It's a great time to be a Michigan wine lover! Over the past year, multiple new operations have come on board throughout the state, adding offerings to the already excellent range of products coming out of the industry. Cheers, indeed!
In the next few weeks, we hope to shine a spotlight on some of these recent additions to the Michigan wine culture with a special Q-and-A series, "New to the Scene," that allows the people behind the wineries tell you, in their own words, what they're all about, what it took to get there, and what they hope you get out of their efforts. We kick it off today with Sarah Utter, marketing director for Flying Otter Vineyard and Winery, an Adrian-based operation that celebrated its grand opening Nov. 26.
Tell us about your winery's origins.
The Flying Otter Vineyard had been planted, nurtured, and harvested in the mind of Bob Utter for years before he was finally challenged by his son, Jeff, to turn all of the dreams and talk into reality. In the spring of 2005, with a minimum of equipment and a maximum of manual labor, the first acre of grapes were planted. A few years later we had grown to be able to produce more than we needed to satisfy our personal needs, and found that we were surprising ourselves with the quality of the wines we were producing. After some discussions and coaxing by our many supporters we decided to give the winery a go.
What's the story behind the name of your winery?
Bob Utter, the founding owner, is the main driver of our business. The "flying" part of our name comes from Bob's love of aviation. Bob is a private pilot and dreams of the day when he can take off from his private landing strip next to the vineyard. The “otter” is reflective of our Swedish ancestry; Utter means "otter" in Swedish. Since this is a family-run business, what better name to reflect who we are?
What should people know about your winery and, if you have one, your tasting room?
We make wine in a re-furbished pole-barn. We currently do not have a tasting room, but hope to have one in the future. For now, we are open by appointment and for events. We are not part of any trails yet, but hope to become part of the Pioneer Wine Trail.
Let's talk wine: Tell us about your current offerings.
We are rolling out three wines initially, we will release more as they are ready.
- Noiret ($14): This peppery red with hints of berry and mint is a favorite with red meats and robust cheeses. Perfect for your favorite gourmet burger meal as well. (The grapes are sourced) from Jim Bedient, from Bedient Vineyards near Branchport, N.Y.
- 2010 Riesling ($16): Made from grapes from the Michigan Lakeshore area, our medium sweet Riesling is a great representation of this highly favored grape. Presenting a pleasant floral nose and a wonderful citrus finish, this wine is sure to be a crowd favorite at your next gathering. Serve room temperature or slightly chilled to enhance this refreshing everyday white.
- 2010 Northern Lights ($14): Made from Chardonel and Traminette grapes grown here in Lenawee County, this semi-dry blend is a crisp, aromatic complement to any meal, or to sip and savor with a tasty brie.
Tell us about the wines you hope to produce in the future.
We have a Frontenac dessert wine that is made in the Portuguese style that will be available soon. A white that we are calling Sunshine, and a few fruit wines that we plan to call “Apple Pie” and “Cherry Pie.” All will be released in the next few months. Check our website for releases often as things are going to be progressing quickly over the next year.
What is your current and planned case production, and where can consumers purchase your products?
Our current production volume is 500 cases. We plan to be up to 2,100 cases in four years. Our wines are available online and direct from our winery. We hope to get our wines into restaurants and stores sometime in the future. If you're planning an event, contact us about having Flying Otter wine for your guests — we are willing to work with you for custom orders for large events.
When people visit your winery and try your wines, what kind of vibe do you hope they get? What do you hope to communicate through your wines?
We hope to make them feel like they are part of our family, and to make wine less intimidating. We want to show people a fun experience and educate them on new wines made from hybrid grapes that are produced right here in Michigan. We hope our wines make people look differently at Michigan, and see us as a destination for not only a great experience but also a place where hybrid grapes excel and thrive.
Tell us about the process of creating a winery and the steps you went through to make it a reality.
