Michigan has established itself as a wine destination, and Michigan State University has played a pivotal role in all aspects of the industry’s growth.

As Michigan’s leaves hit peak color, residents and tourists alike travel the state snapping photos of blazing trees and visiting the growing number of vineyards. Today, Michigan is ranked as the nation’s fourth-largest grape producer with a burgeoning industry of wine-grape growers and vineyards. But back in the 1970s, the majority of the state’s vineyards were dedicated to juice-grape production.

That changed when G. Stanley Howell, MSU professor emeritus of horticulture, conducted successful trials with French/American hybrids and vinifera grapes and identified varieties that could thrive in Michigan’s cold climate. According to an article in Vineyard and Winery Management, his work fueled the growth of Michigan’s wine industry and in establishing MSU as a viticulture research institution.

With assistance from MSU, the state’s wine industry:

  • has seen wine grape growth increase by 500 percent since 1973.
  • now comprises 14,600 acres of vineyards, 2,000 of which are dedicated to wine.
  • has grown from less than 10 to 86 wineries, producing more than 1 million gallons of wine each year.
  • sees 800,000 visitors annually.
  • contributes $300 million to Michigan’s economy.
  • increased the varieties grown in Michigan, including riesling, pinot noir, chardonnay, pinot blanc, cabernet franc, merlot, chardonel and more.

It was MSU’s reputation that enticed Paolo Sabbatini, MSU assistant professor of viticulture, to leave Italy and come to Michigan to study. He has moved from student to teacher, and is now the statewide research and extension viticulturist. He evaluates vine physiology under cool-climate conditions, environmental and cultural factors that limit vine growth, vine yield, canopy management and grape varieties.