands Chateau Chantal and Drew Ryan Wines, and GRNoir, a black-owned wine and jazz bar in Grand Rapids. Collaboration was key and IEC Chair Chuck Jaxon Jr. led the charge in that effort.
“Throughout this initial project, we made it clear that everyone has a vote. From the name, to the final blend, wine professionals and wine drinkers had input in the final product that’s in the bottle,” says Jaxon.
The Dream Wine Collaboration launches this Friday, February 24 and 25. Jaxon recognized the importance of the wine to not just the IEC and scholarship but to the industry in general.
“The DREAM Project is an important step in the unification of the Michigan wine industry providing opportunity and awareness to all people and a starting point for universal access to what Michigan wine offers in both employment and enjoyment of Michigan wine for all people.”
If you are in Michigan, the wines will launch at GRNoir on February 24 and House of Pure Vin on February 25. You can also order the wine on Chateau Chantal’s website at https://shop.chateauchantal.com/prod-403509/The-Dream.html which ships to 15 states.
There’s a lot to love about what’s happening in Michigan wine. That’s largely due to the efforts in the state to expand and include different communities. There is a lot more that MWC and its IEC are planning to do. If you want to stay in touch, you can join their mailing list, follow them on social media, or hear more about them on a recent podcast with Music in the Bottle. If you’re in the area you can join MWC (and the IEC!). Also, the organization welcomes donations to support the IEC and their goals to help expand and diversify the wine industry.