The history of Michigan’s wine and grape industry – Part 1

Grapes have a long and interesting history in Michigan.

Table grapes
Photo by Mike Reinke, MSU Extension

The Great Lakes state can attribute its rich agricultural history to its geographic location. Michigan’s unique shape, rich soil distribution, the formation of the Great Lakes, and thousands of miles of shoreline are all due to glacial movement thousands of years ago. These unique features, along with hard-working agriculturalists and entrepreneurs, make the number of Michigan’s diverse agricultural commodities second only to California.

One of these agricultural commodities is grapes, which are grown for both juice and wine. Grapes have a long and interesting history in Michigan. Surprisingly, the first vineyards were started by farmers in Monroe County in southeast Michigan. Prior to the establishment of these vineyards, French explorers discovered wild grapevines along the Detroit River as early as 1679. The first known grapevines to be planted in Michigan were planted at Fort Pontchartrain du Detroit (later the name was shortened to Fort Detroit in 1751) by Commander Antoine de la Moth Cadillac in 1702. In a letter written to dignitaries in France, Commander Cadillac reported the fort’s progress, which included details on the planting of a vineyard.

French exploration continued throughout the area using a river as their roadway. In 1792, they named this river the Raisin River due to the abundance of wild grapes found along the river’s banks. The Raisin River flows nearly 139 miles through five counties before emptying into Lake Erie. During this time, it was popular for the local people to gather and ferment the wild grapes from the river’s bank, producing wine for their personal consumption.

Joseph M. Sterling, a resident of Monroe County who had learned winemaking in Europe, was the first pioneer to establish a wine company. In 1868, Point Aux Peaux wine company was established and later grew to include 100 acres of grapes in Monroe County. He encouraged other local farmers to grow grapes throughout the area and by the late 1800s, this region produced over half of the state’s wine. The wine produced was sold locally and shipped to Chicago, New York and Philadelphia. Sterling State Park in Monroe County is named after this famous viticulturalist and winemaker’s son, William C. Sterling.

Although Monroe County was the home of Michigan’s first commercial winery, wine and grape juice were produced in other places by individuals throughout Michigan. Vineyards were planted in west Michigan, close to Lake Michigan’s temperate shoreline to meet the demands of the growing juice and wine industries. Because of the temperate climate, west Michigan became known as the Fruit Belt.

As grape growing and wine making was expanding, the United States passed the 18th Amendment, prohibition, in the early 1900s. Prohibition made it illegal to produce, transport and sell beverages containing alcohol. Even though prohibition did not make consuming alcoholic beverages illegal, many vineyards and wineries went out of business.

During prohibition, bootleggers were bringing beer, wine and spirits to southeast Michigan from Canada via the Detroit River. The Detroit River was a smuggler’s dream. It is less than a mile across in many places, is 28 miles long and has thousands of coves and great hiding places along its shore and among the islands scattered throughout the river. During prohibition, 75% of the alcohol supply came into the United States from Canada via the Detroit River, Lake St. Clair and the St. Clair River.

In the next Michigan State University Extension article, “The history of Michigan’s wine and grape industry – Part 2,” I’ll focus on the vineyards of the Fruit Belt along the western side of the state.

For more information:

    • “The History of Michigan Wines: 150 Years of Winemaking Along the Great Lakes” by Sharon Kegerreis and Lorri Hathaway
    • About Welch's

Did you find this article useful?