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Inside Detroit's First Winery in Sixty Years

by Lisa Diggs

As far back as 1679, French explorer, LaSalle, and his crew, reported making wine from grapes growing wildly and abundantly along the Detroit River. Similarly, Cadillac, credited with discovering Detroit in 1701, wrote of vines heavy with grapes and the quality of wine they were able to produce. He established Fort Ponchartrain du Détroit and the settlers planted grapevines within the fort’s structure to produce wine, which was used as a form of trade with Native Americans. With that kind of rich history, it seems remarkable that a winery has not been in Detroit for over sixty years, until now, that is.

Claes Fornell and Blake Kownacki established their Detroit Vineyards company in 2014. Their vision was to eventually be able to produce 25,000 cases of wine a year, and to do it in Detroit. They found an ideal facility in the former Stroh’s Ice Cream building at 1000 Gratiot Avenue. Because it was formerly a food manufacturing facility, many requirements, like proper water intake, power, drainage, and sanitation, were already in place. The old ice cream storage room, for example, now sits at 56 degrees and has become the barrel room. The tasting room opened for business in early May.

The location is also conveniently located within the Eastern Market District, which is fitting for a company that is committed to the use of local products. All of the grapes used to make the wine are either locally-grown in Detroit or elsewhere in the state, primarily in Western Michigan. There is even an apiary behind the building with five beehives. The honey is used in some of the wine production, and also bottled and sold on site.

Detroit Vineyards is partnering with local land owners to create small vineyards around the city. They work together on site selection and training, with the intent to buy the grapes produced. In most cases, a vineyard will produce wine-quality grapes in three or four years.

The wine itself is produced within the walls of the old Stroh’s building, which is also home to a rather unique tasting room. Fornell and Kownacki decided to keep some of the old pumps and equipment in place, creating an aesthetic decidedly different than most wineries, yet uniquely and appropriately suited to the gritty history of the city.

One of the few elements imported from outside the state is Tasting Room Manager, Chalan Lind, who made the big leap from California wine country. While many of her friends and colleagues thought a switch from Paso Robles to Detroit sounded a little crazy, Lind is loving the opportunity and the city.

She is surrounded by a friendly and knowledgeable staff that is looking forward to having more and more guests discover the city’s latest libationary gem. In fact, while I was on site, a group of delighted attendees from the Sustainable Brands ’19 Conference, taking place at Cobo Center, came in to learn about the facility and taste the wines. Tour groups and special events are welcome at the winery. To set up a private tour, contact Kelly Hirina via events@detroit.wine. There’s even a rumor that ball room dance classes at the winery are coming soon.

Probably the best way to experience the place, is to just drop in and do a tasting. They offer a flight of three 2-oz pours for $15, or you can just order by the glass. Currently available are a 2017 Riesling, 2018 Traminette, 2016 Chardonnay, 2016 Cabernet Franc Rose, 2018 Merlot Rose, 2017 Pinot Noir, and 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon. The Cab Franc Rose, is a particularly nice choice with summer on the horizon. There are also some unique meads available.  

Complimentary parking is available for customers in the lot in front of the building. The current hours are: Tues-Thurs: 3-10pm; Fri-Sat: 12pm-12am; and Sun: 12 - 6pm. (Closed Monday)


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