As a Chicagoan there is nothing I enjoy more than taking off for the shores of Lake Michigan on a sunny summer weekend. Downtown Chicago and its lakefront are a short drive away and with the parks, cafes, beaches, pier and both water and skyline views, it’s a small slice of heaven for this city girl. That said, there are times when I need a break from the hustle of city life, and that’s why I love Southwest Michigan. In an hour and 45 minutes I can be a world away from the big city and on the sandy shores of Warren Dunes State Park or, you guessed it, sipping wine on the patio of one of several wineries in the area.
Most Chicagoans know all about Southwest Michigan, many having summer lake homes, or annual family adventures to the shores of our Great Lake. It’s a Rockwellian destination with its all-American charm from New Buffalo to Grand Haven. Ice cream shops, art stores, sidewalk cafes, summer festivals and farmer’s markets are brimming with life from couples to families alike. The beaches and dunes are adorned with colorful umbrellas, beach towels and picnic blankets, while the happy beachgoers bathe in the sun, surf (yes surf!) the Lake Michigan waves, or stroll the shores. And then there’s the summer sunsets over the Lake! Don’t be surprised if applause breaks out as the sun disappears on the horizon leaving behind a brilliant and colorful painting across the sky. It’s a summer playground that feels a world away from city life.
The Local AVA
Now as a Winetraveler, I always look to find a wine experience in my travels – including when I head to Southwest Michigan. Sometimes this American Viticulture Area (AVA) is the only reason I head to the region! Did you say AVA? Yes! Michigan has, in fact, five federally recognized AVAs, Lake Michigan Shore in Southwest Michigan being one of them. Lake Michigan Shore has approximately 80 miles of shoreline, lending to the “Lake Effect” this region provides the growing vines. The sloping moraine along the shoreline was created during the Wisconsin Glacial Period, which left behind 42 different kinds of soils, ranging widely in texture, drainage and slope. Most of the vineyard sites are located at elevations above 650 feet with the highest elevations over 900 ft.
During the growing season in the Lake Michigan Shore AVA, the area will see more growing days than Burgundy and Alsace in France and more than all of Germany. The region is more on par with the seasons of Bordeaux and Piedmont. During the growing season, the average temperatures in the Lake Michigan Shore AVA are around 81F with an average rainfall of 20 inches. As harvest approaches, the Lake lends the heat it accumulated during the summer months to the region and extends the growing season to allow for full maturation of vinifera varieties. The Lake also moderates the winter temperatures throughout the region, allowing the grapes that typically can’t survive Midwest winters to thrive. And as for the wines, you’ll find everything from Chardonnay to Cabernet Sauvignon and from Riesling to Pinot Noir. The wines are typically fruit-forward, food friendly, and much more akin to the wines of Europe than to the wines of the West Coast of the states.
Let’s Plan that Summer Getaway
Now who wouldn’t want to getaway for beaches, small lakeside towns and wineries on a sunny summer weekend! As someone that frequents the region on a regular basis, my personal recommendations are below. I have traveled solo, with my husband, with friends and even with my children. Some of the options noted are best suited to the adults, and I’ve indicated as such; however, the region truly lends itself to all types of travelers. As for the wines, unfortunately the region is still overcoming the perception that it’s all sweet fruit wines and slushies, but trust me when I say that even those of us that prefer dry European-style, vinifera wines will find plenty, if not more, options to enjoy. And for those non-wine drinkers, breweries and ciders are also aplenty! So, let’s start planning.
How to Get There
Most people access Southwest Michigan by car, however, there is also an Amtrak train line, the Pere Marquette, which connects Chicago to Grand Rapids, Michigan with Lakeshore stops along the way. Additionally, Amtrak offers service to the region from Detroit or Lansing on the Blue Water and Wolverine routes.
Flights are also available from both Detroit and Chicago to Grand Rapids, Michigan – a short 45-minute drive to the northern border of the AVA. Personally, I find it easiest to drive as it gives me the freedom to roam wine country and visit the beaches and towns at my leisure. As I mentioned, it’s a short hour and 45-minute drive from the Chicago area, only 30 minutes from South Bend, Indiana (hello parents of Notre Dame students!), and a three-hour drive from Detroit.
As for planning your winery visits, numerous companies in the area offer driving services to make a tour of the region. Uber is also available, but it can be spotty when it’s busy and in the late evenings. However, if you’re planning to visit only one or two wineries, have a designated driver, or are staying on premise, having your own car is still the easiest way to travel. Most wineries are within short distances of each other and navigation is simple with GPS and excellent wayfinding throughout the region.
