Michigan Wine Collaborative

Michigan vintners and grape growers have begun to take a greater role in shaping the future of the industry by participating in the Michigan Wine Collaborative, a nonprofit organization that started last year.

A board of directors is in place, committees are being formed, and about a third of the state’s vineyards and wineries — including all of the major wineries — have become members of the industry-led collaborative, according to Brian Lesperance, who is vice president of Fenn Valley Vineyards in southwestern Lower Michigan and serves on the collaborative’s all-volunteer board.

The timing for the emergence of the Michigan Wine Collaborative couldn’t have been better, he said. That’s because changes may soon be coming to the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council (MGWIC), which has been the main organization promoting the industry since the state Legislature established it in 1985.

The Legislature is considering a bill to transform the MGWIC into a council that encompasses all craft beverages.

The move would present more opportunities for wine and other beverage producers to work together at the state level, but it would also dilute the emphasis on wine, Lesperance said.

Funding for the MGWIC comes from liquor license fees, and although the fees are paid by companies that sell more than just wine, only the wine industry is benefitting.

“We’ve been really fortunate to have the MGWIC for all these years, and it has done a tremendous job at promoting the industry, funding research and being a liaison with universities. But it was time for us to grow up as an industry, take more responsibility, and create a new organization that would be hyper-focused on the wine industry and what we need to do to foster the future we envision,” Lesperance said.

In its first year, the Michigan Wine Collaborative has spent most of its time publicizing itself to wineries and growers and building membership, according to Lee Lutes, who is head winemaker at Black Star Farms in northwestern Lower Michigan and also serves on the collaborative’s board.

“We’re focused right now on getting everyone in the industry to become a member, and to do that, we’ve kept dues very, very low — big wineries pay $500, whereas small wineries can pay as little as $100 — and we’ve also opened it up to adjunct members who may be individual employees in the industry, people who have other businesses that are aligned with but not directly part of the industry, such as tractor or chemical suppliers, wine retailers, universities, and even consumers,” Lutes said.

Membership dues will be the primary funding mechanism for the collaborative, Lesperance said. And though the group did receive a small grant from the state to pay some early administrative costs, they would like the organization to be self-sustaining.

“We will probably seek some other types of funding, such as offering corporate sponsorships, or putting on events that could raise some money while also giving consumers more direct exposure to the people in the industry,” he said.

The membership drive will continue until at least half of the wineries and grape growers are signed up. As of mid-September, 86 wineries, growers and industry supporters had joined.

“I would say we’re about a third of the way toward having a critical mass of the wineries and grape growers in the state. We want to reach the milestone where it is more unusual that you’re not a member than that you are a member,” Lesperance said.

Lutes is pleased with the collaborative’s progress so far.

It has already launched several standing committees to address marketing communications as well as research needs in such areas as viticulture, enology and marketing; it is setting up a program called the Sustainable Wine Alliance to encourage environmental stewardship; and it plans to develop ad hoc committees as needed to concentrate on targeted issues.

“We are still in a formative stage, but we have a very diverse group in our membership and on the board, and I think the Michigan Wine Collaborative will represent the state industry well,” Lesperance said. •

More information about the Michigan Wine Collaborative, and how to become a member or volunteer for a committee is available at michiganwinecollaborative.com

– by Leslie Mertz