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Cover Story: Cultivating Success

  • Author:
    Robert Benenson
  • Published:
    Fall 2014

            If you live in Michigan or love wine, you probably know that the Mitten State’s wine industry is climbing fast.

            But what you may not know is that nearly every glass of Michigan wine is most likely infused with a little Spartan DNA.

            Michigan State University has been the state’s center for wine grape research and advice to growers since the early 1970s. That's when horticulturist G. Stanley Howell, sometimes known as “Dr. Grape,” persuaded university officials to create MSU’s viticulture program in response to a growing interest in Michigan’s then-nascent wine-producing potential. (Viticulture refers to grape production and vineyard management)

            During his 37-year tenure at MSU, Howell conducted vital research that helped producers adapt to the vagaries of Michigan’s generally short, cool and damp growing seasons. And Howell, who retired in 2006, encouraged vintners to forsake the super-sweet dessert wines that had dominated the state’s production to instead grow the more sophisticated Vitis vinifera varieties adored in the Mediterranean. Think Riesling, Pinot grigio and Pinot noir, for which Michigan is now gaining national and international recognition.

            Howell’s hat is now worn by Paolo Sabbatini, an associate professor of horticulture who in 2004 left his native Italy for post-graduate study at MSU. After he completed his studies in 2007, he was hired to lead the horticulture department’s Viticulture Research and Extension Program.

            Sabbatini continues MSU’s groundbreaking research and manages experimental grape plots around the state. He is a trusted resource for grape growers in coordination with the university’s extension offices in the major wine-growing regions near Lake Michigan and in the northwest and southwest regions of the Lower Peninsula.

            MSU Extension offers education and support through classes, publications and experts on a range of topics in viticulture and enology. It also publishes an e-newsletter for grape and wine industry news.

            “If you want legitimacy for your industry, you have to be growing the fruit here. That’s why Michigan State University’s help on this has been so important,” said Linda Jones, executive director of the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council, an agency of the state Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

Spartan Influence

            With all this expertise around, it's no surprise that several leading Michigan wineries are owned by Spartans. Among them are: Larry Mawby, xx, of L. Mawby; Charles Edson, xx, of Bel Lago; and David Miller, xx, of White Pine. Other MSU grads work as winemakers at Michigan vineyards. They include Chateau Chantal’s Mark Johnson, xx, and Brian Hosmer, xx; Bel Lago’s Cristin Hosmer, xx, who’s married to Brian; and Black Star Farms’ Lee Lutes, xx. In all, more than 25 Spartans own or work in the state’s vineyards, wineries and tasting rooms, according to Sabbatini.

            Meanwhile, with six faculty members and two extension educators who are experts on grapes and wine, State continues to play a role in educating the next generation of Michigan winemakers. Miller—a research assistant to Howell from 1983 to 1996—takes time away from his winery to teach a class on the Lansing campus in winemaking. Last year, it became part of a five-course curriculum leading to a specialization in adult beverage making.

            Now, MSU is launching a new educational program to train students in the principles of viticulture and enology. Its foundation is a two-year course of study, plus industry internships and the opportunity for apprenticeships to gain additional accreditation.

            MSU is also a partner in the national Viticulture and Enology Science and Technology Alliance, which teaches winemaking skills at such community colleges as Lake Michigan College in southwestern Benton Harbor and Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City.

            Even outside the classroom, if you visit Sabbatini’s office, in the Plant and Soil Sciences Building, you’ll undoubtedly learn more about cultivating wine grapes than you ever thought possible. 

            During a recent interview, Sabbatini waxed lyrically about multiple-trunk vine-growing, deep snow’s insulating properties, using the best trellises, super-hardy grape strains and Michigan’s wide-ranging year-to-year temperature variability. 

            And while Sabbatini is testing the grape-growing potential of central and southeast Michigan, he said there are still things to learn about the vinifera varietals growers have been cultivating around the state since the 1970s. After all, he said, widespread plantings here didn’t take root until 2000. “There were only 660 acres of Vitis vinifera in 2000, and we had more hybrids grapes in the ground; in 2014 we have 1765 acres of vinifera, we triplicate in a very short time the acreage dedicated to European varieties, while hybrids are declining”. “That means we really only have 14 years’ of experience of an industry with a real focus on growing vinifera. That’s only 14 times to make a wine. By comparison, the French and the Italians have more than 2,000 years of experience.”

A Tough Sell

            Perhaps no one has a deeper appreciation for MSU’s role in the wine industry than David Miller. He studied with Howell, conducted research, worked as a winemaker at the long-established St. Julian winery and is now owner and producer at White Pine Winery.

            He remembers that it was tough at first trying to persuade some of the state's old-school grape growers to buy into MSU’s research-proven practices. “There was a lot of skepticism until we started getting gold medals and ‘best in class’ awards with our Pinot gris and Rieslings,” he said.

            Today, White Pine Winery’s best sellers include the kinds of cool-climate northern European white wines—Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Pinot grigio—that are considered Michigan trademarks.

