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Remade by pandemic, Traverse City-area wineries offering custom experience

Hotel guests staying at the Inn at Black Star Farms in Suttons Bay bike around the property. Guests have options to select from several activity packages while staying at the hotel, one way experiences are now customized there. (Bridge photo by Tessa Lighty)
  • The Traverse City region’s wine industry is selling experiences as well as bottles
  • The change began during the pandemic as businesses had to innovate amid restrictions
  • Some say they have fewer customers but more loyal ones and profits have held

SUTTONS BAY, Michigan — Visitors turning off M-22 drive past rolling hills with vines and fruit trees to reach Black Star Farms and its 160-acre winery and luxury inn. They may not initially notice passing a pasture of horses. 

Here, wine takes center stage in the inn’s lounge, in the event barn, in the tasting room and its patio, and at Black Star’s warm-weather cafe.  

Pinot noir is popular. Like many wineries along the self-described Traverse Wine Coast, Black Star is known for its whites, too, like its award-winning 2017 Arcturos Riesling. Depending on the year, ice wine may be uncorked for customers seeking the rare and pricier pour.

But, increasingly here and at wineries across the region’s two peninsulas — Leelanau and Old Mission — wine is not the only draw. 

This summer, those horses provide more than a pastoral backdrop.

Patrick Brys, president and CEO of Brys Estate Vineyard and Winery in Traverse City, holds a glass of “frose,” or frozen rose. Creative approaches during the pandemic have resulted in more business and happier staff, Brys said. (Bridge photo by Tessa Lighty)

A 30-minute carriage ride for two people, followed by flights of wine and snacks — for $225 — is the latest way Black Star Farms is using the innovation it uncorked during the pandemic to provide a more distinctive experience to guests.  

“Wineries had to get a lot more creative about personalizing the experiences,” said Black Star managing owner Sherri Fenton, who is also president of the Traverse Wine Coast’s board of directors.

The pandemic shut down a host of businesses to stem the spread of COVID-19. In the year that followed, the state issued restrictions on gatherings, with the longest impacts on restaurants, bars and wineries. 

During that time, wineries had to rethink how they used their space within industry guidelines, while meeting the needs of customers who yearned to travel while remaining safe. 

The result is still felt across the Grand Traverse wine region, Fenton said, as wineries transform from quick-service bars to experience-oriented escapes for wine lovers.  

Fenton calls it a “repositioning to a more quality experience.”

Signs of the change can be found across the region’s larger wineries and some smaller ones, too. Small group bicycle tours with wine stops. Intimate dinners with wine pairings. Golf cart rides through lavender fields, maybe with a champagne toast. Private tours of vineyard production rooms.

Sherri Fenton, managing owner of Black Star Farms, just added horse-drawn carriage rides at Black Star Farms in Suttons Bay. The horses graze near the events barn (right). (Bridge photo by Tessa Lighty)

And a broad expanse of outdoor seating, giving guests space to relax in some of the most beautiful locations in Michigan.

The more personalized events are the latest evolution for the area’s wine industry, which already has grown in the past 20 years from a handful of innovators to dozens of destinations offering year-round activities.  

Live music, weddings and business retreats — even snow-shoeing trails — had led to more return visitors to Traverse-area wineries, according to winery owners and tourism officials. 

“Something happens where people just get really interested (in wine) and they want to learn more … about how this all comes to be in this bottle,” said Patrick Brys, CEO of Brys Estate Vineyard & Winery on Old Mission Peninsula.

“We found that when people came, they weren't looking to just shop, they were wanting an experience.”

Guests enjoy the view at Brys Estate Vineyard and Winery in Traverse City.(Bridge photo by Tessa Lighty)

But, Fenton recalled, wineries had to adapt to distancing regulations when the pandemic first hit the state in 2020. One thing they learned is that both their staff and customers appreciated wineries’ pivot away from bars packed with tourists pouring out of a tour bus, only to move on once they emptied their glasses. 

Sales were high when the bars were full, Fenton said. But the businesses managed to maintain profits as they cultivated deeper relationships with the most loyal guests.

“It just seems to be a more select group of individuals who are interested in learning about wines or coming back for another experience of the winery that they have always enjoyed,” Fenton said. “It's not so much just the party kind of mentality.”

At Black Star, that could mean offering a $485 sailing package aboard a 34-foot sailboat for two guests at the inn, or taking advantage of a range of other options for meals, tastings and stays.

At Brys Estate, a new, 200-seat lawn bar set up during the pandemic is now a popular destination this summer. And by moving tables further apart in the estate’s tasting room, Brys discovered that guests — who embraced a new reservation system — tended to linger longer, spending more as they did, many ordering cases of wine as they left.

Patrons visit the indoor tasting room at Black Star Farms in Suttons Bay. It’s one of several tasting areas on the property, which is expanding its experiences for customers. (Bridge photo by Tessa Lighty)

At Chateau Chantal, on Old Mission, customers can still order a wine “slushie” on the outdoor patio. But a newer patio area on the other side of the restaurant and inn offers more private seating. 

A Traverse wine region continues to sell itself as Michigan’s version of Napa Valley. Across the state, more than 200 wineries add to the state’s food manufacturing and also agritourism.

About 60 percent of Michigan’s grapes are grown in northwest Michigan, with a significant number in the Traverse City region. Its 105 miles of shoreline along Lake Michigan and Grand Traverse Bay make the climate agreeable for wine-making.

A 2017 study, commissioned by the Michigan Craft Beverage Council, estimated a $5 billion overall economic impact to the state from the wine industry, with half of state’s wineries located in northwest Michigan, including more than 40 nestled near Traverse City, Leelanau and Old Mission.

The Inn at Black Star Farms offers various packages for guests, including a sailing package that includes this cooler bag of wine, a blanket, and more. (Bridge photo by Tessa Lighty)

The industry “has become one of the most popular reasons to visit Traverse City,” said Trevor Tkach, president of Traverse City Tourism.

“There is massive interest in agri-tourism because people want to reconnect with the land, and what better way to experience that than sipping a glass of wine while overlooking Grand Traverse Bay,” he said. “The wineries have played a vital role in expanding tourism (from summer) to all four seasons.”

Jamie Jewell, president of the Leelanau Area Chamber of Commerce, said the industry’s evolution has inspired the rest of the business community. 

The wineries’ “thinking outside the box and offering different experiences has been wonderful,” Jewell said. “It’s just kind of fostered this new creative process for them to think (about) what we can offer that's very different from some of the other areas.”

She said businesses are thinking ahead to additional innovation, to boost visitors in non-peak months, like late fall and mid-winter. New breweries and distilleries are also emerging to complement the wine offerings.

Soon, many wineries expect to further expand their business after a lawsuit  brought by 11 Old Mission Peninsula wineries against Peninsula Township resulted in a ruling that lifted restrictions on wineries hosting weddings and other large events and operating full service restaurants.

The industry doesn’t disclose overall revenue or other financial details. But Brys said his business is “seeing more visitors than it ever has” and is about to expand its winemaking facility. 

Brys said the pandemic reset turned out to benefit his business, staff and the estate’s customers. 

“We were all forced to create these experiences and tables, settings and arrangements because of the pandemic, but I think what everyone realized is everyone benefits from this,” Brys said. “Creating these experiences has proven to be a good thing all around.”

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