Tuesday, August 6, 2013
+The History of Fenn Valley
Bill Welsch was bored with running a lumberyard in the suburbs of Chicago, and wanted to try his hand at farming. He had three grapevines in the backyard and had been making some pretty bad wine in the basement for a number of years. The wine industry in America was experiencing a rebirth, and wine regions were springing up all of the United States – so why not here in the Midwest? Today, we would say that Bill was experiencing a mid-life crisis. Some people buy sports cars, others move to distant parts of the country, and some start a winery in uncharted territory.
After searching Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, and Michigan, a 150-acre farm having all the desirable characteristics was located near Fennville, Michigan. While the decision to start a winery may have seemed to be risky, Bill had done his homework. The chosen farm was close enough to Lake Michigan to provide the moderate winter temperatures required for wine grape growing, and far enough from it to allow the grapes to ripen in the summer. The terrain was rolling to allow for natural airflow, which would mitigate the danger of spring frosts; and the soil was deep and sandy to allow for the development of a grapevine’s root system.
Within a year another 80-acre farm adjacent to the first farms became available and was acquired, giving us 230 acres to work with. The original farms were all run down fruit farms, with Peach, Plum, Cherry, and Apple orchards that were in desperate need of attention. Bill’s son, Doug, moved onto the farm and the first summer was spent pushing out the old trees and reshaping some of the land to help control soil erosion.
The first vines were planted the following year and included an acre of Riesling and 41 acres of obscure varieties such as Baco, Aurora, Colobel, Villard, Cascade, Chelois, and DeChaunac. Many of these grapes either didn’t grow well on this site or made inferior wines, and within a few years, 18 of the original 42 acres were pulled out. Plantings continued with Gewürztraminer and later, Chardonnay, Chardonel, Chambourcin, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Grigio by the mid-to-late 1980’s.
The winery was built during the winter of 1974-5 and was initially outfitted with old dairy tanks. The 17,000 sqft building, which is filled to capacity now, was mostly empty – a great place to skateboard, ride a bike, or play basketball. Doug became the winemaker and the first wines were fruit wines, including cherry, black cherry, pear, peach, plum, and strawberry. We opened the doors and sold our first wines during the fall of 1976.
It was difficult going during those first years. The wines were good, but not great, and Michigan did not have a reputation for quality wine. Many times we heard the comment that, “I didn’t know that they made wine in Michigan”. There were a number of occasions when we asked each other whether we wanted to continue. Slowly over the years we continued to grow, but Michigan wine was still a novelty and was not taken seriously.
Then in 1991 two things changed our destiny. The television show “60 Minutes” aired a segment called “The French Paradox” and there was an influx of wineries on the Leelanau and Old Mission Peninsulas. Prior to that, America was in the throes of a quasi-prohibitionist mentality and the per capita consumption of wine was actually decreasing. “The French Paradox” let America know that it was “OK” to drink wine, and that it might actually be a health benefit when used in moderation. And here in Michigan, the “critical mass” was being achieved as new wineries came on-line and the wine press was beginning to take notice of our fledgling industry. That, and the wines were getting better as we figured out what to grow and how to do it.