In 1702, privateer Antoine Cadillac wrote a letter to King Louis XIV of France proposing a settlement on the banks of a river between Lake Huron and Lake Erie. Among other claims, Cadillac said that the land was eternally warm, with citrus fruits growing wild, and was filled with abundant, wild-growing grape vines drooping under the weight of grapes that could produce wines to rival the highest-quality Bordeaux. Cadillac named this magical land between the lakes De Troit.
Three centuries and a global climate shift later, Cadillac’s wild idea is finally taking hold. In Detroit and across the Great Lakes region — from Michigan to Ohio to New York — winemakers have long enjoyed the benefits of rolling topography, plentiful fresh water, and insulating lake-effect snow. The five Great Lakes are lined with fertile soil and hold more than 20 percent of the world’s fresh water. And, as climate change brings fires and droughts that devastate wine regions in California and Oregon, vineyards in the area are attracting talent with an eye toward the future of American wine.
Once the land of sugary grape juice and treacly ice wine, the wineries of the Great Lakes now produce a variety of vintages: delicate and balanced Pinot Noirs, rich Rieslings, and peppery Cabernet Francs. These wines are the fruit of a dedicated group of winemakers who are carefully cultivating traditional wine grapes from Europe — vitis vinifera — rather than the simpler and sweeter Concord grapes typically used before the 1990s. Although wine has been produced commercially in the Great Lakes region for more than a century, recent years have brought a new crop of winemakers with an eye on climate change, in search of a place to put down roots and blaze new trails.
At Detroit Vineyards, established in 2015, winemaker Chris Southern works with vintners from across Michigan to produce wines that highlight the best features of Great Lakes terroir. Southern tended to grapes in Washington, California, New Zealand, and South Africa but returned to his native Detroit in 2019 to take the helm at Detroit Vineyards.
Southern is one of several climate migrants — people around the world who are moving due to climate change and weather-related catastrophes — coming into the Great Lakes. “For many years, there just wasn’t the talent here to create expressive, site-specific wine,” says Southern. “There was a lot of dogma about, ‘We can only do Riesling here,’ so it’s taken people coming in with a fresh perspective to say, ‘Wow, we can actually make some really interesting wines here.’”
Price, according to Southern, is one explanation for the influx of young and creative winemakers in the Great Lakes. Living on the West Coast is generally more expensive than living in wine regions in the Great Lakes; making wine in California or Oregon simply costs more.
Doniella Winchell, executive director of the Ohio Wine Producers Association, finds the same cost benefit as compared to Napa. The average acre of land costs far less in Ohio — by her estimate between $1,200 and $1,300 an acre — than in Napa Valley, which averages between $100,000 and $150,000 per acre. In Ohio, she says, “We can produce a really nice $15–$20 bottle of wine, whereas in Napa, you’ve got to charge $60 for it.”
Winemakers across the region have begun experimenting with planting a wide variety of grapes. “What climate change has allowed us to do,” says Winchell, “is experiment with varieties of wine that we thought we could never grow and to grow them in a style that reflects the terroir that we have.”
In southwestern Michigan on the shores of Lake Michigan, Amy Birk is a self-described “climate nerd.” She’s also the winemaker and operations manager at Domaine Berrien Cellars. She tends to five different soil types on her 40-acre vineyard, from rich volcanic to hard-packed clay. Glacial retreat from the last ice age is to thank for this soil diversity, she says. “You don’t get that variation in soil and that variation of topography without glacial impact, and without being in the Great Lakes where those glaciers came down and deposited all this cool, delicious, awesome soil and giant rocks.”
With global warming, the Great Lakes are experiencing an increase in growing degree days, the number of average sunlight hours that allow grapes to produce the sugars that ferment into wine. This means that the Great Lakes region is now a more temperate environment for a wide variety of grapes. Even the snow can be beneficial: The lake-effect snow forms an insulating blanket of warmth, retaining heat and protecting buds vulnerable to late frost. The Great Lakes states are already drawing climate migrants with the promise of abundant fresh water and fewer catastrophic weather events.
Says Birk: “The beauty of the Great Lakes is because it’s so moderate — it’s so temperate — it’s going to continue producing great wines, even as climate change gets worse.” All this said, though, winemaking in the region is not without challenges. Scientists predict more flooding events and wildly fluctuating weather in the area in future decades, with severe storms becoming more frequent.
That didn’t stop husband-and-wife team Maxwell Eichberg and Sidney Finan. Both industry veterans with wine experience on the West Coast, they had planned to work the harvest at a west Michigan winery for just one season to save up and buy land in Oregon to start a winery. Instead, they bought a vineyard and began sustainably cultivating a variety of grapes new to the area, including Gamay, Viogner, and Rhône-style wines. “We’re trying to understand what can grow in our climate now,” Eichberg says. Their farm, Stranger Wines, will plant 15 new varieties in the next five years to see which adapt best.
“That’s climate change, for better or for worse,” he says. “California is burning, Oregon is burning, now Washington is burning, and Michigan is getting greener.” That’s enough reason for him and many other winemakers to eye the Great Lakes states with newfound respect.