Feb 7, 2012
Communication is the key for growers, winemakers

Lee Lutes likens the relationship between a grower and a winemaker to a marriage.

“You can’t just walk in and say to your spouse: ‘I don’t like this. Change it,’” he said. “You have to give it some time. Otherwise, it’s not a healthy relationship.”

He should know. As the winemaker and general manager for Black Star Farms in Suttons Bay, Mich., Lutes works closely with nearly a dozen growers, the people who supply his winery with the wine grapes it needs. He’s been cultivating relationships with growers for nearly 20 years, he said.

During the Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable & Farm Market EXPO in December, Lutes outlined some of the common problems that can arise between winemakers and growers. He also listed the needs of both parties and suggested ways their problems could be solved.

In short, growers need reliable buyers, good prices and timely payments. Winemakers need a consistent quantity of high-quality fruit, and need to have input on the major decisions made in the vineyard, Lutes said.

Like married couples, growers and winemakers need frequent communication, cooperation and trust, and need to work toward common goals, he said.

Too many grower/winery relationships are adversarial. Conflict can arise when growers are paid by the pound, for example. Growers in that situation want to sell more grapes, naturally, but wineries often want less fruit than the vineyard will produce, Lutes said.

“Winemakers tend to think less is more,” he said.

Winemakers, ideally, would like a balanced, consistent crop load from year to year, but in an unpredictable climate like northwest Michigan, consistency is difficult to achieve. Lutes and others initially thought 2011 would be a weak growing season, but there ended up being so many grapes that some were left hanging on the vine – the first time he’s ever seen that, he said.

“We have to find common ground each year, to make sure the partnership works on both sides,” he said. “We can’t be adversarial.”

As a winemaker, Lutes makes an effort to spend time with growers and vineyard managers, so he can better understand their capabilities and challenges.

“During the season, I’m typically out in the vineyards,” he said. “I don’t just drive through in a vehicle and say, ‘Drop 30 percent of your fruit.’ I want to be seen as more of a partner than a bitchy winemaker.”

Neglecting to visit vineyards is one of the things winemakers can do to exacerbate a potential conflict with growers. Conflict also can occur if winemakers fail to communicate their expectations to growers, or if they just don’t understand viticulture in general, Lutes said.

From a winemaker’s perspective, conflict can occur when growers fail to deliver quality fruit, when they don’t understand the winery’s goals or when they focus more on the quantity of grapes than the quality, Lutes said.

If growers want to maintain their end of the relationship, they must make winemakers happy. That starts with good fruit.
“If you don’t have good fruit, you won’t have good wines,” he said.

Michigan’s reputation for good wine is growing, and wineries like Black Star Farms can’t afford low-quality product, he said.
As part of that improving reputation, Michigan wineries are working with growers more closely to maintain quality. More grapevines are going in the ground and more fruit is available in general, giving wineries more choice when it comes to suppliers. For growers, that means more competition. They have to focus on quality more than ever, Lutes said.

Lutes had more advice for both sides: Put business before friendship. Establish relationships early and strive to make them long-term. Compromise when possible.

By Matt Milkovich, Managing Editor

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