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Wine country in Detroit?

Belle Isle tapped as possible setting for new vineyard, winery

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Posted: Wednesday, March 23, 2011 12:00 am

As winemaker and vineyard manager Blake Kownacki put it, a major reason he is trying to create a winery on the southeast corner of Detroit’s Belle Isle is for its “terroir.”

“Terroir,” Kownacki said, is a French term for everything within the microclimate of that region.

“It’s the soil, the sun, it’s the water,” he said. “It’s also the cultural practice as well.”

And it’s because of Detroit’s “terroir” that Kownacki thinks Belle Isle is an ideal place for a winery in the city.

He is a partner in a business venture called Detroit City Cellars, which is based in TechTown, just north of Wayne State.

Detroit City Cellars is currently waiting to hear back from the city on whether it will be allowed to establish a winery on 10 acres of Belle Isle near the lighthouse.

Kownacki said the Great Lakes region has potential to make unique wine, but he wanted to create it in Detroit.

“We can produce authentic Great Lakes region wine,” he said, “but it can also be an expression of Detroit itself.”

Another reason Kownacki gave for wanting to create that winery, which would include vineyards, is: Why not Detroit?

He said the city is not represented on a map of wineries in Michigan, and the price of land in Detroit is not as much of a hindrance as it would be in other cities such as Chicago.

Kownacki has worked in top wineries in California and Australia, but he said he and his wife — a native of the state — always wanted to return to Michigan.

“It’s where my family is from,” he said. “Detroit is my favorite city on the world.”

Kownacki’s Michigan roots run deep; the grandparents on his father’s side came from Poland after World War II, and those from his mother’s side have been in the state for ages.

Kownacki said this would be an economically beneficial and unique venture for Detroit. The wine industry contributes about $300 million annually to the state and there has never before been a combination of a vineyard and winery in a major metropolitan city, he said.

Kownacki also wants to improve the image of Detroit through his winery.

He said he understands there is decay in the city, but its perception for outsiders is “through the roof.”

He said the time was “ripe with that type of spirit in the city” that has represented itself through “Made in Detroit” T-shirts and Chrysler’s “Imported From Detroit” campaign.

“This is also about focusing a positive light on the city in a really very simple way,” Kownacki said. “It is expensive to create a winery, but it’s a small project that can project a very big, positive image for the city.”

He also called the Belle Isle winery an agro-tourism draw to get people to visit the city who have perhaps not spent time there in a while.

Also, Kownacki sees this venture as a synthesis of agriculture and urbanity, which he thinks is appropriate since European settlers discovered Belle Isle when it was still covered in grape vines and fruit and nut trees.

John Burtka, president of Detroit City Cellars said in an article in The Detroit News that the moderate temperatures of the Detroit River make Belle Isle an ideal location.

“It’s such a significant venue, it’d get international attention,” he said in the article. “We’re trying to focus a positive light on the city.”

He also said in the article that the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council estimated the winery would attract about 50,000 visitors each year.

Detroit City Cellars doesn’t only want to use fruit from Belle Isle, so it is working with Greening of Detroit to implement a wine grape-growing program to have the urban gardeners plant a small amount of vines.

Kownacki said Detroit City Cellars doesn’t want a large-scale wine production.

“This is really about artisanal, handcrafted wine,” he said.

The plan, however, has not been met with total approval.

Dan Lijana, a spokesman for Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, has gone on record saying the administration believes Belle Isle should be for recreational purposes.

And Roberta Henrion, president of Friends of Belle Isle, said in an article in the News that a winery could damage the isle’s environment.

“It’s extremely inappropriate,” she said in the article. “It’s a great idea, but I don’t think Belle Isle is the place for it. It would be more helpful to go to vacant areas.”

But Kownacki said in response to those criticisms that the vineyard will be totally open to the public.

“We like to look at it as an extension of a botanical garden,” he said, referring to the conservatory on Belle Isle.

Kownacki said the farming would be done organically because the roots he would use are poor germinators.

“I know there’s a concern about this being an invasive species,” he said. “We hope to … increase biodiversity and increase soil health.”

But it would seem these critics to whom Kownacki is responding are in the minority.

Overall support for the winery is positive, according to a Click On Detroit poll of more than 300 people. Ninety-one percent of the responders reported they wanted the winery on the isle.

But for some of those who frequent that corner of Belle Isle and appreciate its beauty, they disagreed with the idea.

“I’m against it,” said Detroit Police Department Sgt. David Babcock, who visits the land of the proposed winery. “If we get commercial on this end of the island, what’s going to happen on the other end?”

Babcock said there is plenty of vacant acreage in other areas of the city.

He also said the “tremendous” view from the lighthouse area would be obstructed by the venture.

WSU information systems technology major Russ Fertig agreed that there was plenty of other land available in the city.

“It seems really ridiculous that they’d tamper with a natural landscape for the benefit of a few,” he said. “It takes away from the natural beauty for the rest of us.”

Vanessa Kelly, a WSU staff member, agreed.

“The same person who bought Central Park in New York did Belle Isle,” she said. “So are they planning on building a wine orchard in Central Park too? No.”

Fertig and Babcock said the island just needs to be better maintained.

“The zoo’s failed. The aquarium’s closed,” Fertig said. “Why are we building new ventures when we can’t even maintain the original stuff that’s appropriate?”

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