October 20, 2017

What Happened to the Original Midwest Wineries?

During October of 1974,  the Saturday Evening Post published a “Guide to American Wineries.”  This article was probably the first discussion of bonded Midwestern Wineries to appear in a national publication.

At the time of the Saturday Evening Post’s article, there were 32 wineries in the Midwest.  Ohio’s 12 wineries were by far the most numerous of any Midwestern state during 1974. (Today, there are approximately 1,300 wineries in the Midwestern United States.)

Recently, Midwest Wine Press researched the status of some of the “original” Midwest wineries.  Some are long gone, but many still remain open for you to visit today.

A bottle of Mogen David produced in Chicago

A bottle of Mogen David produced in Chicago

Mogen David Wine Company– Starting in the 1930s, Mogen David made several million gallons of wine annually in Chicago.  Most of the wine was made from Concord grapes. Some of these grapes undoubtedly came from Michigan vineyards.  At some undocumented time, Mogen David moved from Chicago to Westfield, NY.  Today, Mogen David is part of  The Wine Group, maker of Cupcake Wines.

Thompsen Winery–  This Monee winery was the successor to Ramey and Allen Champagne Cellars, which opened in 1963.  Drifting of the herbicide 2,4-D forced the closure of the winery in the 80s. Rare steam engine trains were displayed on the former winery property until 1999.
Gem City Wine Company– Today, this Nauvoo winery is called Baxter’s Vineyard and Winery. The winery is operated by the fifth generation of the Baxter family to make wine on the banks of Mississippi River.  Not surprisingly, Baxter is the oldest operating winey in Illinois and one the most historic wineries in the Midwest.
Oliver Wine Co.-  This winery is now called Oliver Winery in Bloomington, Indiana.  Oliver is currently the largest winery in the Midwest with production of about 4.5 million bottles per year.  The current owner of the winery is Bill Oliver, son of the late William Oliver, Indiana University law professor and founder of Oliver Winery.
Treaty Line Wine Cellar– This Brownsville winery closed in 1975,  four years after it opened and just after the Saturday Evening Post article was published. Winery founder Dr. Donald McDaniel was instrumental in getting the Indiana Small Winery Act passed, which paved the way for the 73 wineries that operate in Indiana today.

Tabor Hill Winery–   This winery now produces over 150,000 gallons of wine per year on the site of the original facility which opened in 1968. During 1984, Tabor Hill bought Bronte Champagne and Wines- which at one time was Michigan’s largest winery- and hired their legendary winemaker, Angelo Spinazze.  More recently, Rick Moersch left Tabor Hill in 1992 to start his own Southwest Michigan, Round Barn.   Tabor Hill’s Demi Sec, a Vidal Blanc wine, is the winery’s best seller.

Molly Pitcher Wine Corp.–  Founded in 1934, this winery went through several relocations and name changes before closing in 1991.  At the time it ceased operations, the winery was known as Berrien Vintner Cellars and was located in Harbert.  In it’s heyday during the 70’s, Molly Pitcher, produced over 200,000 gallons of wine a year that was sold in 48 states.  The old Harbert production facility on Red Arrow Highway is now a 14 unit condo development called The Vineyard Lofts.  Some of the old concrete fermentation vats are now part of kitchen and bedroom designs for the condos.

Molly Pitcher Winery, photo from Vineyard Lofts

Molly Pitcher Winery during the 1940s, photo from The Vineyard Lofts

Molly Pitcher Winery was converted to condominiums during 2007

Molly Pitcher Winery was converted to condominiums during 2007

Bronte Champagnes and Wine-  Opened in 1933, six months before the repeal of Prohibition, Bronte Wines was sold to Tabor Hill Winery during 1984.   During its peak, Bronte was probably the most productive winery in Michigan history producing 800,000 gallons of wine a year in its Detroit facility.  Bronte was the first to bottle the popular “Cold Duck” wines of the 1960’s and 70’s.

Frontenac Winery's "Always Elvis" wine.

Frontenac Winery’s “Always Elvis” wine.

Frontenac Wines- This winery is the successor company to Risdon Wines, which opened in 1933 and closed in the late 1980’s.   Frontenac produced some memorable offbeat wines including Lemon Smash, Cherry Chantilly and an 1977 Elvis Presley commemorative wine called Always Elvis.  (An unopened bottle of Frontenac’s Always Elvis was for sale on eBay during 2016 for $89.)

