With Local Grapes and Community Ties, Detroit's Urban Winery Puts Its City First | Wine Enthusiast
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With Local Grapes and Community Ties, Detroit’s Urban Winery Puts Its City First

The year was 1701, and French explorer Antoine Laumet de La Mothe Cadillac ventured from Montreal to the Great Lakes to build a colonial outpost that would eventually become known as Detroit. Though his name became forever linked to the city when the Cadillac brand debuted in 1902, he’s less known for another pioneering move. He planted one of America’s first vineyards.

Cadillac boasted that Detroit was well suited to viticulture, and he carefully selected vines to plant.

“I have no doubt that, by cultivating it as they do in France, this vine will produce good grapes and, consequently, good wine,” he wrote in a letter to French officials in September 1702.

Nearly 320 years later, Cadillac’s vision has been realized anew thanks to Detroit Vineyards, which debuted in a former ice cream factory in May 2019. The first winery to open in the city in 60 years, Detroit Vineyards combines wine and community activism. Due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, the 12,000-square-foot space now sells bottles by curbside pickup four days a week and, as of June 11, is open at reduced capacity four days a week.

Grapevines in vineyard
Photo courtesy Detroit Vineyards

Michigan, the second-most agriculturally diverse state after California, has doubled its vineyard area over the last decade. But unlike most of Michigan’s wineries, primarily in the south and northwest regions, Detroit Vineyards is situated in the heart of a compelling and complicated city.

Years after it emerged from bankruptcy, Detroit still faces hefty challenges. Inflated property tax rates over the past 15 years lead to foreclosures snapped up largely by outside speculators and investors. Lifelong residents, nearly 80% of whom are Black, are wary of encroaching displacement as rents rise and outside speculators and investors buy up land.

Recognizing these dynamics, Detroit Vineyards aims to not just be in the city, but part of it, too.

The winery leased the land for its vineyard from local nonprofit U-Snap-Bac, which works to revitalize Detroit’s east side. In about two years, when the grapes are ready to be harvested, Detroit Vineyards will purchase the fruit produced by the vineyard for a set price, which will funnel funds back into U-Snap-Bac.

“We try to be good community actors,” says Chris Southern, general manager and winemaker of Detroit Vineyards. “We want to provide education and a comfortable experience.”

It also has a full-time community affairs coordinator on staff. Born and raised in Detroit, Thomas Roberes is the company’s tether to the city. An urban gardener, he was working at Home Depot when he met Blake Kownacki, a wine expert and architect of Detroit Vineyards, in 2014.

Together, they came up with the pillars of Detroit Vineyards. In addition to wine production, they aim to eradicate urban blight, raise property values, teach residents lifelong skills and put income in their pockets.

“You got so many places that want to put ‘Detroit’ on something when you really have no connection to us as a city,” says Roberes. “When we say ‘Detroit Vineyards,’ we mean Detroit Vineyards.”

Bottle of wine and barrels
Photo courtesy Detroit Vineyards

The venture began in 2014 when Kownacki and University of Michigan professor Claes Fornell wondered if wine grapes could still be cultivated in Detroit. It turns out, they could.

The fruits of their labor grow in the Morningside neighborhood on the city’s east side. Just past J.W.’s Alabama Style Chicken, Fish & Ribs and rows of quintessential Detroit brick homes, sit 700 vines of cold-tolerant Marquette grapes. The winery planted the North American hybrid variety with the neighborhood’s help last year.

Detroit Vineyards sources cold-tolerant grapes from different regions of Michigan, and it ferments, crushes and bottles its wines on site. It currently produces 10 varieties, including Riesling fermented in stainless steel, and Merlot aged 24 months in Michigan- and French-oak barrels. All are served at the tasting room alongside cider, as well as mead made from Michigan wildflower honey.

When they started work on the site, the process wasn’t exactly smooth. Roberes and Kownacki faced opposition from residents who were cautious of outsiders swooping in to make changes to their neighborhood.

“The tension was very high at the beginning,” says Roberes. But that changed when the pair went door to door to speak to residents. They also attended monthly community meetings held at a public school.

“That’s one thing we definitely appreciated that they did,” says Detroit resident Jeffrey Lewis. “They came out to the community meeting and spoke to the residents of our community and told us, ‘We’re not coming here to take over, we want to be part of it. We just want to be an asset to the community.’ ”

bar interior detroit
Photo courtesy Detroit Vineyards

Lewis, who grew up in Morningside, is set to open Morningside Cafe this year, the first coffee shop in the neighborhood in a decade.

Though Detroit’s “renaissance” has often been hailed in the press, much of this revival is concentrated in a seven-mile stretch that encompasses downtown. Morningside, like the majority of neighborhoods in this 139-square-mile city, is still ripe for community-focused improvement.

Lewis sees both his planned business and Detroit Vineyards’ vacant-lot vineyard as examples of how the neighborhood can be bolstered.

“What we’re both doing is going to be beneficial long term, to really start to put a spotlight on Morningside as a whole,” he says.

Kownacki is no longer with Detroit Vineyards, but Roberes keeps community outreach going. He plans to begin viticulture training for high school students. There are also plans to partner with other neighborhoods to create more urban vineyards.

“It’s more than just grapes, vineyards and viticulture,” says Roberes. “This is about connecting to the city—the actual city—to take pride and ownership. That’s the most important thing about it.”