These are exciting times for the pioneers of the Petoskey Wine Region. Get to these family farms in the rolling hills of the Tip of the Mitt soon so you can say “I was there when…”

The tasting room at Mackinaw Trail Winery & Brewery has taken the air of a casual party as Dustin Stabile brings a bottle from a private stash, then pours small splashes of the dark, rich nectar.

The 30-something winemaker and operations director is one of the first ever to have made ice wine from this red wine grape called Marquette—named after a renowned French explorer, and being fashioned into increasingly beloved wines of all styles through such experimentation. He left just six rows to freeze on the vines here at Mackinaw Trail Winery & Brewery and made little more than enough for his wine club, but he wants feedback on whether he should make more.

Featured in the September 2019 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Get your copy.

The unanimous nods (and spontaneous begging) tell him all he needs to know, though the group happily moves on to the tasting of the flights waiting on the table. There’s a smorgasbord of delights to try, dry and sweeter, from a sparkling blanc de noir (blended with the familiar chardonnay and pinot noir) to wines made from Frontenac Gris, La Crescent and Petite Pearl bred for climates with the occasional winter deep freeze that could wipe out an entire crop of less hardy fruit.

When tasting room manager (also Dustin’s mom), Laurie Stabile, realizes no one at the table has sampled rosé, she comes out with a tray of glasses, filled with a rosé made from estate-grown Marquette, smiling at the fact that her slippers indeed read “Rosé,” and “All Day.” The family dog, Syrah, moves between tables, accepting tips in the form of pats. Winery founder Ralph Stabile spins tales from the bar with tasting options ranging from a brew named “Jesus Should Have Made Beer” to a bartender’s secret pour of raspberry sparkling wine and beet cider. The resulting combo is an uncanny and delectable resemblance to a PB&J.

If this all sounds more like casual pub fun than high-end winery, it is that too. But know you will find exceptional wines here, too (one sells for $100 a bottle). Experimentation is a hallmark of the trail itself, the young winemakers who for the most part are driving the development of Michigan’s newest American Viticultural Area, the Tip of the Mitt AVA, and of the world’s newest wine grapes too.

Want to learn more about the unique grape varietals of the Petoskey Wine Region? Meet the Marquette! 

Dustin Stabile is president of the newly rebranded Petoskey Wine Region, a collection of more than a dozen (and growing) wineries, which are embracing hybrid grapes as their signature, and creating wine through sophisticated techniques. Mackinaw Trail was the first winery in the Upper Peninsula when founded in a two-car garage in 2004, and at its new Petoskey facility has vineyards mature enough that the winery can offer estate-grown-only wines (for its Mackinaw Trail label) starting this fall. Elsewhere, the trail boasts such “only-here” stops as the tasting room serving wine made from maple sap (Maple Moon), one that shares space with farm animals you can feed and a farm-to-table restaurant (Pond Hill Farm), and one in which you sip inside a castle (1918 Cellars at Castle Farms).

An absolute perk of the Petoskey Wine Trail is its rural beauty. Country roads take you over hills with views of sunsets sinking behind bucolic farms and past gaggles of turkey. Inside cozy tasting rooms it’s the farm families themselves usually making the pour. But one thing you quickly discover is that these are not your everyday farmer’s wines.

Sophisticated makers like Stabile, Josh Morgan at Petoskey Farms Vineyard and Winery, and Matt Killman of Walloon Lake Winery cut their winemaking teeth under some of the state’s top experts. Stabile trained at the Michigan State University research winery under “the father of Michigan wine” Stan Howell, and Morgan under Black Star Farms’ Lee Lutes, and the three work together and share discoveries and techniques.

“I like to call us the young guns,” Morgan says. “Anyone who is our age could have gone to California to work there, or anywhere in the world. We chose to work here because we think it’s a new and exciting region. We get experimental power that no one else gets. They’re doing it the same way every time in California; customers expect a varietal characteristic from everything you produce, and people have been making that wine the same way for 500 years. We don’t have any of that preconceived notion here.”

With 13 unique wineries to choose from, the Petoskey Wine Region has cemented their craft as one of the best AVA’s in Michigan. Get your free tasting passport, created specifically for the Petoskey Wine Region, and taste the difference of the rich, robust grapes that thrive in cold temperatures to produce deep, inviting flavors.

But while they embrace being the underdog trail, the frequent association between experimental grapes and sweet wines or lesser quality wines is a fallacy, he says, and recent awards in state, national, and international wine competitions bear that out.

Petoskey Farms won four awards (including a double gold for Marquette) for the four wines entered in the recent Indy International Wine Competition, while Mackinaw Trail won best of class for its Frontenac Gris and several other awards. In 2017, Walloon Lake was perhaps the one officially breaking the “glass ceiling” for cold-hardy wine grapes when its Marquette-based North Arm Noir took Best of Class in 2017 over all other dry red wine competitors.

But while the stamp of approval from experts helps, just as important to the trail’s success, winemakers say, is the preferences of millennials who increasingly make up the wine-buying public. The craft beer and cider generation embraces the “different,” says Walloon Lake Winery’s Killman.

“Once you’ve had an $8 cabernet, that only goes so far to excite the palate,” he says. “When people get the chance to try something new or they don’t recognize, especially people our age, it gets them out of their comfort zone. I know I always try to find the weirdest varietal I can when going over to someone’s house—something I know no one else is going to bring to a party. That’s pretty much all we’re creating here.”

Just a minute down the road from Petoskey Farms, the September sunshine has attracted some enthusiastic customers to Maple Moon Sugarbush and Winery, including a young couple on their honeymoon who bears out Killman’s thinking. They’d tried every kind of craft beer, they said, sipped in some of the world’s classic wine-growing regions, one tells the server. “But we’ve never had a maple wine—ever. And the maple trees are right over there. It’s really cool.”

At Mackinaw Trail, a half-dozen volunteers are picking wine grapes, cementing the “we’re all in this together” sense elsewhere on the trail. And at Petoskey Farms, customers trickle onto a patio that looks over a panorama of vineyards, backed by hills of trees just starting to turn to their autumn oranges and golds. Most carry sampler trays with pours in many dazzling hues—Morgan and owners Andy and Tracie Roush encourage open-mindedness in selections.

“I want people to come in with a clean slate,” Morgan says, “to experience this for what it is. It’s new. It might be five years old, or 15 in the case of Marquette. I just made 33 cases of Frontenac Blanc, and as I’m pouring it for people, I’m saying, ‘You are tasting a varietal not many people have tasted yet. You are pioneering this with us. Tell me what you like and what you don’t. You will shape the future releases of this wine.’”

Kim Schneider is a long-time travel writer specializing in Michigan adventures, food and wine. The Midwest Travel Journalist Association has named her Mark Twain Travel Writer of the Year, and she’s the author of the recently published book, “100 Things to Do in Traverse City Before You Die.”

Resort Pike Cidery & Winery, pictured above, is just one of many family-friendly wineries in the Petoskey Wine Region.