With its unique winemaker, Black Fire a standout in Michigan’s grape game

In many ways, Black Fire Winery is typical of the small, family-owned wineries…

With its unique winemaker, Black Fire a standout in Michigan's grape game 1
With its unique winemaker, Black Fire a standout in Michigan's grape game 2

Greg Tasker
 |  Special to The Detroit News

In many ways, Black Fire Winery is typical of the small, family-owned wineries that permeate Michigan’s expanding wine map. It has a modest tasting room that overlooks tidy vineyards and offers wines that reflect the culmination of a life-long passion and, in many cases, retirement dreams.

But Black Fire Winery stands out among Michigan’s dozens of wineries for a couple of reasons. Owner Michael Wells was the first to plant a commercial vineyard in Lenawee County, a mostly rural area south of Jackson. Wells is also the first Black owner of a commercial winery in the Great Lakes State and, until recently, believed to be the only Black commercial winemaker in Michigan. 

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“It’s always been that way my whole life. Wherever I go, I am the only Black person there,” says Wells, who is retired from the Ypsilanti City Fire Department, where he worked for 27 years. “I hunt a lot, and I hunt in the U.P. There are not a lot of Black people in the U.P. I tend to stand out. … People are always shocked to find out that I’m a winery owner.”

For Wells, opening Black Fire Winery — a play on words reflecting his firefighting career — was not about making a statement or breaking racial barriers. It was simply about pursuing his passion for wine.

That enthusiasm began fermenting in his teenage years when he made his first wine from wild grapes that grew in his backyard in northeast Detroit. Wells made the wine by allowing the grapes to ferment naturally and stored it in empty pop bottles. His parents didn’t drink, so there were no empty wine bottles to use. He then stored the wine in the back of a closet behind his father’s suits and family suitcases.

“I completely forgot about making the wine until one day my brother asked about it,” recalls Wells, now 61. “I went and got a few bottles, sat at the kitchen table, swirling and tasting. It must have been palatable. I drank three bottles of it …  I couldn’t tell you what it even tasted like.”

That was the beginning of a life-long journey into wine. He spent years as a home winemaker, buying grapes from California and other places and began experimenting. As he neared retirement, Wells began to think about his life beyond the fire department. He enrolled in Michigan State University’s viticulture and enology programs. He finished both programs in two years while working full time and raising a family with two young children at the time.

Wells began planting wine grapes in Lenawee County in 2005 after three years of looking for the right property. Unsure of what to grow, he planted vitis vinifera — commonly known European grapes such as merlot and pinot noir — and hybrid grapes, including frontenac, vignoles and traminette. Initially, he sold grapes to local wineries and home winemakers.

“I’m not on the perfect site for grapes,” he admits. “You can grow grapes just about anywhere, but it’s a matter of what you are trying to grow. You have to know what will work in your own area. Some grapes will work and some will not.

“If I were actually starting over, I would have paid more attention to those things, but I made it work.”

Black Fire Winery officially opened in spring 2016 and is one of about three dozen Black-owned wineries in the United States. The pool of Black winemakers is even smaller, numbering about two dozen, says Phil Long, president of the Association of African American Vintners (AAAV), an organization with a mission to promote awareness of Black winemakers and winery owners.

Last summer’s police killing of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests raised awareness about the lack of diversity in the country’s wine industry and put a spotlight on Black-owned businesses.

The Michigan Wine Collaborative formed a committee to explore ways to diversify the state’s flourishing wine industry and attract more minorities, who are passionate about wine, into the mix. Like elsewhere, Michigan’s wine industry is predominantly White; wineries tend to be located in rural, farming areas, where the population is also less diverse. 

“The goals are really to set up a pipeline to the Michigan wine industry for people of color, for women, those with disabilities, as well as LGBTQ people,” says Chuck Jackson Jr., an African American who is chair of the Inclusion and Expansion Committee and has spent decades in the wine industry as an educator. “We want to help people like me who had a passion for wine but didn’t know how to get into the business.”

