What happens when you start out as a home winemaker and realize your dream of starting your own winery? Even better, doing it in your home State of Michigan. Producing a small portfolio of amazing quality wines, that dream became a reality for two wine loving friends. Yet, with the ever increasing success of this 3 year old Lapeer, MI start up, there is a small bit of controversy as some people consider their venture not fit to call itself a true Michigan winery. But, to analyze that point, let’s start at the beginning.
Years ago, when I was the wine manager at Champane’s Wine Cellars, Russ Bukowski, who worked across the street at the GM Headquarters, became a client of mine, who frequented the shop where we would talk wine, different grape varietals and winemaking techniques at length. Every year, he would bring me a sample of his latest homemade Buku Cellars wines he had just finished bottling. I was always quite impressed by the depth and richness of his creations, wondering how he excelled in his garage endeavour where other home winemakers who also brought me their newest samples fell far short.
Russ began his passion for winemaking in the 1990’s where he began a friendship with Louis Pasquin, an old Italian chap who had a few acres of natives grapes that he would crush and bottle every year. When a May frost ruined their upcoming vintage, they became partners in purchasing grapes from the Central Valley Region in California. Although the resulting wine turned out to be acceptable, he knew he could do better.
Buying numerous books about winemaking, joining internet forums, googling every article he could acquire on the field of home cellaring, his persistence began to pay off. In 2005, he contacted another gentleman from the old country that had sources for premium grapes located in select vineyards in California, Washington, and Oregon.
After making a few batches over the next few years with these purchased grapes, Russ felt his wines were of better quality and again was ready to raise the bar. Though he had to pay a heftier price for better quality grapes that were not to be found locally, his end results were well worth the overall price.
Over the next few years, everyone who tasted his latest creations were blown away by what they were sampling, which encouraged him to once again up his ante. He began taking trips out west to visit farmers and their vineyard properties, resulting in him securing premium sourced grapes from famed vineyard sites in California, Washington and Oregon.
His good friend Greg Butler showed an interest in making wine himself and asked Russ for help in doing so. After producing a few vintages over a 2 year timeframe, Greg asked if he would consider going into the business of making wine together. Declining his initial offer, it took a few years of reconsidering before the team decided to give it a shot.
With a facility filled with barrels, tanks, equipment, a temperature and humidity controlled cellar, state licensing and label approval, the Russell B Gregory Winery was established. In their minds and hearts, it was now time to make nothing better than a good bottle of wine to share with friends. And believe me, they have achieved that goal and so much more.
Their wines have been met with great reviews, resulting in steady in house sales and landing on a number of wine lists at local fine dining establishments. They recently sourced new vineyard contracts of new varietals to add to their portfolio, in hopes of building on their growing success. Giving the wine buying public exactly what they want, great tasting wines from high quality fruit, where exactly does the controversy about their winery find merit?
Some ask, how can they call themselves a Michigan winery when all their grapes are purchased outside the growing region? They say bypassing the use of local grape sources hinders their ability to claim themselves as an in-state winery.
First of all, many of the grapes varietals that they purchase do not grow well here in our cooler climate region. Fan favorites such as zinfandel and syrah are nowhere to be found in this state. They also feel that other popular grape varietals that are available to them locally are far inferior to what they are importing for their products.
Second, more popular and well established Michigan wineries have for years imported grapes, not all, but some, for their wines. Of note, when the local cherry crop was devastated by harsh Winter temperatures a few years back, wineries looked to Washington State to keep their cherry product lines available to their loyal cliental. Choosing not to include those imported sources on their labels, it went unnoticed and unexplained.
Third and most important, foreign car companies such as Fiat, Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Subaru, Volkswagen, Volvo, BMW, Kia and Hyundai all have production plants in the United States . Does that mean since those vehicles are not assembled on their home soil that they are not a German, Japanese or Korean automaker? No different from American companies whose clothes, toys or food products are made on foreign soil and not labeled so. Are they not now an American company?
I personally find the controversy unfounded while others are welcome to express their own opinion. Every bottle of Russell Gregory wine is clearly marked with the vineyard source from which the grapes are from. It all boils down to a company that is making a good quality product, with grapes sourced from a recognizable region with proven vineyard sites. As long as you, the consumer, enjoy what you are tasting, no matter where the grapes come from, and that a Michigan company can flourish as a profitable business, I for one look forward to years of happy tasting.
With 20 years of winemaking under their belts, Russ and Greg hope that you seek out their wines and experience the quality within. Tours and tastings are available at the winery by appointment. You can contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit their website at russellbgregorywinery.com