Over the last five years — and especially in the 18 months since we opened Michigan By The Bottle Tasting Room — I've recounted this story so many times that I feel like someone's ancient grandmother, telling tales about the good ol' days.
Five years ago this month, Shannon and I were eating dinner at the same battered kitchen table we still eat at now (when we're not scarfing down meals in the backroom of the store) when he casually suggested that we start a Michigan wine blog.
We'd become increasingly enthusiastic about visiting the state's wineries, and we were dismayed by the dearth of information available online about them — especially the ones outside of Northern Michigan.
Also, Shannon was more than a little bit enamored with Gary Vaynerchuk of "Wine Library TV" fame, who posted casual, humorous webcasts about wines sold in his family's New Jersey-based retail shop. Vaynerchuk's enthusiasm was palpable and contagious, and he made wine feel oh-so-cool — not stuffy, not elitist, not incomprehensible, not any of the adjectives I'd long associated with wine culture. Watching Gary's antics online felt like kicking back with a friend and sharing a drink.
In the three years we'd been married and the five years since we'd met, Shannon and I seemed to repeatedly gravitate toward entrepreneurial and/or creative "side projects" — with mixed success. I had a feeling that Shannon's interest in this blog would burn brightly for a while, then wink out. Nonetheless, I dutifully agreed to create a logo (inexpertly assembled in Photoshop, to be later reimagined by our talented graphic designer, David Jakubowski) and come up with a catchy name. We bought a domain, whipped up a Typepad blog, and off we went.
I've met more than a few people over the years who started projects in pursuit of "freebies" and special attention, and while I feel fortunate that we've had some incredible opportunities that we wouldn't have been privy to without MBTB, I can truthfully say that scoring free loot was never a motivating factor whatsoever, was never even on our radar. We were just intent on immersing ourselves in the industry, getting behind the scenes, and taking our readers/viewers — the everyday Michigan wine consumers — with us as we did.
With the launch of our associated social media accounts, it quickly became apparent that there was a huge contingent of Michigan wine lovers out there who had never really been united or introduced. And there were many Michigan wine lovers who were loyal to one particular winery, or familiar with a particular trail, but were completely in the dark about many of the others. We made it our mission to promote the wineries as positively and "equal opportunity" as possible.
Over the years, we steadily expanded our focus from meager tasting notes to video podcasts, video features, original articles, contests, event listings, travel guides, etc., etc. The more we did, the more we wanted to do. I was in love: in love with the industry, in love with the people who grew the grapes and made the wine, in love with the whole culture and the idea that we could help make all of it more accessible and approachable for average Michiganders just like us.
For more than a decade prior to "Life 2.0" — as I call life since opening Michigan By The Bottle Tasting Room in December 2012 — I had a pretty sweet job. I was a newspaper reporter for Michigan's largest non-daily newspaper chain, and half of my years there were spent covering Sterling Heights, my hometown and one of the largest cities in the state. I had a zillion priceless experiences as a result of my position as a reporter. The company, my boss, my coworkers, many of my sources — they were all awesome. But as time went on, I found myself resenting the time spent sitting in government meetings, courthouses and office buildings.
My thoughts were consumed by MichiganByTheBottle.com, and I was always counting down to my next long weekend in Michigan wine country. There were days we drove away from Leelanau, Old Mission, Lake Michigan Shore, Pioneer, where I teared up at the thought of leaving the wine trails and returning to the "real world." It was more than just a reluctance to go to work (a feeling to which, I'm sure, most people can relate). I was convinced that the Michigan wine industry was where I was meant to be. I felt like I was missing a calling.
People constantly approached us at wine events, asking, "How do I get your job? I wish I had your job," to which I had to reply, "This isn't my real job." But after a while, Shannon and I started talking about how we could make it so.
Inspired by Josh Wade — a fellow wine blogger who launched his own tasting room in Spokane, featuring Washington wineries — we began investigating the possibilities for doing something similar here. When the state regulations became such that the opportunity materialized, we jumped at the chance, taking six wineries from around the state with us. And MBTB Tasting Room — after wading through endless miles of red tape, since it was the state's first offsite tasting room for multiple unaffiliated wineries — was born.