St. Julian Wine Company-  This winery has been making wine in the same Paw Paw Michigan location since 1936.  But the history of St. Julian goes all the way back to 1921 in Windsor Ontario.  That’s when an Italian immigrant named Mario Meconi started Border City Wine Cellars.  Today, after several relocations and name changes, St. Julian produces over 100,000 cases of both wine and sparkling grape juice annually in Southwest Michigan.
Mount Pleasant Winery–  Two brothers started this winery in 1859, but the vineyard was burned in 1920 and the federal government shut down production.  During 1966, Lucian and Eva Dressel bought the property and replanted the vineyard.  The first American Viticultural Area (AVA) designation in the U.S. was granted to Mount Pleasant in 1980.  Today, Mount Pleasant has tasting rooms in both Augusta and Branson and produces around 120,000 gallons of wine annually.
Stone Hill Winery– After the Civil War, Stone Hill was the second largest winery in the U.S., shipping 1.25 million gallons per year.  Prohibition brought the end of Stone Hill until 1965 when Jim and Betty Held bought the property and began restoring it.  Annual production is now over 250,000 gallons per year.  The winery and cellars is on the National Register of Historic Places and is open to the public for a fee.
Francis Gohlike Winery– According to a history written by the late David Bailly of Alexis Bailly Vineyard,  Minnesota bonded license #2 was issued to Leland Gohlike for a small winery in the caves along the St. Croix River in Stillwater. Gohlike planned to make a small amount of wine from concentrate, but it never sold commercially.  Instead, the first Minnesota winery license was given to the Old Sibley House Winery in 1949, but the winery apparently closed before the Saturday Evening Post article in 1974.
During 1976, David MacGregor become the first winery to make wine from Minnesota grapes.  MacGregor’s winery was called Lake Sylvia Vineyard in South Haven.  As for David Bailly, he’s credited with starting a vineyard in ’73, but his tasting room did not open until 1978.
photo by MissWineOH

photo by MissWineOH

John Christ Winery– One of of the oldest post-Prohibition wineries in the Midwest, John Christ Winery began production in 1946 near Lake Erie.  The original owner, John Christ, was a Macedonian immigrant who came to the U.S. to grow wine grapes. Today, the current winemaker, Jack James, continues to make award winning estate grown wines.

Mon Ami Champagne Company– This Catawba Island winery was built in 1871 and has had many owners. During the 1800’s, there were 345 acres of grapes on Catawba Island which is named for the Catawba Grape.  The 1974 Saturday Evening Post article describes the Mon Ami sparkling wines as “superior.”
During 1937, the winery was acquired by the Mon Ami Champagne Company.  Mon Ami’s website says production in the ’30’s was as much as 100,000 gallons per year.  Mon Ami still makes a Pink Catawba blush wine which is served in a restaurant that’s located in the historic winery.
Newberry Wine Company– This winery was founded in 1972 by Jim and Sandy Pape in Cedarburg, Wisconsin.  For a time, the winery was called Stone Mill Winery and was well known for cherry wine.  In 1990, the winery was purchased by the Wollersheim Winery, the largest winery in Wisconsin. Wollersheim refurbished the original 1864 structure and renamed the winery Cedar Creek Winery.  Today, Cedar Creek Winery produces top quality grape wines which can be tasted at the winery. Tours are also available.
About Mark Ganchiff

Mark Ganchiff is the publisher of Midwest Wine Press, the leading source of news on the growing wine industry in the central United States. Mark has been a wine judge at the 2012 and 2014 INDY International Wine Competition, the 2014 Cold Climate Wine Competition, the 2013 Mid-American Wine Competition, the 2012 Illinois State Fair Wine Competition and the 2013 Michigan Wine Competition. He also enjoys speaking at wine events including the Cold Climate Wine Conference, the Illinois Grape Growers and Vintners Association Annual Meeting, the Midwest Grape and Wine Conference and the Wisconsin Fruit and Vegetable Conference. Mark’s articles about regional wine have appeared in Vineyard & Winery Management, WineMaker and several regional magazines.
Mark is a Level One Sommelier in the Court of Master Sommeliers. He lives in Louisville, but also has a residence in Chicago.