Monroe – Birthplace of the Michigan Wine Industry

By Kevin and Sarah Nash

The 2nd annual Monroe Wine Crawl is next Friday, July 18. Although the event is already sold out I thought it would be a good excuse to do a post on Monroe’s wine history. Have you ever wondered why a town founded by the French on the River Raisin seems to have little to no wine industry? Would you be surprised to find out Monroe in fact did have a wine industry and that it was the Traverse City of it’s day. I know you feel puzzled, what you thought was reality has been turned on it’s head. I feel like I did when I found out that Frank Sinatra was married to Harpo Marx’s ex-wife (which is true). So what happened Monroe?! You used to be cool.

I came across a book a few months ago called, “The History of Michigan Wines” By Lorri Hathaway and Sharon Kegerreis which detailed the startling facts.

When Michigan became a state in 1837,  Monroe was one of the largest cities.  According to the book, Within a few decades Monroe became the birthplace of Michigan’s commercial wine industry.

It started with Joseph Sterling  who arrived in Monroe from New York in 1835 and built several private homes and public buildings in Monroe including the original city hall.  He served as mayor from 1862-1863. The authors write, “Perhaps as Joseph traveled on Lake Erie the combination of the sight of the grape vines on Kelleys Island and the wild grape vines flourishing along the Detroit River and the River Raisin influenced his future profession as wine maker.”

In 1863 Joseph planted the state’s first vineyard for the purposes of commercial winemaking in Monroe County, although the first vineyard in Monroe  was planted in 1854 by J.C.W. Greening, owner of the RiverRaisin Valley Nursery. Joseph’s vineyard was two and a half acres and was planted along with an apple orchard near the docks in Monroe.  Successful vineyards on nearby islands inspired him to plant a vineyard.  He planted 2, 050 vines on twelve acres of property….A few years later, in 1868,  commercial winemaking in Michigan began when he established  Pointe Aux Peaux Wine Company. The winery was named for the point of land that jut out into Lake Erie.  In 1871, Pointe Aux Peaux Winery made five thousand gallons of wine.

The winery’s reputation grew when they received a gold medal and recognition for presenting the best collection of wines at the Michigan State Fair. The following year, Pointe Aux Peaux was awarded a gold medal for perfect vineyard. The judges noted they, “had never seen any vineyard better laden with fruit or in better condition in any respect.”

Success breeds imitation and by 1873 there were more than 20 vineyards on nearly 200 acres producing over a half a million pounds of grapes. By 1873, the Monroe wine industry was booming and had earned a reputation for quality. There were 309 acres of vines; 184,673 pounds of grapes were sold, and 12,355 gallons of wines were made. (25)

So what happened? There is no real satisfying answer here. Upon Joseph Sterling’s death in 1891, the prohibitionist wife of his partner, Samuel P. Williams’, closed the winery. In the late 1800s a fungal disease known as “grape rot” hit Monroe. This combined with the growing strength of the temperance movement and the deaths of the wine making pioneers doomed Monroe’s wine industry. After the repeal of prohibition, several new wineries reopened, but   relocated to southwest Michigan where vineyards established prior had survived by supplying grapes to Welch’s grape juice company.

Monroe  is a farming community that takes a lot  of pride in it’s history. Perhaps a glance at  its past could help move the city toward a better future. I’d like to think that all we need is a few pioneering spirits like Joseph Sterling who can see Monroe for it’s potential. People with a passion for their craft and an uncompromising commitment to quality.  There are signs that it is  happening right now in the county through the efforts of Jon Trelor owner of J. Trees Wine Cellars who cultivates grapes and apples to make  fantastic wine  and cider right here in Petersburg and Brad Sancho at Original Gravity who set up shop in Milan on the Monroe side of the county line and is turning out consistently top notch craft beer. Now if a winery or microbrewery would just open within walking distance of our house.



St Patrick’s Day at Original Gravity


Below is information about St. Patrick’s Day at Original Gravity from Brad Sancho.

I do want to add one thing about
the Oatmeal Stout pumpernickel beer bread from Erie Bread Company. It will have cheddar cheese and onion baked in. Their bread has become as much of a part of our St. Patrick’s Day as stouts. It will be available at Erie Bread on Saturday.

Looking forward to a great time this St. Patricks Day @ Original Gravity Brewing Company on Sunday March 17th! We will have extended hours this year since it is Sunday. We will be open from Noon until 11pm. Lumpy (Oatmeal Stout) will be on tap later this week to also enjoy on Sunday. We will also have (6) additional small batch stouts on tap for Sunday.

Imperial Chocolate Mint Stout
Dry Stout
Foreign Extra Stout
Milk Stout
Coffee Stout
Ginger Dry Stout

We will be serving huge corned beef sandwiches made with house cooked Grobbels corned beef on Oatmeal Stout pumpernickel beer bread from Erie Bread company. Served with a side of homemade baked potato salad from Erie Bread Company.

A “Beeriage” Baked in Heaven

<div class=\"postavatar\">A "Beeriage" Baked in Heaven</div>

One of the aspects of small locally-owned businesses that big chains can’t replicate is when they work together to create an original product that is unique to the community in which they do business .  Erie Bread Company in Monroe and Original Gravity Brewing Company in Milan, (on the Monroe County side of County Street), are doing just that. Spent grains and beer from Original Gravity are being used to craft artisan bread at Erie Bread Company which be sold as loaves at Erie Bread and on sandwiches at Original Gravity.

Erie Bread Company opened in Monroe in the fall of 2010. They serve artisan breads and take-out lunches. Their sourdough is made from wild yeast present in the air of Monroe. Towne Club (made in Detroit) is their soda of choice. They also sell Spillson’ rice pudding, a local Monroe favorite. Being a part of the community is important to Nick and Alisa Seccia, the owners. They’ve even baked with spent grains from our local homebrew club, the Muskrat Mashers.
The following is a quote from Nick Seccia, owner and baker at Erie Bread Company.

“We are excited to be working with a local brewer in Monroe County both for the quailty of OG’s beers going into our bread and the opportunity for two local producers to work together for a stronger local food community, and maybe help stimulate the economy a bit.”

Original Gravity Brewing Company has also been supportive of local businesses since they opened nearly three years ago. Brad Sancho,  Original Gravity’s owner and brewer, has held events for local charities, brewed beer using hops grown in Monroe County and will host a farmer’s market every Wednesday afternoon beginning April 6. Next week they will start using Erie Bread Company’s sourdough and 7 grain multi-grain on the sandwiches that they serve at the brewpub in Milan. Eventually, Original Gravity  will add beer bread to their menu which will be sold as part of a cheese tray. The bread will also be available for sale at their farmer’s market.

Brad Sancho, brewer and owner of Original Gravity had this to say about the collaboration:

“We plan on changing up the beer bread quite a bit.  Different beers, different spent grains, and different bread styles will make this an exciting project.  I cannot tell you how excited we are to work with Nick Seccia at Erie Bread Company.  He shares the same passion for his business, as I do for mine. Nothing goes better together than fresh  beer and fresh baked bread.”

We had our first taste of this union last week when, for Saint Patrick’s Day, Erie Bread Company baked “Original Gravity Stout Cheddar Rye.” The rye bread with the stout would be incredible in and of itself but they added chunks of real cheddar cheese which took it over the top. Nick did mention future plans to bake using Brad’s highly acclaimed 440 Pepper Smoker, possibly adding cumin, orange and smoked cheddar cheese or bacon. I can’t express how eager I am to try that bread.