Where to Stay
The region doesn’t lack for accommodations from hotels to bed and breakfasts, however, over the summer you’ll want to book in advance as most book up – especially on the weekends. Personally, I prefer to visit during the week when the crowds aren’t as large and discounts on rooms can be more easily found. I usually book my stays on Airbnb, VRBO or one of the many hotel booking options, but a few of my favorites are listed below.
Worthenbury Country House – This three-bedroom, two-bath farmhouse sleeps up to 10 and is perfect for families or large groups. I love dining on the back porch and doing yoga in the vines at sunrise. And the hot tub is a great place to enjoy a glass of bubbly on a cool summer night. The property is also within walking distance to Round Barn Winery & Distillery, which offers a full calendar of live music over the summer.
The Harbor Grand – This is higher-end boutique and waterfront hotel, only 70 miles from Chicago and within walking distance of a beach. The rooms and suites offer fireplaces, harbor views and even breakfast in bed! And they also have a complimentary bicycle rental as well as beach chairs and towels. You can even gather around the “Terrace Room” fire pit for wine while taking in the stunning Michigan sunsets. Complimentary s’more kits and blankets are also available. And, if you end up with a rainy day, the indoor pool is a great way to relax.
The Hotel Saugatuck – Heading up for a romantic weekend? This 18-room, luxury bed and breakfast will cover your bases with incredible gourmet breakfasts and desserts. The historic main hotel has 12 rooms, each newly renovated with Jason Hydrotherapy Tubs with Micro-silk Technology, in-room breakfast, and fireplaces. The B&B also offers three cottages, each a duplex with two-single room units for up to six separate guest rooms. The hotel is also within walking distance to downtown Douglas with its shops, restaurants and art galleries.
The Sand Castle Inn – Once a B&B, this property is now available as a group or family home weekly rental and is located within walking distance of both Lake Michigan and downtown South Haven. The property boasts an outdoor pool, numerous rooms with fireplaces, a full kitchen and several porches and balconies.
Wineries in Southwest Michigan
As I mentioned, the Lake Michigan Shore AVA offers wine styles for nearly everyone’s tastes. Dry whites and reds can be found at nearly every winery, sweet wines at some, and yes, even slushies and ciders at others. My personal preference is for both dry reds and whites of a more European-style, so the recommendations below reflect my taste. However, you’re likely to find a few sweet wine or dessert options at several of these wineries as well.
I also like to tell people visiting the region that if you’re going and expecting to find big Napa Cabs or even the elegance of Burgundy, to shift your expectations. Wines of the Lake Michigan Shore AVA should be evaluated for their unique terroir, cool climate characteristics, and even on each individual vintage. As I mentioned, the wines are often fruit-forward, typically feature softer tannins, and higher acidity, and you’ll find many options from easy-drinking table wines to more complex wines better with a meal. Keep an open mind and taste things you might not otherwise expect to like. That’s what tastings are for – and at $5 to $10 each, you can’t go wrong and might be surprised!
*Note this list while extensive is not all-inclusive. I have chosen to recommend the wineries listed below based on my own personal preferences, but I have also had wonderful experiences at other wineries in the AVA as well. For more information, check out the Lake Michigan Shore Wine Trail or Michigan Wine Collaborative sites.
Hickory Creek Winery – This is easily one of my personal favorite wineries in Southwest Michigan and a stop I make on every trip. Adam McBride is the owner and winemaker and an all-around great person. A U.S. Air Force Veteran, he has been at the helm for two years and is cranking out some fantastic vinifera wines. He’s even known to experiment with some local and hybrid varieties – a skin-fermented Traminette anyone? (It was seriously pretty good – and I’m not a fan of orange wine or Traminette in general!) Adam is passionate and detailed, and he takes his wine education seriously. Tastings are informative and a lot of fun! In fact, if you pop in this summer, you may even find me pouring. Make sure to say hi! (Winetraveler tip: This is a family-friendly winery with a tire swing, sitting area and winery dog, Ranger, on hand to entertain the kids.)
Lake Michigan Vintners – Lake Michigan Vintners is the Midwest’s first and only teaching winery and tasting room. The winery works in partnership with Lake Michigan College to provide students with practical, hands-on experience in every aspect of winemaking and vineyard management. The small-batch wines here are made by the students who employ old world techniques with a modern understanding to best express the grape and the vineyard. Michael Moyer is head of the program and he has crafted everything from old vine Zinfandel in Amador County to Sonoma County Chardonnay, and from Carneros Pinot Noir and Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon to Washington Riesling, and Walla Walla Sangiovese. He has also mentored dozens of students throughout the years, many of which are now a part of the fabric of the wine industry across the country. (Winetraveler tip: Families are welcome, but you’ll want to bring something to occupy the kids while you move through your tasting. As always, consider the crowd and limit your time accordingly if you have young children.)
