HARBERT — The checkered, quirky history of winemaking in Southwest Michigan coupled with the chance to sample the goods were on the agenda for The Region of Three Oaks Museum’s fund-raiser on Saturday, Aug. 24. In keeping with the topic, the setting was the former tasting room of the Molly Pitcher Wine Company, now home to Café Gulistan at 13581 Red Arrow Highway.
“From the Land to the Glass” was presented by Nick Bogert, The Region of Three Oaks Museum (TROTOM) board member, and Rick Cooper, wine expert, beverage director for Lambrecht’s Liquors in St. Joseph, and board member of the Michigan Wine Collaborative.
Cooper set the stage by noting that geography plays a big part in Michigan’s wine industry. Not only does the 45th parallel run through both Michigan and the most exalted of Europe’s wine making regions, the state also enjoys the favorable lake effects of fewer spring frosts as and longer fall growing seasons.
Today, Michigan ranks ninth in the number of wineries and eighth in wine production, turning out 2.3 million gallons a year, 88 percent of which is consumed in-state. The wine business has a nearly $5-billion economic impact in the state, according to Cooper.
Beginning in the early 1900s, Michigan wine business was concentrated near Detroit until Prohibition hit in 1918. Bogert noted that Three Oaks, however, had voted itself dry years earlier thanks to the influence of E.K. Warren. Ironically, this staunch Prohibitionist’s Featherbone Factory is now home to Journeyman Distillery.
The local wine industry traces back to Detroit’s former bootlegger Mariano Meconi who came to PawPaw in 1933 with what became the St. Julian Wine Company. St Julian is the state’s oldest and largest continuously operating wine maker and was an early entrant into sparkling wines and spirits. However, St. Julian’s almost came to an end in the 1970s with a fire at its PawPaw factory and the death of three of Meconi’s sons. But survive it did, and a St. Julian’s Riesling was one of the wines served at the TROTOM event. For another event — a 1987 Papal mass presided over Pope John Paul II with 90,000 attendees — a St. Julian Seyval Blanc was selected to be served.
Bogert went on to tell how another religion — The House of David — played a large role in the area’s wine-making history. Headquartered in Benton Harbor, this sect was led by Benjamin Purnell who, unlike many religious leaders, opposed Prohibition and after it ended, opened a beer garden at House of David amusement park. The beer garden soon became popular with younger residents who learned it did not check IDs very carefully.
The House of David also engaged in grape-growing on Lakeside farmland along East Road. By World War II, the House of David operated Michigan’s largest grape growing operation known as the Lakeside Vineyard.
During World War II, under a contract with the War Department, German Prisoners of War helped sort the grapes that would be used for jams, jellies and wines.
Bogert then turned his narrative to Molly Pitcher Wines, whose factory was located in the condo lofts behind Café Gullistan. It had moved to Harbert from Detroit in 1945 and was owned by Irish immigrant William Ruttledge. Molly Pitcher was a legendary woman who brought water to soldiers during the American Revolution.
In its heyday, the Harbert operation could produce 2,000 cases of wine a day and was the largest grape processor in Berrien County. In 1974, suspected burglars caused the fire that ended the aging Ruttledge’s wine career.
Molly Pitcher Wines were sold to Betty and Cecil Pond who continued to produce fruity, sweet wines along with drier wines sold with the Lakeside Vineyard label until 1991 when it closed for good.
Cooper discussed the changing tastes for drier, European style wines and the influence of winery pioneer Robert Mondavie and celebrity chef Julia Child.
“California was quick to adapt to the new palate. New York, Oregon, Washington and other states were not far behind, but Michigan was slow to move on from sweet, fruity wine,” Cooper said.
Two Michigan wine pioneers, Len Olson and Carl Banholzer, bought 45 acres on Mount Tabor Road in Buchanan in 1968 and began a major effort to plant grapes needed to make fine wine, planting 29 grape varieties in all.
“They had little in the way of formal training, but learned quickly,” Bogert said.
Tabor Hill soon emerged as a leader in the movement toward fine wines in Michigan and further distinguished itself by locating a gourmet restaurant on the winery grounds.
Celebrity endorsements helped and included servings by President Gerald Ford and comedian Bob Hope flying his private plane back for more Tabor Hill product after he was given a bottle at the Berrien County Youth Fair in 1981.
Another local wine pioneer who got his start at Tabor Hill is Rick Moersch, who was a chemistry teacher brought in to address problems of spoilage. Moersch stayed to eventually found Round Barn winery and even buy Tabor Hill a couple of years ago. Moersch has become an innovator in beverages adding both a brewery and spirits.
The area also includes two estate wineries, which means the use only their own grapes and are generally quite serious about making fine wine. The family-run Lemon Creek winery goes back generations of Lemon Family who were local farmers and got into wine making in 1984 to become the second oldest winery in the area and the 17th in the state. Right across the street is another estate winery, Domaine Berrien, run by Katie and Wally Mauer on 40 acres of vineyards.
Winemakers who contributed to the “From the Land to the Glass” event included Lemon Creek, Tabor Hill, St. Julian, and Kody Cresta plus Ibrahim Parlak of Café Gulistan.