From Wine Professor to Winery Owner

Michigan viticulture professor starts a new career as winery owner

by Linda Jones McKee
The new tasting room of Moonrise Winery, which was opened by former Michigan State University professor Dr. Tom Zabadal.

Watervliet, Mich.—Dr. Tom Zabadal officially retired from his position as professor of viticulture at Michigan State University, MSU, on Dec. 31, 2017, and the next day became full-time owner, vineyard manager and winemaker at Moonrise Winery in Watervliet, Mich.

Michael White, extension and outreach viticulture specialist at Iowa State University, told Wines & Vines that he always considered Zabadal and Dr. Stan Howell (professor emeritus of viticulture and enology at MSU) to be “the top two viticulturists in the northern half of the United States," and added that the annual viticulture field day Zabadal organized every July at the Southwest MSU Research and Extension Center was the biggest in the entire upper Midwest.

Many of Zabadal’s friends in the wine industry said they knew he grew some grapes in his personal vineyard, but not many knew how carefully he and his wife Karen were planning his transition to a new career. Their first grapes were planted in 1998, and until 2016 the grapes from those 2.5 acres were sold. He planted Chardonnay, Grüner Veltliner, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon but, he noted, his “focus is on Bordeaux reds.”

The area is near Lake Michigan and has sandy, well-drained soils. “All the Cabernet Sauvignon vines are on a steep, south-facing, hot slope, and the leaves stay on the vines ‘til November,” he said. He lets the grapes hang until Nov. and regularly gets 23° Brix and total acidity of 0.7.

In 2009, the Zabadals put up a 100-foot long pole barn with a pressing area at one end and a room for a potential tasting area at the other. In between is space for a lab, production and storage areas, office and restroom facilities.

Winery licensed in 2017
With the harvest of 2016 available, Zabadal started to make wine from his grapes at another location. The winery was licensed for production in February 2017 and the tasting room license arrived on Nov. 22, the day before Thanksgiving. During harvest, Zabadal made 12 wines: nine will be estate bottled and three are from grapes or wine he “bought and modified,” for a total of somewhat more than 1,000 cases of wine.

Moonrise Winery had a “soft opening” the weekend after Thanksgiving and the first weekend in December. The next weekend there was an ice and snow storm, and the winery closed for the winter. The family added the finishing touches to the tasting room over the winter, including paneling from locally grown oak and a 56-foot, horseshoe-shaped tasting bar. The tasting room has windows facing to the east, with magnificent views of the rising moon (especially “super” moons such as happened in early December); hence the name for the winery.

The official opening was March 23, and the winery is now open Friday, Saturday and Sunday. When asked about plans for the future, Zabadal told Wines & Vines that they “have everything to learn about the marketing side of things.”

But he added the couple now has plenty of time to learn about that side of the business. “We’re retired. We plan to open on weekends and hope to stick to that," he said. "We’re not trying to grow as fast as we can!”

Zabadal received his Ph.D. from Cornell University in 1974 and then spent 15 years working in extension at Cornell. In 1989 he joined the department of horticulture at MSU and worked at the Southwest Michigan Research and Extension Center (SWMREC) in Benton Harbor. He resigned as coordinator of SWMREC in April 2016 but continued to conduct viticultural research and extension to help Midwestern grape growers.

Zabadal’s most lasting legacy may be his series of instructional videos on vineyard establishment, pruning and tying. Dr. Tim Martinson, senior extension associate at Cornell University, wrote in the Northern NY Grape Management Update in 2016 that this series of videos “covers the ‘nuts and bolts’ of establishing different training systems, tying grapevines, and trellis construction, all presented in a careful ‘step-by-step’ format. These are highly specific and practical. For example, there are four separate videos on tying, including situations where tying is needed, materials used for tying, techniques used for tying, and specific knots used for tying.”

Zabadal said that he plans to leave the videos online (available at https://www.youtube.com/user/Viticultureinfo). “All the videos are copyrighted,” he stated. “There are no ads, I don’t make anything from them. I planned to make 100; there are now 39. The most popular is the one on basic skills in pruning.”

Posted on 08.20.2018 - 18:25:29 PST
Tom's videos are a college degree worth of information. I discovered his site about a month ago and have a spiral binder full of notes. Thank you. Tom. Stan Stevens, Hermann, Missouri.