Black-owned winery struggles to hold on as pandemic dries up business
Mike Wells was just 16 years old when he made his first batch of wine. Wells grew up in Detroit, and the family had a large garden in the lot next to their house. His father grew all kinds of vegetables, but it was the grapevine along the back of the lot that intrigued Wells the most. One fall, he picked all the grapes off the vine and set out to make his first batch of wine.
I also understand why we're shut down. But they can't expect you to keep paying bills if you're not able to make money. - Mike Wells
“The funnier part is my parents didn’t drink alcohol. And so I wound up putting it in pop bottles and put it in the back of my dad’s closet— which I shared,” Wells said. “And I’d go back there every couple of days with a flashlight. I knew nothing back then about fermentation. I thought it was percolating.”
Ever since then, Wells says, he’s been hooked on the process of winemaking.
It would be a long time before he turned his passion for wine into a career. He worked for a long time as a firefighter, and eventually lieutenant, in the Ypsilanti Fire Department. When he retired, Wells decided he was ready to make the leap into winemaking. He enrolled in a viticulture and enology program at Michigan State University, and went on to plant five acres of grapes on his property in Lenawee County.
He opened the doors to Black Fire Winery in 2016. It is one of just a handful of Black-owned wineries in the state, and the first to start a commercial vineyard in Lenawee County. The business has been growing since 2016, and now boasts an impressive 11-acre vineyard.
Many of Michigan’s wine labels had enjoyed several years of growth, and there was an evolving hope that Michigan would join the ranks of dominant regions in the wine market. But the pandemic changed all that.
A big part of the state’s wine culture is tasting rooms where Michiganders and visitors to the state can sample the product and mingle with friends and strangers alike. Tastings were the foundation of Wells’ business, but they have been nearly impossible to accommodate due to the restrictions on indoor dining.
“My business model in doing this was always to be able to sell directly out of the tasting room. We weren’t ever anticipating on having to change that.” Wells said. “Coming in to buy the bottle of wine, and get out, is just not what we were trying ever to do.”
Black Fire Winery had to quickly pivot and try to figure out how to get into the retail wine market. Wells had to add salesman to his jobs as vintner and brewer. He says that they are working on getting their bottles into stores, but this process takes time—time that Wells isn’t sure that he has.
“I think we’re going to have to look at a complete change in how we do things, and that is if we survive. That’s in question right now,” Wells said.
Wells says it’s frustrating to have such little control over the future of a business into which he’s poured his life savings. He has tried applying for grants and loans, but every business is applying for the same pool of money, and the process is slow. Black Fire Winery has small igloos for customers to rent this winter, but Wells says that alone is not enough to sustain the business.
“I’m not a handout kind of guy. I like to do things myself and that’s why I’m in business. I also understand why we’re shut down. But they can’t expect you to keep paying bills if you’re not able to make money,” he said.
Wells is looking forward to the time when he can host people in his tasting room again to enjoy each other’s company, and, of course, his wine. But, without some kind relief, he says he’s not sure the winery will survive to see it.
This post was written by Stateside production assistant Catherine Nouhan.