Hey, Chicago: Where Is All the Michigan Wine?

There is a booming industry of outstanding wines right across the lake. Why are they so hard to find in the city?

6/30/20232 min read

As an epicenter of culture, diversity, and innovation, Chicago has long been a gateway to the finest wines from across the globe. Wine bars in the city have always embraced offerings from the highest quality world regions such as Bordeaux and Tuscany, as well as California's famed Napa and Sonoma Valleys. While these wines have rightly earned their place on restaurant lists, it is time for Chicago to look a little closer to home – right across the lake in fact.

Michigan's wine industry has matured remarkably over the past decade, and the state now boasts over 600 bonded wineries spread across five American Viticultural Areas (AVAs); many of these produce wines that can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their counterparts from far more established wine regions. As a close to home example, the Lake Michigan Shore AVA has rightfully gained recognition for its unique cool climate wines, which exhibit a character very distinct from the Napa styles still surprisingly dominant in Chicago wine programs.

Recent trends for lighter and low alcohol styles often produced in cool regions may be working in Michigan's favor however. The state's Riesling, Pinot Grigio, and Cabernet Franc are particularly noteworthy, delivering a delicate balance of acidity and fruitiness that make them versatile food-pairing options, rarely higher than 13% ABV.

From an economic and environmental standpoint, embracing Michigan wines makes even more sense for Chicago's wine bars. Transporting wines from California or Europe involves significant carbon emissions associated with long-distance shipping. By contrast, Michigan's vineyards are just a few hundred miles from Chicago, making the carbon footprint of these wines much lower. Offering Michigan wines is not just a smart move for business and palates – it's a sustainable choice that aligns with increasing consumer demand for eco-friendly products.

But the challenge lies in overcoming perception. California and Europe have long dominated the wine scene, and consumers might be hesitant to venture into unfamiliar territory. This is where strategic marketing comes into play. Michigan wineries can and should consider partnering with Chicago wine bars to introduce their wines to a new audience. By offering their wines at a discounted rate for by-the-glass programs, Michigan wineries could entice consumers to try something new, thereby increasing awareness of their wines. In a world of high markups, these by-the-glass menus offer a rarely leveraged opportunity for Michigan to steal some well-deserved market share.

By offering Michigan wines, Chicago wine bars could also tap into the ongoing locavore movement, which emphasizes the purchase and highlight of locally-sourced products, not just for climate reasons, but to fuel social sustainability as well. This trend has already taken hold in the city's vibrant culinary scene, with many restaurants prioritizing locally grown and produced ingredients - so why not wine? By extending this ethos to their wine lists, Chicago wine bars can differentiate themselves in an increasingly competitive market that has been struggling to attract younger consumers.

The time is ripe for Chicago wine bars to champion the wines of their neighboring state. By doing so, they would not only be supporting local industry and making a more sustainable choice, they would also be enriching their offerings and responding to consumer trends.

If you happen to be reading this from Chicago, check out the recently launched Regions page which highlights the Lake Michigan Shore and Fennville AVAs. You're within driving distance!