If Blake Kownacki has it his way, Detroit will be home to what he says will be North America's first urban vineyard and growing operation.
While Michigan has quietly increased its wine-making profile in recent years, vineyards are typically located in rural areas. Along with John Burtka, who owns the Cherry Creek and Sleeping Bear wineries upstate, Kownacki is launching Detroit City Cellars
, with the goal of creating a vineyard and tasting room on Belle Isle.
"We want to plant the vineyard on Belle Isle because, in our professional opinion, it's the most ideal microclimate that exists," Kownacki says. He and Burtka are currently in talks with city politicians to plant 10 acres of grapes on the southeastern point of Belle Isle, near Lighthouse Pointe. The 10 acres would be 100 percent open to the public and accessible by a current walking trail. He also dreams of turning the Belle Isle Casino building into a year-round tasting room that's open to the public.
There's talk that the grapes are an invasive species, something the nonprofit Friends of Belle Isle
has worked hard to eradicate on the island. But Kownacki, who has worked extensively as a winemaker in California and Australia, says it's not a concern: grapes are poor germinators, and the European strains of grapes can only be grown by physically attaching cut grapevines to native rootstock.
"All the experience in the field says that's a non-issue," Kownacki says. "Napa does not have wild grapes growing anywhere."
He's hoping to work with the Friends of Belle Isle to plant the vineyard. "We don't want to build anything on the island. What we want to do is help bring the island back to its natural urban splendor," Kownacki says.
Detroit City Cellars is currently working with Randal Charlton of Tech Town
to secure investors for the project, and they've also reached out to the Greening of Detroit
to create a grape-growing cooperative of urban planters who will supplement the vineyard's annual harvest.
"I think Michigan is the sleeping giant of the wine industry," Kownacki says. "The potential is through the roof."
Source: Blake Kownacki, Detroit City Cellars
Writer: Ashley C. Woods