When you run a winery, the one thing that controls everything about the business is the one thing you can’t control: the weather.
“You have to make wine with the grapes you get, not the grapes you were hoping for, and they only come once a year,” says Lawton Ridge Winery co-owner and operator Dean Bender. While in other industries such as beer brewing if there’s a bad batch you have the chance to begin again; in the wine business a bad batch is the year’s lot. There’s no going back once it’s time to harvest, he says.
“In the wine business, there’s a certain finality,” Bender says.
Luckily for Bender, the weather hasn’t affected the overall growth of Lawton Ridge Winery, which has seen a steady increase in sales since it was started in 2007 and in gold medals in contests like the Michigan Wine Competition.
“We’ve been really fortunate,” Bender says. “And when people say, ‘I really enjoy the wines you do,’ and the compliment is unsolicited, that gets two gold stars in my book.”
Bender’s partner in the business is co-owner and operator Crick Haltom. The two remodeled a former gas station at 8456 Stadium Drive for the winery. While Haltom works at the winery full time, Bender still works two days a week as a chiropractor, which was his primary occupation before he took on Lawton Ridge.
The winery’s vineyard, which provides nearly 90 percent of the grapes used for its wines, is located in Lawton, hence the name, and was established in 1974 by three hobbyists and then-Western Michigan University faculty members, Lew Carlson, George Beech and Jim Dempsey.
The three men planted the vineyard, experimenting with growing a variety of grapes and using those grapes to make wine at home. (Extra grapes went to St. Julian Winery, in Paw Paw.) In the mid-1990s, Bender, who had joined the winemaking group, became a co-owner of the vineyard with partner Bill Harrison, a geology professor at WMU, after they bought out the vineyard’s other owners.
“We thought that going into business was the next logical step in an evolving art form for us,” Bender says.
The Lawton Ridge vineyard is a 10-acre spread that was once a peach orchard. The land it sits on, Bender says, is a part of the Lake Michigan Shore appellation, or wine region. This American Viticultural Area runs east to west from downtown Kalamazoo to the Lake Michigan shoreline and north to south from Fennville to the Indiana border.
“All of our fruit comes from this region,” Benders says. “Our area is considered in the wine world to be a cool-climate viticultural area.”
The grapes that can be grown closer to Lake Michigan, where the winds off the lake affect the drop and rise of temperature, differ from the grapes that are grown closer to Kalamazoo, Bender says. “I would have difficulty growing a Merlot grape, while someone 10 miles from the shore might not.”
The grape varietals riesling, chardonnay, cabernet franc and pinot gris grow well here because of the warm days and cool nights, Bender says. But the winters of 2013–14 and 2014–15 presented challenges for even those varietals that are suited to Southwest Michigan’s climate, Bender says.
“They were particularly hard for us, and we lost crop in 2014,” he says.
The weather hasn’t been the only unforeseeable, uncontrollable challenge to the business, though.
“We didn’t expect an economic downturn that was spiraling down right after we started the business,” Bender says. “The economic vortex impacted our growth in the first couple of years, but we learned a lot about our market that we didn’t know before.”
For example, Bender says, the most important marketing tool for a winery is to have direct contact with customers.
“That seems to trump anything else that we try,” he says. “What really has made the difference is one-on-one contact, whether it be in the wine-tasting room or at tastings off-site.”
As Bender and Haltom look to the future, they are focused on quality, not quantity, Bender says.
“There’s a limit to the size we want to get to,” he says. “Our original commitment is to grow the best grapes we can grow and make a wine that’s consistent with the grapes. We’re going to stick to that.”