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Bill and Lisa Hendricks
Bill and Lisa Hendricks: A vine grows in Brighton

Is there more to learn about where we can plant vineyards?

It's even less likely than discovering an airplane hangar winery near Jackson that makes high-quality wine.

But many of its top grapes come from a vineyard just north of Brighton. That's a Livingston County exurb, 40 miles northwest of Detroit, without a trace of climate-moderating lake effect in sight.

Don't believe it? Ask Bill Hendricks, owner of Glaciers Edge Farms. His 11 varietals, growing on three-plus acres, survived the mean winter of 2008-9 and a record-tying late May frost with little visible damage. That's more than many growers elsewhere in Michigan can say.

This year marks the fifth vintage for most of his vines. Among the grapes thriving on the property: Riesling, Pinot Gris, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Others, like Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah, survive but are faring less well. Despite a stubborn streak, Hendricks admits he may eventually replace some of them.

It took Hendricks and Lisa, his Realtor wife, three years of bookwork and boots-on-the-ground weekends to find a location for their vineyard. He's glad to discourse about even better vineyard spots in Oakland County -- but they're already built up.

Riesling at the top of the hill
Riesling vines: Elevation, slope and frost-free days

Hendricks examined online climatic maps that showed lines for frost-to-frost growing seasons -- the number of days between the last frost of the spring and the first in the fall. 

His minimum acceptable season to ripen vinifera grapes: 180 days. That line passes through Oakland and Livingston counties, "but you can't get near Flint or Ann Arbor."

After that, the trick was to find high ground with a south-facing slope above a nearby valley that cold air could flow down into on frosty mornings. In his case, that meant a Livingston County high spot, 100 feet above a nearby valley. 

The frostline stops 80 feet above the valley, according to Hendricks. "The frost is still here. It just floats over," he explained.

The few low spots in the vineyard, or "dead zones" as Hendricks calls them, trap cold air. A small number of dead vines await replanting, bearing silent testimony to his statement.

Instead of sourcing vines in California, Henricks purchased his stock from clones at least 25 years old, grown at a nursery in New York's Finger Lakes, figuring their cold-weather climatized vines would better suit his Michigan site. He estimates that he replaces about 10% of his vines annually. And he fortuitously solved all his fertilizer needs when he discovered the Detroit Polo Club was located in the valley just below the vineyard.

Hendricks regards the trellis system and canopy management as critical in marginal vineyard sites. With advice from the seminal book Sunlight into Wine, he decided on the Scott Henry trellis, which trains canes both up and down for maximum sunlight exposure on the ripening grapes. Hendricks attributes his high-ripeness, no-rot grapes during last year's wet growing season to this trellis -- along with lots of hours he and Lisa spent among the vines, pulling leaves and dropping unripe fruit.

He currently sells his entire crop to Chateau Aeronautique and Pentamere, except those grapes destined for his own winemaking projects (he's been a home winemaker for 25 years). Chateau Aeronautique used his 2008 grapes for its upcoming releases of Pinot Gris, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc Reserve.

Henricks expects to eventually open his own winery, a project he'd initially slated for five years from his first planting.  "But the economy has changed that," he now says, estimating his winery is still three years off "if things go well."

Meanwhile, he's keeping his eye on two adjacent parcels of land currently offered for sale -- if their owners come down in price.


Correction: The article originally said Hendricks preferred Finger Lakes vines beause of the DNA selection. The actual reason is that he feels they are better climatized to a cold region like Michigan. That's been changed in the article, and thanks to Sean O'Keefe for pointing it out.

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Recently-deceased Korean dictator Kim Jong Il was a wine geek (and reputed alcoholic) with a 10,000-bottle cellar, according to ex-Slate wine columnist Mike Steinberger. Kim earlier gave up Hennessy Cognac on doctor's orders.