When Jim Lester, owner of Wyncroft Winery in Buchanan, Michigan—his wines are served in top-notch Lake Michigan area restaurants including 16 at Trump Tower, Les Normandes, Everest, Alinea and the Peninsula Hotel in Chicago—first wanted to make wine, his educational choices were few.
Lester ended up majoring in theology at Andrews University and began his career in winemaking as a hobby.
“The great thing about higher education is it teaches you how to learn and so when I decided to find out about wine, I found a mentor and also read books,” he says.
Lester also knew enough to take a more scientific approach towards winemaking then a strict hobbyist would have.
“I started making small batches, taking notes and studying the results like researchers do,” he explains. “I developed the aptitude by my nose and mouth. Then, since I already had a sense of marketing, it became a natural step to wanting to open my own business. My thought was why not do something I was passionate about?”
His learning continues and Lester says there’s always a constant interplay between what he knows and what he learns every year from the grapes that grow in his vineyards.
“I’m constantly tasting my wines against the wines of the world,” says Lester, “particularly those of France, which I still think are way ahead of the New World. We have a tendency to think if you have all the right equipment, you can make good wine.”
Lester is an artist and his decisions about wines are not necessarily about business but about achieving the best expression of the grape. That’s why when he first started his Wyncroft he eschewed warnings about messing around with the noble grapes and instead went ahead and planted French varietals.
His experimenting—he says it took seven years after planting to find out what worked—paid off. He was among the first to produce Michigan’s barrel fermented chardonnays as well as a pinot noir.
“In 1985 I produced Michigan’s first Bordeaux blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc,” he says. “At one time, Michigan only had one pinot noir.” Lester's wines are sold locally at Reserve in Grand Rapids, Salt of the Earth in Fennville, Soe in Sawyer, Bistro on the Boulevard in St. Joseph and the Bentwood Tavern in New Buffalo. Those restaurants did not exist back when Wyncroft started winning awards.
When Dave Miller graduated from Michigan State University with a doctorate in plant physiology, he received an offer from Clemson University to be a peach tree physiologist at about the same time St. Julian Winery, one of the oldest in the state, asked him to become an assistant wine maker.
By the time Miller left St. Julian in 2010 to open his own business White Pine Winery, which has a tasting room in downtown St. Joseph, he had risen to the position of vice president of wine-making. Miller not only makes wine from the grapes he and his wife grow in their vineyards near Mattawan, Michigan, he also consults and teaches at Michigan State University.
Miller believes Southwest Michigan is now in the same position as Napa Valley was back in the 1950s.
“The grapes up north get a lot of press,” he says about the Traverse City and Mission Peninsula wineries. “The traditional wines for Southwest Michigan in the 1940s and `50s were fortified and made with concord grapes because that’s what the farmers down here grew for Welch’s.
"Up north they got a lot of vacationers with a lot of money who were intrigued by the small winemakers up there and started putting money into making good wine. Here, it was hard to get the growers out of the concord mentality. But we have the ability to grow very good wines.”
Indeed, Miller describes this area as having untapped potential. “You can still buy land here that’s affordable and we have Chicago in our backyard,” he says.
Both he and Lester see the climate and soil as comparable to the great wine regions of the Old World like Burgundy, Alsace, Bordeaux and along the Rhine and the Rhone.
“New world wines like those made in California and Australia come from hot sunny climates,” he says noting a big difference in taste and alcohol content.
After 30 years in the industry, Miller likes the idea of giving back through teaching. Now that there are programs and curriculums set up for winemaking in Michigan.
“Anybody can squeeze grapes and get them to ferment, but there’s a lot of science involved and a lot of learning necessary to make good wines,” says Miller who has analyzed the agricultural side of the business closely including the characteristics of grape vines and crop load in Michigan for years.
But that is just one side of the business.
“Studies show that wineries increase the number of hospitality jobs in a community,” says Bob Harrison, the president of Lake Michigan College who has a team exploring the possibilities of offering an associate’s degree program or a certification program in aspects of winemaking including growing, marketing and sales. “We’ve sent the team out to Walla Walla, Washington and the Finger Lakes area of New York, both of which are big wine growing areas, to look at what they’re offering. We think the idea has a lot of potential.”
In the meantime, LMC is partnering with Michigan State University in offering online courses through the Viticulture Enology Science and Technology Alliance (VESTA), a national grape and wine education program. VESTA offers instructor-guided education from industry professionals as well as hands on experience under the tutelage of professional mentors at vineyards and/or wineries close to where the student lives.
The goal is to establish programs of study in viticulture, enology, and wine business entrepreneurship through collaborations with educational institutions, government and industry.
“We also offer community education classes as well,” says Harrison. “The geography of our area is perfect for growing wine and putting in the academic support for learning all aspects of the business makes sense as well.”
Like Miller, Lester, who consults with grape growers and some of the younger wine makers in the area, feels the need to share what he knows.
“Now that I’m 61, I think of getting apprentice(s) and other ways of passing what I know on,” says Lester. “I have the experience now though experience simply means I made mistakes but lived to tell about them.”