A mental image of Southwest Michigan conjures up a land of quaint towns, sandy beaches, and, on a clear day, a view of Chicago across the lake. It’s a destination worthy of day trips, weekend getaways, and full-fledged vacations. Known for its plethora of quality craft breweries, the area is receiving increasing recognition for Southwest Michigan wineries.

Midwest wines have traditionally been known for sweet blends. While there's nothing wrong with them, they're not the preference of oenophiles who’d like a broader selection and even some estate grown varietals. Fortunately for all wine lovers, the southeastern shore of Lake Michigan is now considered one of the best wine-producing areas in the world.

One of the reasons for that burgeoning reputation is due to places like Round Barn, Free Run, and Tabor Hill. These three wineries are owned by Moersch Hospitality, a family affair that’s been part of the Michigan viniculture scene since 1992.

I had the opportunity to take a media tour of these properties. Since my travel mantra is “while I’m here…” I added a day and a few other places to "round" out my experience. Check out why Southwest Michigan should be on any foodie, wine-lover, and beer-fan’s itinerary.

Round Barn Brewery & Public House

Round Barn Public House

Our wine tour began at...a brewery. Moersch opened Round Barn Brewery & Public House in 2013 in Baroda, Michigan, because “the town needed some love.” They’ve certainly shown their affection. After being open for just one year, Round Barn was named Business of the Year by The Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce. They’re truly part of the community; their grain is provided by a local farmer, and they give the spent grain back, which is then used to feed some of the animals. The farm is close enough that brewer Malkam Wyman said the pigs know when they’re brewing Kolsch.

They also make sure that 30% of the menu uses local ingredients, and there’s at least one local item per dish. That’s because, as Chef said, “foods are geographically linked to beer – that’s how it’s meant to be.”

Round Barn Brewery & Public House Salad made with local goat cheese from Fennville, smoked pheasant, fresh pears, and champagne vinaigrette.

Salad made with local goat cheese from Fennville, smoked pheasant, fresh pears, and champagne vinaigrette.

 

Round Barn Brewery & Public House’s focus is on traditional styles including Schwarzbier, Wassail, and the above-mentioned Kolsch, because “you learn the most from what the ancients have done,” said Malkam. But they also like to push the envelope and try new things, and have even created their own style of beer: instead of the California Common, they’re brewing the Michigan Common. Unique brews include an Earl Grey Pale Ale, and they offer a new beer infusion each week.

Beer Flight at Round Barn Brewery & Public House

The passion is palpable. When I asked Malkam how he gets ideas for his beers, he said “I dream about it.”

Public House is open Wednesdays and Thursdays from 11 a.m. – 10 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays from 11 a.m. – 11 p.m. and Sundays from 11 a.m. – 8 p.m.

 

Round Barn Winery

Southwest Michigan Winery - Round Barn Winery in Baroda

It's fitting that Round Barn Winery, the centerpiece of Moersch Hospitality, is circular. Its roots date back to 1981, when Rick Moersch bought land with the intention of growing grapes. At the time, he was working at Tabor Hill Winery. By 1992, though, he had left the winery and opened his own, naming it Heart of the Vineyard Winery.

Then, five years later, the family came across a round barn in Rochester, Indiana. They bought it and moved it to the vineyard. It took three months for Amish craftsmen to install the roof, and when you look up you can see the care that was put into it.

Roof at Round Barn Winery in Baroda, Michigan

The structure made such an impression on visitors (and how could it not) that nobody remembered the name of the winery; they just called it the place with the round barn. After a few years of that, the Moersch family decided to go with the flow and changed the name.

Why is it fitting that Round Barn Winery is circular? I'll tell you later.

Wooden beams in the roof of Round Barn Winery

Round Barn Winery is now one of the most well-known wineries in the region, and in the Midwest. I tasted a slew of their offerings, and was pleasantly surprised. I prefer drier wines, and theirs could stack up to Oregon and Washington. 

One of my personal favorites was the Sauvignon Blanc, a dry white that's slightly mineral with a strong grapefruit nose. I was surprised to learn that all the grapes in that wine were grown at Round Barn. I also enjoyed the Vineyard Tears, a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, and Riesling. The wine's so good the New York Times named it a Best Buy in 2010.

In addition to their award winning wines, they've also got a small batch distillery offering vodka, gin, tequila, rum, bourbon, and whiskey. Michigan has some pretty strict liquor laws, so Round Barn is the only winery that also serves spirits.

With wine, beer, spirits, a food truck, and live music, the vibe is definitely fun. CEO Matt Moersch said this is the "party party beer garden." When you visit, bring a chair and prepare to enjoy a day in this unique tasting environment.

