If you had told me a couple years ago that there was a winery with plans to open in downtrodden Detroit, Michigan, home of the Eight Mile urban blight, I would have dismissed the notion as a lark, a fantasy, a PR prop.
Now Detroit Vineyards is real and a thriving, quickly expanding winery working with Michigan-only fruit that has taken over where the famed Stroh’s Ice Cream plant used to be, smack in downtown Detroit. As it was explained to me, you either knew the Stroh family businesses for beer or ice cream, and the former dairy operation is now a fully renovated, full production winery. Go figure.
Detroit is unquestionably in a renaissance period. There was no other option. This is a city built on the manufacture of automobiles in America and you don’t have to be an economist to see what that flip-flopping business has gone through. With competition from Asia and elsewhere and skyrocketing labor and benefit costs, making cars in Michigan didn’t pencil out. But, the heyday of automobile manufacturing left behind some undeniable benefits to this Great Lakes’ city with harsh winters and even harsher realities. Detroit is the home to some mighty proud people and an arts culture built on the early vision, philanthropy and chest-pounding of wealthy auto magnates with names like Ford, Edsel, Cadillac and Chrysler.
This city, plagued with poverty and violence yet home to some of the wealthiest suburbs in America (e.g. Grosse Point and her ilk), was not going to roll over and die. Cheap housing, new entrepreneurs like the heads of Quicken Loans and hip retailer Shinola, and the kind of opportunity in a depressed area that makes one’s mouth water with the possibilities, attracted Detroit newbies and brought prodigal children back to the fold. This is home for many, and entertainers like Eminem and Kid Rock won’t let you forget that.
One of those who left and is back with a vengeance is Blake Kownacki, the Detroit Vineyards founder who met his silent investment partner, Dr. Claes Fornell, a professor emeritus at University of Michigan, when he consulted on his small vineyard near Ann Arbor. Kownacki, being one of few vineyard experts in Michigan, enthusiastically shared his vision with Fornell, and after much red tape and logistics, Detroit Vineyards was born in 2014 with plans for an urban winery if a site could be found.
For years, Kownacki, who has a background in organic farming and winemaking in both Paso Robles and Orange NSW, Australia, says wine came to him after a degree in organic agriculture from Evergreen State in Washington. “The best winemaker knows both the vineyard and the cellar.” says Kownacki. “I know how soil, water, rain and other elements affect grapes and I take these into the winery and scramble the notes.”
Kownacki came back to Michigan and was vineyard manager and winemaker at Cherry Creek Cellars, where his 2012 Lynn Aleksandr Dry Riesling won a Double Gold at the San Francisco International Wine Competition. Kownacki knows how to make wine and he sources grapes for all of his varietals from vineyards in the Lake Michigan Shores AVA and the northwest Traverse City area, where several of the state’s 35 wineries are successful. But, Kownacki’s goal is Detroit fruit, grown where Lake Erie, Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River come together. “You might be surprised that the shoreline along the Detroit River offers an excellent microclimate, Burgundian-like, for growing world class wine grapes,” He explains.
This quest is not far-fetched. It’s been done before when, in 1702, French-born Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac planted one of the first vineyards in North America. The French vinifera and winemaking techniques, as well as Kownacki’s goal of “creating an authentic, destination winery experience, with superb wines made right here in Detroit” are the building blocks of Detroit Vineyards.
Having grown from 1200 cases annually to now 12,000 for the 2019 vintage, the 12,000 square foot winery and tasting room have become a tourist attraction. Situated next to the bustling Eastern Market, one of the largest continuously running outdoor markets in the U.S., the winery is a natural stop after shopping or after dinner, with tasting room hours until 10 p.m. several nights a week.
Kownacki has twenty employees now, including tasting room manager Chalan Lind, who moved to Detroit in January of this year after many years coordinating experiences with JUSTIN Vineyards and Halter Ranch in Paso Robles. “I made the decision to move from Paso Robles, California, to be a part of the team that created the first urban winery in 60 years in Detroit, Michigan. We are making superior wines, right in the heart of the city, and there is no other urban winery like the one we have created.” explains Lind.
But, Detroit Vineyards expands its reach well beyond the old Stroh’s factory. Kownacki, Dr. Fornell and their team are determined to grow grapes in this harsh climate and have already planted 1000 Marquette vines, a cold tolerant cross-native North American varietal, locally in forgotten neighborhoods and are looking for more. The team at Detroit Vineyards knows making wine may not change the plight of some of the most devastated Detroit neighborhoods, but potentially taking those vacant lots and turning them into patches of vines with bring a sense of green and pride where it didn’t exist before.
With the blessing of the Detroit City Hall, whose council members initially thought the winery a bit on the crazy side, Kownacki is planting, training and invigorating areas whose residents have stayed here through the down times and have been sidelined during the revitalization of the city which has been focused on the downtown area and the Woodward Corridor. As Kownacki explains, “we don’t need to own the land. There are 80,000 vacant lots in the city so let’s plant vineyards and give the residents access to a potential cash crop…in the city.”
It is slow going, but four vineyards are planted and through outreach, neighborhood parties complete with grape stomps and bouncies for kids, this grape growing concept is building steam in some of the harshest economic and weather climates in the U.S. Once planted, the neighborhood watches out for the patch of green. “People ask if I am afraid of vandalism in the vineyards,” says Kownacki, “but I am far more concerned about birds and deer than I am people.”
Detroit Vineyards is benefitting from the new Detroit, where tourism is booming and hotels like The Thomsen and Cambria are joining the already popular Shinola Hotel, Detroit Foundation Hotel and Detroit Element. But this winery is not forgetting they are more than tourism. They have been given a unique opportunity for community involvement and will be growing and harvesting alongside locals until long-departed Monsieur Cadillac sees what he started come full circle on the shores of Lake St. Clair.
Barbara Barrielle is a long-time publicist, writer, actress and producer. She writes about travel, wine, food and entertainment. She is published regularly in major newspapers, magazines and online travel sites. As a producer, Barbara has a feature film, BREAK NIGHT, in distribution and three more going into production. She is also completing a documentary on the wine country fires of 2017 and their effect on the wine industry and the people who work in it.