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.

Educating future viticulturists

Another way Sabbatini and MSU are helping fuel the industry’s growth is by educating future viticulturists. Through the horticulture department and MSU Extension, students gain classroom and field experience in the literal sense. A typical day during the fall harvest or the winter pruning involves driving to MSU’s vineyards in southwest or northwest Michigan – rain, snow or sun – and spending the day snipping clusters of grapes or trimming vines, respectively.

The work isn’t over when the bell rings, either; it’s when the fieldwork is complete. In fact, it’s these days that demonstrate students’ commitment to viticulture, Sabbatini said.

“There’s a romantic notion about being a wine connoisseur that draws some people to viticulture,” he said. “So I invite them to work the harvest, which can be 12-hour days. If they come after the first day, then I know that they are serious, and they want to be part of the program.”

Working outdoors and helping cultivate an important crop for his home state is what drew Jake Emling, an undergraduate student from Gladstone, to the program. His studies have allowed him to intern at Old Mission Peninsula’s Chateau Chantal as well as travel to southern France to learn more about plant physiology.

“I’ve always wanted to work in plant science, but I didn’t want to spend the majority of my time in a lab and sitting at a bench,” he said. “Growing up in the U.P., I was always outside. I got bitten by the wine bug at Michigan State, and the viticulture program allows me to exercise my science background but work hard outside.”

To learn more about MSU’s viticulture program, visit www.hrt.msu.edu/viticulture. To learn more about Michigan’s wine industry, visit the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council at www.michiganwines.com.

Sabbatini’s work is supported by MSU AgBioResearch.