Local couple brings wine country to Shelby Township

By: Brad D. Bates | Shelby - Utica News | Published December 5, 2012

SHELBY TOWNSHIP — When it comes to Michigan wines, Cortney and Shannon Casey of Macomb Township aren’t glass half-full or glass half-empty people. They’re more glass full people.

And with their new business, the Michigan By the Bottle Tasting Room, they’re hoping to share that sentiment with local wine lovers.

“Living here in metro Detroit, we often felt like we lived in the ‘black hole’ of Michigan wine,” Cortney Casey said.

“There are four major wine trails in Michigan — not to mention various offshoots, smaller trails and standalone wineries — and we’re about 90 minutes from the closest, the Pioneer Wine Trail,” Casey added.

“Selection of Michigan wine is fairly limited around here, and many people are unfamiliar with some of the excellent wineries that are turning out top-notch products. We have the bulk of Michigan’s population here in southeastern Michigan, but few of the state’s great wines.”

To bring some of those products to the “black hole,” the Caseys partnered with six Michigan wineries from all four of the wine trails to better show metro Detroiters the kind of vintages growing in their own backyards.

“This is the first time such a collaborative tasting room venture has ever been done in the state,” Cortney Casey said.

“The six wineries we’re working with … are all smaller, family-run operations with limited- or self-distribution. Most of them have been around quite a while — some for generations — and they’re using estate-grown and/or locally sourced fruit.”

“They’re very enthusiastic and really helping us get the word out to people and the great things that’s going on in the Michigan wine industry,” said Katie Maurer, owner of Domaine Berrien Cellars in Berrien Springs, regarding the work the Caseys have done promoting local wines.

“We hope people will want to embrace something that is local and will benefit the economy and the state,” Maurer added when asked what she hopes a foothold in metro Detroit will give her winery. “We’re really big in agriculture on this side of the state, and (the wine industry) is a big part of that.”

While it may be the most significant, the tasting room is just the latest step in the Caseys’ fervent promotion of Michigan wineries.

Since 2009, the couple has operated www.michiganbythebottle.com out of their home and used various social networking and online tools to help expose their neighbors to what they call, “hidden gems.”

“Michigan By The Bottle started in 2009, when Shannon abruptly mentioned at the dinner table that he wanted to start a Michigan wine blog,” Cortney Casey said of what motivated her and her husband to undertake such an effort, along with their full-time jobs as a reporter with C & G Newspapers and a sales director for BBC Title Agency, respectively.

“Trips up north had introduced us to some of the state’s wineries, and we began to get more interested in not only those, but the ones down in southern Michigan. We agreed that many of them were hidden gems, underappreciated and underpublicized. I thought his blog idea was just a whim, but I indulged him.” Cortney Casey said.

The “whim” grew into an online community that now features weekly podcasts, a twitter account with more than 6,000 followers and a Facebook page with roughly 3,700 fans.

“We had no idea MBTB would evolve into what it is today: a huge, thriving community of Michigan wine lovers,” Cortney Casey said. “It’s been amazing to watch people swap travel tips, share their favorite wines and tell us, every evening, what they’re sipping.”

That kind of passion among their followers and fans led the Caseys to decide to take their efforts one step further and open their tasting room at 45645 Hayes Road, just north of Hall Road.

“Starting the site, we never imagined that it would someday lead to a brick-and-mortar offshoot,” Cortney Casey said of the tasting room, which they hope to have open before Christmas.

“But the more involved we became in the wine industry — attending events, visiting tasting rooms and especially meeting the people involved — the deeper we fell in love with it. We became increasingly determined to make it an even bigger part of our lives.”

To meet that end, the Caseys partnered with wineries, such as Maurer’s Domaine Berrien Cellars in Berrien Springs, Chateau Aeronautique in Jackson, Chateau de Leelanau in Suttons Bay, Gill’s Pier Vineyard & Winery in Northport, Peninsula Cellars in Traverse City and Sandhill Crane Vineyards in Jackson.

“We suspect that many metro Detroiters who already are fans of these wineries can’t always travel out to these places as often as they would like,” Cortney Casey said of the unique access her business will afford.

“Inspired by similar endeavors that had fared well on the West Coast, we decided to pursue a collaborative tasting room concept that would allow the partnering Michigan wineries to get their wines in front of metro Detroiters in a comfortable, relaxed atmosphere, instead of merely jammed on a grocery store shelf,” Cortney Casey added.

“The partner wineries know they have someone they can trust introducing their wines to the public, and visitors who enjoy the tasting room environment can do so close to home.”

To bring that “Up North” or “Lake Michigan” experience to Macomb County, the MBTB tasting room will offer select wines from the partner wineries, along with other delicacies from within the state.

“We plan to serve our tastes in flights of varying sizes, which will allow visitors to take their time as they sample,” Cortney Casey said.

“The larger flights also will come with cheese and chocolate to enhance the experience,” she added, noting all stemware, cheeses and chocolates will come from Michigan businesses.

“We’re using full-size, high-quality Riedel stemware with all of our flights, to ensure that visitors are tasting the grapes and not the glass, so to speak.”

But more important than sharing the finest cheeses, chocolate and stemware that the state can offer, the Caseys hope to share their passion for and knowledge of the local wine industry.

“For those who are new to Michigan wine or getting reacquainted with it after many years, we hope that, through their experiences at the tasting room, they’ll discover it’s possible to drink local without sacrificing quality,” Cortney Casey said.

“We believe they’ll find Michigan is capable of producing wines that are on par with other well-known regions throughout the world.”