Those efforts include setting up mentorship and scholarship programs. Scholarships, for example, could help qualified candidates pay for wine education courses offered by the Napa Valley Wine Academy, says Jackson, who also is a wine and excursion ambassador for Detroit’s House of Pure Vin. The AAAV sponsors networking events and offers scholarships and internships.

Long, a winemaker and owner of Longevity Wines in the Livermore Valley, east of San Francisco, says hurdles to entering the wine industry are more about perception than racial barriers. There is a lack of awareness that such careers exist for African Americans. Anyone who is looking to enter the industry faces the same obstacles in establishing and growing a business, he says.

“Everybody faces those same challenges,” says Long, whose winery is working with Bronco Wine National Sales & Marketing for national distribution. “In the end, nobody knows who made the wine that’s on your shelf. It’s tough to break into the industry when there are so few of you. It’s like going to the Olympics and you’re this tiny little country with three people competing and the Russians are sending in 350 people.”

Among the Black winemakers new to the scene is Nicole Triplett, who is poised to open a tasting room in Kalamazoo in March. Twine Urban Winery by the Roche Collection will sell a variety of fruit wines and red and white varietals produced by Triplett, who grew up in Kalamazoo. She buys most of her fruit from southwest Michigan.

“It is hard to be taken seriously in an industry where winemakers do not look like you and are traditionally male,” says Triplett, believed to be the first Black female winemaker in the state. “If you are thinking about getting into winemaking, develop relationships with vineyards, directly engage with vintners, growers, distributors and brokers. You will have to work harder and smarter than your counterparts but you will be better for it.”

Black Fire’s Wells found Michigan’s wine industry welcoming and received support from others in the industry, including Dan Measel of Pentamere Winery in Tecumseh and Bob Bonga of Cascade Winery in Grand Rapids, Wells says.

“Everyone has been receptive,” he says. “Wine folks, like most folks who have developed a passion for what they do, have been super helpful. There are lots of friends to call on when you need help or have questions. There’s a real camaraderie in the industry.”

Today, Wells tends 11 acres of vines, growing frontenac, frontenac gris, vignoles, chambourcin, traminette and lemberger, also known as Blaufrankisch. He bottles a mix of single varietal wines and blends. Two of his most popular wines are Peachie, a peach wine (the fruit comes from the west side of the state) and B Red, a merlot that spends about a year aging in American oak.

Depending on what he is trying to accomplish, Wells also buys wine grapes from southwestern Michigan, Chile and California.

“Sales far exceed what I’m producing on-site,” he says, noting the winery produces about 800 to 1,000 cases a year.

The winery’s 1,200-foot-square tasting room includes a covered deck that overlooks the vineyard. Picnic tables and igloos invite guests to sit outside to enjoy the wine and views. Inside, Wells has expanded his offerings to include hard cider and beer. Eight ciders and eight beers are on tap at any given time. The beer selection includes a strawberry ale, a peanut butter stout and a black IPA.

Brewing his own beer came by happenstance. “I would see a lot of women come in with their husbands who didn’t drink wine. I figured I could get them to stay if I made beer,” Wells says.

Wells hired a brewer but eventually took over operations himself, after spending time observing and learning the art of beer making.

Last year was poised to be a stupendous business year, with countless bookings set up for weddings, events and bus tours, but then the coronavirus pandemic struck and like others in the hospitality business, he faced shutdowns.

“Being shut down twice in the year was awful,” he says.

A spike in sales came in December after he received national attention following a report about the winery struggling through the pandemic aired on Michigan Radio’s Stateside.

Now, Wells is revamping his website to spur online sales in 38 states, and is looking to can his beer and hard cider, currently available only by growler or howler from the tasting room. He’s looking to reopen in March after the building is cleaned up and restored following some flooding.

“We’re not just a winery. We’re a brewery,” he says. “I’ve had to rethink the way I have been doing things. My original business model was to sell out of the tasting room, but now I’m looking to make a huge presence online and outside the tasting room.”

Greg Tasker is a Traverse City-based freelance writer who writes frequently about Michigan’s wine industry.

Our special thanks to:detroitnews.com

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