Wine tasting menu at Round Barn Winery

Tastings of 6 wines/spirits (up to 2 spirits) are $12 and are available Fridays through Sundays. You keep the glass and get $5 off every 3 bottle purchases. They also offer group tastings for up to 15 people. Hosted on the second floor of the round barn, you'll get your own cubby and a dedicated tasting consultant. Click for more info

 

Free Run Cellars

Free Run Winery in Southwest Michigan

Ask an oenophile her favorite Michigan wineries and Free Run Cellars is bound to be on the list. This is the playground, where winemaker Brian Carlson can experiment and create the wines he and Matt love, which tend towards traditional profiles. Brian came to Moersch in 2017 after years in Oregon, Washington, and California, which explains the drier wines I'd discovered earlier.

You won't see these wines, made with 100% Lake Michigan Shore AVA grapes, on grocery store shelves. Production is very limited, and while they send a few to Round Barn and Tabor Hill, the majority are offered only at the Berrien Springs, Michigan, tasting room.

Opening wine at Free Run Cellars tasting room in Berrien Springs, Michigan

The tasting room is beautiful, and it's even more so when you learn that Matt's best friend made the tables and Uncle Greg made the tops. They did the floors themselves. Like everything they do, the renovation was a labor of love. What was originally going to be just a paint job - at least that's what they told Dad - turned into a complete gutting and rebuild. Matt laughed when he told us "Dad said Free Run, not Free Reign!"

A visit to Free Run combines wine tastings with paired gourmet bites. Like Brian, Executive Chef Ryan Thornburg also uses Free Run as a playground, and the results are stellar. “The thing about food is, you never stop learning about it," he said. "You never get bored. There’s always something new to take on.” At Free Run, it’s “no holds barred – as long as it fits in the budgetary constraints,” he quipped.

The food tastings change based on what's available seasonally. Like the menu at Round Barn Brewery and Public House, they make sure to use local ingredients because those pair better with wines made from grapes grown in the same region. I was surprised to learn that Michigan is the largest grower of dried navy beans, and the navy bean hummus made with ramps proved that seasonal, local cuisine just tastes better. We also loved the smoked salmon deviled egg, seasoned to taste like it was served on an everything bagel; dates stuffed with manchego and wrapped in bacon; and spring rolls.

navy bean hummus made with ramps at Free Run Cellars

 

smoked salmon deviled egg, seasoned to taste like it was served on an everything bagel

 

Bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with manchego

 

Spring rolls at Free Run Cellars

 

Free Run Cellars Zinfandel

After the tasting, we ventured into the vineyard, and Brian shared that making wine in southwest Michigan is a lot more challenging than it is in the dry climate of eastern Washington. But, he likes it. After 20+ years he felt like he was stagnating. Now he's got 80 different products to keep him busy. When I asked him if he knew what he was getting into when Moersch hired him, he exclaimed "No!" without hesitation.

“He didn’t know we were buying Tabor Hill," Matt said with a grin.

Which brings us to our next destination.

Free Run Cellars Berrien Springs Epicurean Tasting Room is open seasonally from Thursday through Sunday and offers food and wine pairings. The Union Pier Tasting Room offers wine tastings only.

 

Tabor Hill Winery & Restaurant

Trying Tabor Hill wines in the vineyard

Remember when I said it was fitting that the centerpiece of Moersch Hospitality is circular? Tabor Hill Winery & Restaurant is why. In the late 70's Rich Moersch went from a career as a high school biology teacher to a career in the wine industry. About forty years later, the company he built now owns the winery that started it all for him.

The estate is set among the vineyards, and guests can take a tour of the vines, the bottling line, and the barrel room before finishing in the tasting room. As we sipped on the products of their labor, Matt and Brian talked about the vast range of wines they produce.

"We make a big range of products," Matt said, "and they’re all really good products. Whoever walks through the door can find something and walk out with a bottle."

Winemaker Brian Carlson in his element

 

Matt Moersch sharing his passion for wines at Table Hill Winery's barrel room

 

While they still produce the sweeter blends for which Tabor Hill became known ("demi-sec and demi-red pay the bills," said Matt), they're also creating bigger and bolder reds like the Meritage and Zinfandel. Both Brian and Matt love red zin, and you can tell. 

The two are also passionate about protecting the land. Their philosophy on spraying is minimalist, and they only spray when they really have to. Matt said "We don’t want to broadly kill anything so {the vines can} build up those immunities." He's so serious about the responsibility to be better stewards of the land that they'll stop buying from vendors who don't practice sustainability.

