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City Scene Travel

Detroit Is Stepping Up Its Wine Game

The Motor City is bustling with options for wine lovers

Janice Williams By January 19, 2022
Detroit, Michigan downtown skyline from above at dusk
Detroit, Michigan downtown skyline from above at dusk. Photo by Sean Pavone/iStock.

A popular phrase in Michigan goes, “Detroit hustles harder.” It’s more than just a string of words that appear in chunky letters on bumper stickers. It’s a way of life for the folks in the state’s largest city. 

With a stagnant unemployment rate, a declining population, and not-so-nice headlines constantly painting the Motor City in the harshest of light, Detroit might not seem high on the tourist list. But the people who actually live there know differently. Detroit is still here. And the people there on the ground are resilient, hustling hard to turn lemons into lemonade or — better yet — grapes into wine.

For every shuttered business in Detroit comes the chance for renewal. And plenty of people, both natives and transplants, see a wealth of opportunity. Despite the aftershock of the pandemic, there are more small business owners than ever in Detroit, with the fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs being people of color. People are working tirelessly to bounce back from the devastation caused by COVID-19 shutdowns, and they’re aiming to offer opportunities that will keep residents and visitors invested and interested. Much of that has been achieved through Detroit’s growing food and wine scene. 

“I’ve seen a lot of positive changes, development, and growth, COVID notwithstanding. We’re still in it. We’re still coming back from it. There is still some uncertainty. But in general, the food and wine in Detroit have grown considerably since I’ve been here,” says Ping Ho, the owner and wine director of the retail shop and wine bar hybrid, The Royce, in downtown Detroit.

Ho left New York City for Detroit after realizing its potential in 2015. But when she found the location for The Royce within the historic Kales Building, the area didn’t have so much to offer. 

“There weren’t as many shops or restaurants. The residential options were also somewhat limited,” Ho explains. “But the location was close enough to Campus Martius and the downtown hub, like Capitol Park, which was also being slowly developed. I wanted to be downtown because you could see that things were happening in the area, and The Royce could still fill a need in the market.”

Now, there are many neighborhoods to discover and drink wine, from Midtown to Corktown to Downtown. There are the Villages where Ho’s restaurant, Marrow, is. There’s the Eastern Market where — aside from shopping for fresh local produce, meats, and artisan goods — Detroit Vineyards makes and sells wine with grapes sourced from the state’s winemaking regions. And that’s just a fraction of the areas where drinkers in Detroit can score a solid bottle.

“To be honest, Detroit proper has the best access to quality wines right now,” says Chris Southern, the winemaker and general manager of Detroit Vineyards.

Outside signage at Detroit Vineyards

Outside signage at Detroit Vineyards. Photo courtesy of Melissa Douglas Photography.

More wine curiosity

Detroiters have always had an affinity for quality and ingenuity. It’s all about craftsmanship and artistry in Motown, from the clothes they wear to the cars they drive and the food they eat. 

So it’s no big surprise that when a plethora of wine shops and bars started popping up in the downtown area during the late 2010s, people came out to explore. 

“Shoppers don’t seem to have one preference of wine over another. Even if they’ve never heard of the grape, they will figure out how to like it. People are willing to take a chance and try something new,” says Regina Gaines, the owner of the bottle shop House of Pure Vin.

However, if there was one style of wine professionals in the city say is the emerging trend, it would be sustainably made wines.

“We carry a range of wines. Some of them are more natural than others. Still, we always keep an eye on sustainability, independent producers, wines that aren’t commercially produced, and those made with as little intervention as possible. It’s kind of our thing,” Ho says.

Customers can also find worthy bottles at MotorCity Wine, Vertical Detroit, and restaurants like Central Kitchen + Bar, Savannah Blue, and Prime + Proper, to name a few. Then there’s James Cadariu’s new wine bar Ladder 4 Wine, a retail shop and wine bar hybrid focused on natural wines.

Detroiters also have their eyes on wines made in their own backyard, Michigan wine country.

A sense of place

Walk into any grocery store in Michigan, and you’re likely to find bottles of wine made in Southwest Michigan and Northern Michigan. Walk into Detroit Vineyards, and you’ll find bottles made right there in the former Stroh ice cream plant.

“Over the years, Michigan wine’s reputation has been tarnished because things like sweet Riesling were produced on such a heavy scale. But we’ve seen really positive changes just in terms of people coming to the state that are skilled at viticulture and winemaking,” says Southern.

Detroit Vineyards sources grapes from growers across the state to produce its signature wines. And people from all over Detroit come to purchase and drink the wines right there on-site while getting a crash course on winemaking and grape growing in the state. 

“We’re highlighting Michigan agriculture and growers from throughout the state. And we’re providing access to them as well. You don’t have to go to Traverse City. If that’s not available to you, you can come here,” says Southern. “The wines are right here at Eastern Market.”

As the state produces better quality wines, wine shops and bars are putting them on wine lists. 

“We’re all a part of a big revitalization,” says Gaines, who keeps a stock of Michigan wines on the shelves at House of Pure Vin.

Detroiters also have their eyes on wines made in their own backyard, Michigan wine country.

Wine for everyone 

Just as wine professionals can’t quite pinpoint one wine style that Detroiters prefer, they can’t single out one specific wine-drinking demographic either. 

“What’s so interesting and is just a beautiful thing is that there is no one type of customer. We get a lot of different types of people across age groups, but I can tell you everybody is over 21,” Gaines jokes. 

Detroit and the Metro Detroit area are home to a range of people from all walks of life. What ties them all together is the contagious can-do spirit they employ, suggests Ho.

“Detroit is very resilient. There’s a certain toughness with the city’s history and its people. I see it in the folks I’ve met through The Royce and other businesses, who have become friends,” says Ho.

3 places to visit:

Detroit Vineyards

Detroit Vineyards winemaker Chris Southern and cellar master Antoniues Gregory

Detroit Vineyards winemaker Chris Southern and cellar master Antoniues Gregory. Photo courtesy of Melissa Douglas Photography.

Opened in 2019, Detroit Vineyards is the city’s first urban winery. Though not technically a wine bar, people pile up at the sleek tasting room for glasses of the winery’s offerings, including Detroit Vineyards’ Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, and Blaufränkisch. “We have 200 club members, and we’re growing. Our customers are super bought-in on our wines,” says Southern.

House of Pure Vin

inside view of Detroit's House of Pure Vin

An inside view of Detroit’s House of Pure Vin. Photo courtesy of House of Pure Vin.

Smack in the center of Detroit’s Capitol City neighborhood lies the Black-owned retail shop, House of Pure Vin, which Gaines cheerfully describes as a “candy store for wine.” Bottles line the tall walls of the store, which also holds shop-and-sip style events to promote local small businesses and activities like jazz wine brunches. 

The Royce 

Inside view of The Royce in Detroit

Inside view of The Royce in Detroit. Photo courtesy of Michelle Girard.

The Royce could essentially double as a library for wine. Bottles are stacked along the walls from the floor to the ceiling. And customers are just as likely to pop in for a cheese plate or cockles in brine as they are for a glass of Chardonnay. “We’re all for the people who want to have a good time and chill with a glass or bottle of wine,” Ho says. “Even when we’re crowded, we keep a relaxed atmosphere.”