There's the age-old cliche that if you do what you love, you'll never work a day in your life. Blah blah blah. But it's 100% true. Not every day is sunshine and rainbows, and yeah, taking such a huge risk was scary, but it was totally worth it.
Every day, I get to be an ambassador for Michigan wine and have the privilege and honor of getting to mingle and chat with Michigan wine lovers like you. I get so excited poring over "Michigan Wine Country" magazine and wine trail maps with our guests, helping them choose which wineries to visit on their next trip. I get giddy when I introduce someone to a new wine, or tell them about all the friendly folks they should look for on the trails.
Time has not diminished the rush generated by getting a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the winemaking process, or talking with winemakers about why they're passionate about what they do. These are things you don't easily forget: peering into a vat of Sauvignon Blanc with Domaine Berrien's Wally Maurer; stooping to enter a cramped cellar at Cody Kresta to sample Chardonnay out of the barrel; watching Charlie Edson of Bel Lago climb a tower of barrels to grab a bit of that one last Pinot Noir that you just have to try; blind tasting Rieslings with Chris Baldyga and Caryn Chachulski at 2 Lads; standing amid the stainless steel tanks at Chateau Grand Traverse while Sean O'Keefe talks passionately about Gruner Veltliner; touring the "top-secret" production facility for L. Mawby and seeing all those bottles of bubbly in tirage, destined to someday go home with a Michigan wine lover.
But the most exciting part of those experiences is being able to pass along the knowledge gained to MBTB readers/viewers, knowing that by delving deeper into the world of Michigan wine, we're (hopefully) helping you do the same. There's no feeling more gratifying than when we get a message from someone saying, "I visited this winery because of MBTB. I had never heard of it before. And I loved it."
Obsessed? Without a doubt. With a little bit of fuel, this interest has swelled into a full-fledged, all-consuming passion. Enthusiasm breeds more enthusiasm. The more I learn, the more I want to learn — so much so that I pursued (and attained, yay!) the certified sommelier designation through the Court of Master Sommeliers last fall. Shannon will do so this fall, and we're continuing to look for more avenues to bolster our overall wine knowledge.
All of this rambling leads up to this: Without you — yes, you — we would not be here. Without the people who started reading our website in 2009 and the people who started reading it yesterday. The people who faithfully check in every night on our Facebook page to let us know which Michigan wines they're drinking, and who read, watch, "like" and share our posts. The people who approach us at wineries and events and greet us like old friends, even when we've only met virtually, via the website and Facebook. The people who visit us at our tasting room and act as our "brand ambassadors," spreading the word about MBTB and what we do.
And we wouldn't be here without the support of the Michigan wine industry, without the winemakers, winery representatives and state industry officials who — even when we were first starting out and had no "street cred" — never treated us like a pair of online hacks. They welcomed us with open arms, and we can't stress enough how much we did, and do, appreciate it. Time and again, they've made time for us in their busy schedules and (even though many of them are quite shy) repeatedly subjected themselves to interviews, filming and photos for MBTB.
So, with five years behind us, what's ahead for MichiganByTheBottle.com? As we settle more comfortably into the routines at MBTB Tasting Room and bulk up our already awesome staff, we're hopeful that we'll be able to dedicate ourselves even more fully to reporting on the whole wide world of Michigan wine and traveling throughout the state for that work. The only direction we plan to go from here is up.
To all of you: Thank you, thank you, thank you. And cheers to continuing to support the state with every sip!
P.S. To celebrate our birthday, we're giving you presents! (Wait ... what? Isn't that backwards?) Stay tuned for info on our High Five Birthday Giveaway!
Article by Cortney Casey, MichiganByTheBottle.com. We strive to be your definitive source of information on Michigan wines; therefore, we welcome you to link to this page or print an excerpt that leads back to our site. However, as our work is copyrighted, we kindly ask that you do not copy and paste this or any other portion of Michigan By the Bottle in its entirety on another site. We appreciate your cooperation. For reprint inquiries, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.