            The total acreage devoted to wine grape production in the state increased 230 percent between 1997 and 2011, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report provided by Sabbatini, with Riesling the predominant varietal. Michigan ranks fifth in the nation in wine grape production and 13th in wine production with 107 commercial wineries, according to the state’s council

            This brightening future for Michigan wine is a significant contribution to the country’s culinary banquet, and the state’s wine industry is a roaring engine of opportunity alongside the automobile industry.

            Michigan's wine, grapes and grape juice products along with related industries produce nearly $790 million of total economic value to the State of Michigan. It generates more than $42 million in state and local taxes and another $42 million in federal taxes. All told, it accounts for 5,000 jobs and a payroll of more than $190 million statewide, according to state council.

             “The best way to make money from farming is to take whatever you produce and turn it into fine wine,” said Cristin Hosmer, who’s hoping to help create a new Spartan Wine Trail—a tour map of MSU-related wine enterprises in the Upper Peninsula.

A Perfect Pairing

            Cristin and Brian Hosmer are a relatively rare husband-and-wife winemaking team. They met in an MSU environmental economics class in 2001. Brian is one of the last winemakers who learned from Howell. Cristin pursued an MSU graduate degree in agricultural economics.

            After they graduated, the pair made a pact. They’d settle down in the town that offered the coolest job. That took them to Traverse City, where Bel Lago’s Charlie Edson, xx—who prides himself on running an all-Spartan winery—hired Brian as a cellar technician.

            When the Hosmers tied the knot, they asked for grapevines as wedding gifts. Since then, Brian has gone to work at Chateau Chantal, and Cristin is an assistant vintner at Bel Lago.

            Naturally, shop talk is frequent in the Hosmer household, which now includes a 3-year-old son. “It kind of permeates what we do on a daily basis,” said Brian, who added that his “free-time reading is research papers.” Cristin, he said, is “one of the few people in the world who understand the things I’m saying.”

            However, you don't need to know the industry jargon to see that Spartan research, education and tenacity are, like grapevines, intertwined with the growth and success of the wine industry in Michigan. They're a perfect pairing.

            Find MSU Extension's Grape & Wine Industry newsletter at

            To learn more about the Viticulture Certificate program, contact the Department of Horticulture at (517) 355-5191, ext. 304.

            Bob Benenson of Chicago produces the Good Food on Every Tablewebsite for A former longtime political journalist in Washington, D.C., he is a past president of the Chicago Spartans club and a member of the MSU Alumni Association advisory board.

Program Helps Fuel Rise of Craft Distilleries

            If you’re old enough to remember hillbilly moonshiner Snuffy Smith of comic strip fame, you’re mature enough to appreciate just how upmarket the U.S. distillery business has become. It’s made such a splash that it’s landed shout-outs in such vaunted publications as Fortune and Entrepreneur magazines within the last two years.

           Michigan State University is playing an educational role in the spirit-making renaissance through its Artisan Distilling Program.  

            Snuffy couldn’t hack it today. Creating small-batch spirits these days requires a solid science background, says the program’s founding director, Kris A. Berglund, an MSU distinguished professor of food science and chemical engineering. The program opened in 1996.

            Handcrafting exceptional spirits is the latest progression of the farm-to-glass adult beverage market that’s reflected in boutique wine-making and craft beer brewing. And like their wine and beer-making cousins, craft distilleries are also becoming thought of as tourist destinations that help juice up local, state and federal economies. 

            Industry watchers say generations of discerning Americans, many born between 1980 and 2000, are increasingly craving small-batch, hand-crafted spirits made by local producers from locally sourced grains, fruits and herbs.

            Craft distilleries are defined as those which produce fewer than 50,000 cases a year. And they’re gaining steam. The American Craft Spirits Association says only eight legal distilleries were operating after Prohibition. That’s spiked to today’s 623, according to the American Distillery Institute.

            At MSU, students may elect to study spirits making that leads to a specialization in beverage science and technology. Of course, they must prove they’re 21 and have passed muster in such rigorous prerequisites as microbiology, food safety and the science and technology of wine production.

            Berglund says job opportunities abound for accomplished graduates. “We’ve had visits from some of the biggest companies in this business because they’re looking at the possibility of hiring students out of our programs,” Berglund says of the relatively rare curriculum.

            Meanwhile, those already established in the business or eager to try it out may attend popular MSU-affiliated two-day workshops held in East Lansing. They’ll learn the history of modern distilling, how to operate stills and just what it costs to set up, operate, market and sell their products.

            The workshops are  held at Red Cedar Spirits distillery in East Lansing. Named for the on-campus waterway that stirs Spartans’ hearts, Berglund  operates it under a commercial licensing agreement with Uncle John’s Cider Mill, in nearby St. Johns. And while students use the facility, the university does not have a stake in the business. MSU oversees the teaching and research functions of its distilling education program.

            MSU’s Artisan Distillery Program is overseen by the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, within the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.