 

Matt Moersch in the vineyards at Tabor Hill

In addition to tasting a variety of wines, a visit to Tabor Hill Winery & Restaurant wouldn't be complete without dining on Chef Ryan Thornburg's cuisine. We experienced his expertise with a multi-course dinner that featured summer vegetable empanadas, potato and ramp soup, and grilled prime filet served over rutabaga puree and topped with morel butter. The sea scallops rested on parmesan grits with wild mushroom ragout and tomato and herb butter. Dessert was divine. A Balaton cherry crumble that was perfect with a glass of Round Barn's Black Walnut Creme. The latter should be a staple in any liquor cabinet or wine cellar. 

summer vegetable empanada at Tabor Hill Winery & Restaurant

 

potato and ramp soup

 

filed topped with morel butter

 

scallops

 

Balaton cherry crumble

If you can get to Tabor Hill on a Friday or Saturday, you can be wined and dined to live music.

After such a full and delicious day, we retired for the evening to the Inn at Harbor Shores, a charming Benton Harbor hotel on the water with balconies, fire pits, an indoor pool, and a bar that offers an impressive whiskey selection, including a private blend. 

 

 

More Things To Do in Southwest Michigan

If you'd like to explore more South Michigan wine, beer, and other things to do, like I did, there are many options. The towns that line the shore are overloaded with quaint, and while visiting the Moersch Hospitality stable of offerings will satisfy any palate, you can make a weekend or a week of it by exploring nearby spots. Check these out, too, and you'll see why Southwest Michigan is a delightful destination.

Mason Jar Cafe - an eclectic cafe and art gallery offering inventive cuisine, including this big, beautiful, over-loaded-with-gooeyness stuffed french toast. It's cinnamon challa bread filled with marzapone cheese and topped with berry compote and fresh fruit, and drizzled with local Flagel's maple syrup. Make reservations. You'll need 'em.

Click here to read reviews about Mason Jar Cafe, 210 Water St, Benton Harbor, MI

Stuffed French Toast at Mason Jar Cafe

 

Explore Benton Harbor, Michigan - this tiny town with a population of less than 10,000 packs a lot of punch. Stroll through to see some cool art. You'll need the walk after that epic breakfast.

Click here to find things to do in Benton Harbor

Mural in Benton Harbor, Michigan

 

Public art in Benton Harbor, Michigan

 

Silver Beach - You can make it a full day at this beach, especially if you're visiting Saint Joseph with kids. There's a pavilion with a carousel, playground equipment, volleyball, and, of course, the beach. Note that there's a parking fee because this is a county park, and there's no public parking in the surrounding residential area.

Click here to learn more about Silver Beach

Sculpture with lighthouse in the background at Silver Beach in Saint Joseph, Michigan

 

Sculpture at Silver Beach in Saint Joseph, Michigan

 

Haymarket Brewery & Taproom - In addition to having delicious beer, this Bridgman, Michigan, outpost of the acclaimed Chicago brewery has heart. As my brewster told me, they're paid a living wage so they don't accept tips; however, if you'd like to say thanks monetarily, it will be donated to their charity of the month. When I was there, the beneficiary was swmihumantrafficking.org. (You better believe I gave a hefty "tip.")

Click here to read reviews on Haymarket in Bridgman, MI

Beer flight at Haymarket Brewery & Taproom in Bridgman, Michigan

 

Greenbush Brewing Co. - Their beer is so good they had to open an annex across the street from the brewery. If you can get into the taproom for some grub with your Greenbush, lucky you. If you can't because it's too busy (which is likely), also lucky you. The annex has cheese, charcuterie, and a gigantic beer garden with seating and horseshoes.

Click here to see why Greenbush is so popular

Glass needed a refill at Greenbush Brewery

 

More Southwest Michigan Wineries

Create your own itinerary with these additional wineries:

  • Baroda Founders Wine Cellar
  • Contessa Wine Cellars
  • Dablon Vineyards Winery & Tasting Room
  • Domaine Berrien Cellars
  • Gravity
  • Hickory Creek Winery
  • Karma Vista Vineyards
  • Lake Michigan Vintners
  • Lazy Ballerina Winery
  • Lemon Creek Winery
  • Moonrise
  • Red Top Winery
  • St. Julian Winery
  • Vineyard 2121
  • White Pine Winery
  • Wolfe Creek Winery

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Southwest Michigan is a delicious destination with great wineries, breweries, beaches, and more. Check out why you should add this region to your travel itinerary. #Michigan #wineries #USA