Bob has been dreaming of starting a winery for years. It wasn't until 2005 that we all started to make it a reality and plant our first vines. After the dream was shared and the family was on board, the vines were planted and the rest just kind of fell into place. Each year bringing us a step closer to where we are today, as we continue to grow.
What have been some of the major challenges along the way?
Trying to juggle jobs and family and a new business has proven to be one of our biggest challenges. We have had pretty good luck so far in terms of pests and diseases, but we did have a few varieties of grapes that did not grow in our location. We also had an entire row of whites get blown over in a wind storm, luckily we were able to stand it back up again and didn't lose a single vine.
Tell us about the people behind your winery.
We are a family-owned business. There are four owners: Bob and Linda Utter and Jeff and Sarah Utter. Jeff is the second son of Bob and Linda. Sarah is married to Jeff. Bob is the winemaker, Jeff is the winemaker in training, Linda is in charge of the accounting and books, and Sarah is in charge of marketing. We all overlap in our duties and are all learning the ropes of starting up a winery. Bob has a background in refrigeration engineering and has his own engineering consulting business, Linda was a stay at home mom and a homemaker with office management experience, Jeff has a background in information technology, Sarah is a stay at home mom with a dietetics degree and experience in food service.
Tell us about the people and places, Michigan or elsewhere, who inspired you or helped you along the way.
We are always being inspired by others in the wine and grape industry, and have been welcomed very warmly by most of the others in the industry. Pentamere and Sandhill Crane winery have always welcomed our questions and given advice. Wally Maurer of Domain Berrien Cellars encouraged us to move ahead and was always helpful in answering questions. Michael Wells, a vineyard owner nearby who is now going through his own winery establishment process, is also someone we talk with frequently to compare experiences. Many of the seminars and programs at the Michigan State University SWMREC (Southwest Michigan Research & Extension Center) were very educational. The MSU Winery Establishment Conference in 2009 provided a lot of guidance and resource material, and we've learned a lot from the SWMREC annual Viticulture Field Day event, and other educational events held by SWMREC.
Do you plan to have any events?
We plan to have events throughout the year, our next coming this spring. We hope to have a few release parties to introduce the new wines that become available. We plan to be open Saturdays and Sundays from Thanksgiving through Dec. 18, noon to 6 p.m. Our events page is located at https://www.flyingotter.com/scripts/eventPg.cfm.
What makes your winery unique?
Unlike most other wineries in Michigan, we plan on selling primarily online and through events until we are able to develop a tasting room. Our focus on wines from cold climate variety grapes is both an opportunity and a challenge. The grapes are not widely known by the public, but the chance to introduce new wine experiences using local grapes is something we look forward to sharing. We will provide a unique experience by allowing our customers to become educated about the wines we offer, not by teaching per se, but by conversing with them about the wines they like and the wines we produce. When people visit us, they will get to see the entire spectrum of how wine is made, from the grapevines all the way to the finished product. We encourage questions. But we should warn our customers, we started out as curious consumers. Learning about wine was so much fun we ended up in the wine business.
Anything else you want people to know about your winery?
One somewhat interesting side note: Bob, our founding member and aviation enthusiast, is building an airplane. When the winery business began to take up a great deal of available time, he put the airplane building on hold for the time being, but he had reserved space on the estate for a runway in the future. The space is still reserved and the vineyard is expanding, but there are no grapes being planted in the "runway."
What do you want people to know about Michigan wine in general?
We are currently in a very exciting time for Michigan wines. We not only have established wineries that are turning out world class wines, but we also have a great deal of young wineries that are looking to make a name for themselves and for Michigan as a wine destination. This creates an environment that is full of vigor, excitement and a great deal of friendly people that are looking not only to discover what Michigan wine can be, but also to enhance your wine experience as a whole.
How can people get in touch with you?
Flying Otter Vineyard and Winery, 3402 Chase Road, Adrian, MI 49221
Phone: (877) 876-5580