Wine is bottled poetry.
Robert Louis Stevenson
Coming from a family of winemakers, Dustin Stabile of the Mackinaw Trail Winery might agree with this Stevenson quote. It’s simple and romantic…like thoughts of sipping wine on a Tuscan balcony overlooking the Fiume Arno. While dreamy-artist notions of crafting something new for the world to enjoy are not lost on Dustin – he is quite passionate about flat out making great wine – he is also a sharp businessman. With a viticulture degree from MSU, he manages operations for one of the fastest growing businesses in Northern Michigan.
Mackinaw Trail Winery was founded by Dustin’s parents, Ralph and Laurie Stabile. The love of wine and wine-making was instilled in Ralph as a five-year-old growing up in Detroit, pressing grapes grown by his Sicilian immigrant grandfather to make year-long supplies of wine for the family. Ralph founded Mackinaw Trail Winery in 2004, realizing his lifelong dream of owning a vineyard and winery.
“When my father first filed the paperwork on the winery, he wanted to buy property in St. Ignace,” Dustin explained. “There was a building in town he was looking at renting called ‘Mackinaw Trail’. When he filed, he was kind of in a hurry and just put that as the name of the winery.”
Unfortunately, the sale fell through and Ralph ended up starting the business in Manistique instead. Eight years later, they built their new headquarters just south of Petoskey on US131 – nicknamed The Mackinaw Trail Highway. “So it was karma that we ended up in this location”, Dustin mused.
Mackinaw Trail Winery opened their new vineyard, tasting room and production facility in 2012 on thirty acres sweeping across a sparsely populated area south of Petoskey. My husband and I visited recently on a Friday evening. It was clear that the Stabiles were quite deliberate about every detail of the building and vineyard. Bold stonework and flooring, bright stucco walls and a Tuscan-inspired paint scheme evoke the family’s Sicilian heritage. The massive tasting room bar has seating for over a dozen visitors. There’s a quaint bistro where they serve a limited Italian-inspired menu. And the surrounding retail shop is well-stocked with wines, glasses and everything else a home wine bar would need. It’s impressive and cozy all at the same time.
Led by Dustin, our tour of the 6,000 square-foot production facility began at the bottling machine. I’m not a so-called wine snob, so when I saw the screw tops I thought, as many people do, that they were for the lower-end wines. I was so wrong.
“We are moving 100% to screw caps in the next few years,” Dustin shared. “The technology really is the wave of the future. Science has proven that screw caps provide a better seal. In Australia, New Zealand and most of Europe, they are moving towards screw caps. Cork is just too expensive for an inferior seal.”
Taking a cue from modern chefs who offer visual access to their kitchens, Mackinaw Trail Winery’s facility is showcased behind large windows. “The bottling machines are fascinating to watch,” Dustin told us. “So we put them right up front and in full view of the tasting room and our customers.”
Moving on to what I called the wall-o-wine…my eyes swelled to the size of golf balls. A massive wall of hand-crafted oak barrels, stretching out far down the center of the room, each filled with all kinds of slowly maturing wine. Mackinaw Trail Winery ages the majority of their red wines between 18 and 20 months depending on the blend. Higher-end reds, like their Syrah, age for up to 2½ years.
“We use a combination of French, Michigan and Hungarian oak barrels,” Dustin explained. “Michigan reds tend to be more fruit forward so we like using Hungarian barrels because it gives them more complexity.”
But why and how? I neglected to ask Dustin, so a quick web search was the next best thing. One explanation from a 50+ year crafter of Hungarian barrels (www.zemplenbarrels.com) is that “…the Hungarian oak breaks down more easily, and conveys an exceptional selection of toasted, vanilla, sugary, woody, spicy and caramel-like flavors – imparting these aromas with less intensity, and slower than American or French oak.” That certainly does sound complex.
Getting back to Mackinaw Trail, Dustin pointed out that, “Ever since the change to Hungarian barrels on some of our wines, we have been scoring higher in competition. Our Cabernet Franc just scored a 92 at the world-wide championship. We are doing great things with our reds and we should have a $100 red launched soon.”
Next we moved to the industrial steel tanks where “juice” is fermented. Mackinaw Trail Winery not only produces grape wine, but fruit wine and hard cider as well.
“We distribute a lot of fruit wine, especially throughout the Midwest,” Dustin shared. “As a professional vintner, I would love to focus only on our high-end wines, which win a lot of awards. But honestly, our fruit wines pay the bills. We’re a winery, but we’re also a business.”