Domaine Berrien – A family-owned winery since 1997, Domaine Berrien is now run by Chicago natives, Wally and Katie Maurer. a small, boutique winery specializing in estate-grown, handcrafted wines. They produce up to 4,500 cases, all made from grapes grown here on the property (and supply many of the area’s wineries with grapes as well). You’ll find a number of Rhone-style wines here including Viognier, Rousanne, Marsanne and Syrah. Depending on the year, I’ve also been a big fan of the wineries Cabernet Francs, Lembergers and even the Cab Franc Ice Wine. (Winetraveler tip: I’ve brought my kids here for tastings and they enjoy sitting on the patio with cards, or iPads in the summer. There’s also winery crackers available for purchase which your kids will gobble up!)
Dablon Winery & Vineyard – This is an adult-only establishment (ages 21 and up only), but one of the fancier tasting rooms in the region. You can opt for a tasting or glass pour and enjoy your wine outside in the warm weather months, or fireside in the winter. The winery also offers later hours than most, so it’s a nice stop at the end of the day. Make sure to check the event calendar for live music or movie showings year-round as well.
Moonrise Winery – One of the newer wineries in the region, owner and winemaker, Tom Zabadal, was a professor of viticulture Michigan State University and worked at Cornell’s viticulture program in the Finger Lakes where he received his PhD prior to that. His new venture, Moonrise, offers an expansive tasting room and patio. He hosts numerous food and music events through the summer and has a range of wines Sangria to Bordeaux blends. This is a family-friendly establishment that offers cheese and cracker plates and picnic-style tables. I’m partial to Tom’s Bordeaux blend, Heritage. Make sure to check it out!
Karma Vista – Set atop a hill overlooking the vines, Karma Vista is one of my favorite places to do a tasting, pick my favorite and order it by the glass to enjoy on the deck. It’s an intimate, sunny winery that offers personalized and informative tastings – often conducted by a member of the family that owns and runs the winery. I’ve been partial to the Reserve Merlot and Pinot Noirs throughout the years, and they also have one of the region’s only Fume’ Blanc. And sweet/fruit wine lovers will find a few options here as well – including a Port-style wine. (Winetraveler Tip: This is also a family friendly winery, but again, bring something for the kids to do.)
Round Barn – You won’t find an intimate experience here, but if you’re looking for music and a place to enjoy wine, beer or vodka, then this is the place. (And if you’re staying at the Worthenbury – it’s a short 10-minute walk through the vines. No designated driver needed!) Guests can grab a picnic table or bring their own lawn chairs on summer evenings and enjoy an extensive calendar of live music. This is definitely a family-friendly party place and a great place to hang with friends on a summer night.
Free Run – Owned by Round Barn, Free Run specializes in small-batch wines and seasonal foods along with a more intimate tasting experience. You can taste inside or out, but I recommend ordering a glass and sitting on the outdoor patio as the sun sets over the vines. It’s one of my favorite places to relax and wind down after a day of tastings or sunning at the beach.
Again, this list is far from exhaustive, but I’ve included a few of my personal favorites below. Happy dining Winetravelers!
Tabor Hill Winery & Restaurant – fabulous menu and you can taste through their wines!
Round Barn Public House – Great beer and grub.
Greenbush Brewing – Some more seriously good beer and grub. Deep fried cheese curds anyone?
Terrace Room – Located within The Harbor Grand, the Terrace Room offers a fine-dining experience and excellent wine list, or bring in your own wine for a corkage fee.
Brewster’s Italian – A casual atmosphere with some great Italian food and big portions.
Peasant’s Pantry – Closed Monday and Tuesday, and only open until 3 p.m. the rest of the week, the Peasant’s Pantry offers seasonal, fresh and healthy breakfast and lunch options.
The False Front – I love this is a late-night option. The False Front is super cute (not kid friendly FYI) and has a great cocktail, wine and beer menu. Snacks too!
Tosi’s – A more upscale Italian restaurant, but still family-friendly. I love the food and dining in the outdoor garden. So serene!
Captain Mike’s Fun Park – The name says it all! Fun for kids and adults with go-karts, batting cages and games!
Warren Dunes State Park – Beach, sun and sand, not to mention fabulous sunsets.
South Haven Light House & Beach – This beach is a great family destination with parks, a pier and lighthouse. It’s also an easy walk to many ice cream shops in town.
The Jollay Orhards Farm – A great U-pick destination summer through fall. They’ll be picking sweet cherries soon!
Lake Michigan Shore Wine Festival – June 15, 2019 – taste through the AVA’s wines at this one-day festival at the Dunes.
Happy summer Winetravelers! I hope to see you in Southwest Michigan this season. Cheers!