Students Run Lake Michigan College Tasting Room

New venture offers students chance to learn how to sell wine in addition to making it

by Linda Jones McKee
scandanavia u.s. wine sales
Lake Michigan College student Kara Welch pours a glass of student-produced wine at the new tasting room in Baroda, Mich.

Baroda, Mich.—The “grand opening” of the Lake Michigan Vintners wine tasting room took place earlier this summer, but this is no ordinary tasting room: students in the wine and viticulture program at Lake Michigan College run it.

“The tasting room is an educational opportunity for our students,” said the program’s director, Michael Moyer. “We opened it somewhat by necessity: it helps to educate students but also promotes the college’s wine program and the entire southwest Michigan wine region as well.”

Laura Morris, whose official title is brand manager, supervises the students working in the tasting room. “It’s a cool concept,” Morris said. “Students sell the wine they have made. There are nine varietals for sale, including two styles of Riesling and a hard cider, and most of the wines are on the drier side.”

Morris said she expects the tasting room will have 800 to 1,000 cases of wine from each vintage to sell. Unlike most tasting rooms, the emphasis is not purely on profit but to provide students an opportunity to learn about customer service and tasting room operations. “We plan to do educational events; the grand opening weekend was our biggest so far,” Morris said. “Michael Moyer will be doing a Wine 101 program, so people can learn about Michigan wines and get an idea of how our courses are taught at the college. We want to team with the culinary center for doing wine and food pairings and dinners.”

She added she also wants to work with the music program at the college to have students provide the music at the tasting room events.

New wine education center in Michigan
The wine and viticulture program at Lake Michigan College is only two years old. The college established a wine and viticulture technology associate degree program with the goal of providing a comprehensive, hands-on education in enology, viticulture and now the business side of the industry including sales, marketing and distribution.

Moyer was hired in part because he had experience with the wine and viticulture program at Walla Walla Community College in Washington state, which also had a tasting room and wine business component.

The Lake Michigan College program, including a small production area and laboratory, is housed temporarily at the Mendel Center of the campus in Benton Harbor, which is just north of the tasting room in Baroda. A new Wine and Culinary Education Center is under construction. Ground breaking took place last year and the initial site preparation is done. Moyer noted that while everyone was “really excited” about the new facility, the reality was that more funding was needed, as well as a building design that would be affordable. “I’m confident the college will build the center next year, and that we’ll be able to process wine there in 2019,” Moyer said.

The viticulture segment of the program is also expanding. Initially, students made wine from grapes purchased from local vineyards and wineries. Lake Michigan College is located about five minutes from Michigan State University’s Southwest Michigan Research and Extension Center (SWMREC).

Moyer said he and his program enjoy a good partnership with Dr. Tom Zabadal, the grape specialist (and former director) at SWMREC. The Lake Michigan College viticulture program was able to take over several research blocks at the center for its students to manage the vines and then harvest the grapes. One research project on different varieties for Michigan vineyards has been resurrected, and in 2016 students planted some Cabernet Franc and Merlot on a plot of slightly less than an acre.

“The Riesling grapes at SWMREC are on Scott Henry trellis; the other varieties are on VSP,” Moyer said. “We focus on the hands-on component; students get good real-world experience with what happens after serious winter injury, how grapes respond to different trellis systems.”

The program will get some of its grapes from the extension center’s vineyards, but will probably continue to buy grapes from local growers.

The Lake Michigan Vintners tasting room is located at 8972 First Street in Baroda. More information about the Lake Michigan College wine and viticulture program can be found at lakemichigancollege.edu.

University of Kentucky to sell wine
The horticultural research farm at the University of Kentucky will start selling the wine it makes on an experimental basis as soon as it receives the appropriate licensing. The wine, however, will only be available on a limited basis to the university community through a subscription-based, Community Supported Agriculture Project for faculty, staff and students, and at university owned-and-operated facilities. The wine will not be sold in stores or local restaurants.

The University’s horticulture research farm harvests grapes from its research trials and then makes experimental wine from those grapes. In past years, a lot of wine was made and then poured out. By selling the wine, the research program won’t waste the product, but will make the research program more sustainable and generate income for the viticulture and enology program. It will help the university continue research projects, teach students, and assist growers and wineries in Kentucky. The University of Kentucky Research Foundation will operate the winery when it is licensed, probably later this fall.

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