Mackinaw Trails’ fruit collection includes blueberry, strawberry rhubarb, cherry sangria, spiced apple, cranberry and ‘Razzberry’ wines. Their best seller by far though, is the blackberry wine, described as dark ruby red in color with intense blackberry flavors and a sweet full body.
After learning a bit about technicalities of the fermentation process, Dustin brought us over to their new brewery. Launched just this August, Mackinaw Trail Brewery (MTB) currently keeps on tap four beers and one hard cider. Before the tour, my husband sampled the Summer Squeeze; a Belgian White with hints of citrus, reminding him of Bell’s famed Oberon. MTB also offers U.P. Yours Imperial Ale, (906)-PALE-ALE and Bear Creek Amber, along with their Black Diamond apple-blackberry hard cider.
When we moved outside of the production house, the conversation shifted to grapes as we came across empty grape crates. We learned that the winery purchases over 250 tons of grapes from Michigan vineyards each year, which are delivered in autumn and pressed on site. They anticipate being able to process home-grown grapes in a few years.
“The vineyard on top of the hill will be full next summer,” Dustin said as we scanned the fields. “However, we’re still about two to three years from being able to harvest. We’re not in a huge rush. We really could’ve gotten a half crop off one field, but after the harsh winter we clipped all the clusters off to give the vines time to grow.”
Pensively Dustin explained that if they have another winter like last year, and if he’d have taken the half crop, they could have lost the entire vineyard. “We’re an extra year behind, but that’s ok. We’re planning for the long term.”
Wine grapes are a rather finicky fruit, preferring to grow only in beautiful places – or maybe it’s the grape vines that inspire beauty in the acreages where they’re planted. In Michigan, the vast majority of wine grapes grow within 25 miles of the beaches of Lake Michigan. Along the shore, well-known lake effect weather protects the vines with deep winter snow and cool summer breezes.
Mackinaw Trail’s vineyard is planted with Traminette, a hybrid relative of Gewurztraminer that possesses an attractive spiciness; Petite Pearl, a cold hardy red wine grape that Dustin anticipates will replace his Syrah/Pinot Noir blend; Marquette, a high sugar red with pronounced tannins that will eventually replace the winery’s Pinot Noir; Frontenac Gris, that will be used for the winery’s popular White Ibis wine; and La Crescent, reminiscent of a Riesling, which will replace the winery’s Vidal Blanc Ice Wine.
The business is growing rapidly, as is evident from their recent hiring of a full-time Vineyard Manager and a Brew Master to oversee MTB. In their first year, Mackinaw Trail Winery bottled 600 cases. This year they’ll top 25,000. The new brewing division is a large part of their future plans, which also include doubling the size of their production facility and breaking ground on a 100’ x 50’ banquet facility nestled among their vines. The new brewery allows Mackinaw Trail Winery to offer both wine and beer products for weddings and corporate events once the banquet structure is completed. Dustin explained that they know they need to temper growth within the constructs of their business plan in order not to explode beyond their capabilities.
“For my parents and I, it’s never been about the being biggest winery,” Dustin said as we ended the tour back in the tasting room. “We want people to say, ‘Mackinaw Trail makes really spectacular wine.’ We want to dispel that rumor that Michigan can’t make great wines, especially reds.”
That doesn’t sound like such a tall order when you consider that Mackinaw Trail Winery has taken over fifty medals and six best of class awards in the last few years, including the 2014 Best of Class for their Cabernet/Merlot blend at the Indy International Wine Competition. Poetry in a bottle is evidently being created in spades on the Mackinaw Trail Highway. From the grape to the glass…it all stems from a modest Sicilian family, a big dream, and 30 gorgeous acres in Northern Michigan.
Mackinaw Trail Winery has four tasting rooms.
Their main facility is located at 3423 US131 just south of Petoskey. It is open Sunday 12pm-5pm; Monday-Thursday 10am-6pm; Friday & Saturday 10am-7pm.
Mackinaw City Crossings Tasting Room is open Sunday 12pm-10pm; Monday-Saturday 10am-10pm.
Petoskey Gaslight District Tasting Room is located at 200 Howard Street. It is open Sunday 12pm-5pm; Monday-Thursday 12pm-6pm; and Friday & Saturday 12pm-8pm.
Manistique On the Harbor Tasting Room is located at 103 West Lakeshore Drive. It is open Thursday-Saturday 10am-5pm.