Back in the early 70's, before the farms known as Fenn Valley Vineyards were purchased, founder Bill Welsch, having virtually no grape growing experience, traveled to the various repositories of viticultural knowledge of the day to learn how to select a good vineyard site. Everyone said that we would need a large body of water on the windward side if we were going to grow the cold tender European grape varieties that make great wine.
The traditional European grape varieties, such as Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Merlot, and Pinot Grigio originated in Western Europe (France and Germany) where the climate is under the strong influence of the Atlantic Ocean. More specifically, the winter minimum temperatures in Western Europe are not as cold as the winter minimum temperatures at this latitude in North America. And since these European grape varieties have grown for the last 10,000 years in the milder climate, they do not have the ability to withstand the cold temperatures that we experience in the dead of winter. In fact, they begin to suffer damage when exposed to temperatures below +10°F and they begin to die when exposed to below zero temperatures. In short, if these European grape varieties are exposed to the cold of Wisconsin and Iowa in January, they would be killed to the ground.
Lake Michigan is a deep body of water that does not freeze over in the dead of winter. It may freeze a few miles off shore, but there is still 50+ miles of open water between here and Wisconsin. When the cold air masses drift across the lake in January and February, the open water warms the air, moderating the air temperatures along this shore. If it is -10°F in Wisconsin, it will be +10°F here, and 0°F 20-30 miles inland to the East. Thus, there is a narrow band right along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan where these cold tender grape varieties can be successfully grown.
We call the weather moderating effect of a large body of water the "Lake Effect". Most people who live around here know the Lake Effect as heavy winter snowfall, which is the result of picking up moisture as the air passes over the water. But we know the Lake Effect as milder winter temperatures. And, because it enables us to grow the cold sensitive wine grape varieties which make the wines you enjoy, or as we say, it's "The Lake Effect Everyone Loves."
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