Doug Welsch

 

 

Fenn Valley Vineyards is a family owned and operated vineyard and winery complex established in 1973. Our goal then, as it is now, was to produce world-class wines from grapes grown along the Eastern shore of Lake Michigan.

The Fenn Valley estate is a 245-acre farm located five miles from Lake Michigan just south of Holland, Michigan. The site was chosen after reviewing weather, climate, and soil survey maps. Unlike farmers who already own farmland and then begin to grow grapes, the Welsch family migrated from the Chicago area and was therefore free to select the most desirable site for viticulture based on the available data. Our vineyards are located on the top of a large sand ridge that extends inland from Lake Michigan between the Black River and the Kalamazoo River valleys. Our proximity to Lake Michigan is a delicate balance of being close enough to provide significant moderation of winter temperatures and far enough away from the lake so that during the summer months we will have a moderate cooling effect. The winter minimum temperatures must be moderated to insure the vine’s survival, and the summer temperatures must be warm enough to allow for a complete ripening without “cooking” the grapes on the hot days during late summer. A look at an atlas of the world will show that the major viticulture areas are usually located near a large body of water that serves to moderate the climate in some manner. California, Washington, Oregon, Australia, Germany, Italy, France, and Michigan all meet this criterion.

Grapevines are deep rooted and vigorous, so the soil must be deep and relatively infertile; our sandy ridge is ideal. Since the best wines are made where the grapes are allowed to ripen throughout a long and cool growing season, the topography of the vineyard must be higher than the surrounding lands and slightly sloped to allow the denser cold air to drain off on frosty nights. By using the natural air drainage of the ridge, the growing season is extended so that the grapes can fully ripen in our cool climate. After fermentation, the wine’s temperature must remain constant so our 17,000 square foot winery cellar was built into the side of a hill to take advantage of the natural temperature stability of the earth.

Our land was originally a tree fruit farm and all the fruit trees had to be cleared and the soil prepared to receive the vineyards. The first wines that were produced were natural fruit wines. Today we still make Peach, Cherry and Raspberry wines and have received national recognition for both of these wines. The first grape vines were planted in 1974 and there have been additional plantings set out almost every year since then. When the vineyards were originally started, there was little information available regarding the best varieties and methods of growing the wine grapes. A few people had been experimenting with Vinifera and Hybrid wine grapes, but the bulk of Michigan viticulture was centered on Concord and Niagara, which are not suitable for making delicate European style table wines. During the course of time, many varieties were planted and later removed when they could not perform satisfactorily in the vineyard or in the winery. This experimentation process continues to this day as new varieties are tried and evaluated for their potential as suitable wine grapes in our climate.

Our initial research led us in the direction of premium hybrid grape varieties such as Seyval, Vidal, Vignoles, Foch and Chancellor. Today, these varieties still have a prominent position in our overall production; however, in 1976 we began to plant the traditional Vinifera wine varieties, beginning with Riesling, Chardonnay and Gewurztraminer. We soon learned that these cold tender varieties could be successfully grown and had a place in the consumer market. In 1988 we added Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris in 1991, and Cabernet franc in 1995. We have been delighted with the outstanding results and improvement of each subsequent vintage of these varieties. Today we have nearly 58 acres of vineyards that are a mix of Vinifera and premium hybrid wine varieties, all of which have been selected for their ability to consistently produce quality wines.

Fenn Valley has always taken a position of leadership in the industry, constantly looking for better ways to produce quality wines. We were the first in Michigan (and maybe the East) to utilize sterile bottling to avoid the use of pasteurization or preservatives, and the first to make fruity German style wines by stopping the fermentation rather than adding sugar.

In the vineyards, Fenn Valley is continuing to evaluate new varieties from around the world. We were the first winery to produce and release Chardonel, a Chardonnay cross-developed at Cornell University. In addition, we have worked closely with the research team of Michigan State University in their efforts to find the most suitable grape varieties and growing methods for climate.

Today Fenn Valley continues to be a progressive estate bottled winery, growing the grapes that are processed in the cellars. The vineyards are being expanded as new varieties are tried and additional plantings are made of those varieties that prove to be successful. The numerous awards and medals that Fenn Valley continues to receive for its wines attests to the fact that we are always keeping our eye on quality.

Doug Welsch /Winemaker

Doug Welsch received a bachelor of science in biology from Illinois State University in 1973. Though trained as a high school biology and chemistry teacher, Doug felt another calling in life. That same year, he and his family moved to Michigan where they purchased a 230-acre farm and established Fenn Valley Vineyards. With the exception of the four years between 1995 and 1999, Doug has been in charge of the vineyards and has served as the winemaker of Fenn Valley. He has been responsible for the direction and style of its “premium estate bottled” wines that have earned Fenn Valley over 300 awards and national recognition.

Doug Welsch and Fenn Valley have been recognized as leaders in the development and promotion of the Michigan wine industry. Working closely with researchers from Michigan State University, they have aggressively supported and participated in the quality progression of premium Michigan wine grapes. Fenn Valley was the first winery to commercially plant the Geneva selection Chardonel, and was the first winery to bring this variety to market. Doug has also given numerous lectures at regional and national industry conferences, with topics ranging from basic winemaking techniques to innovative methods of marketing and tapping the tourist niche.

Though constantly striving to further the advancement of the Michigan wine industry, Doug prefers to remain a small family operation and perfect his winemaking skills to fill the niche of a specialized premium winery. Having built his home right in the middle of the vineyards with his wife Lynn, he has a constant view of his efforts. When not on the farm or in the cellar, Doug enjoys cooking, photography and teaches scuba diving on the side.

For more information on Fenn Valley wines, check out the Fenn Valley fact sheet.