By Ayana Bryant-Weekes
The giant slide, conservatory, aquarium, museum, casino, and brand new Indy Car racetrack - attractions that make Belle Isle a classic Detroiter’s get-away. In the land of Lions, Tigers and Coney Dogs, two local businessmen are planning to add a vineyard and winery to that Belle Isle Park experience. The initial idea for “North America’s first Urban Vineyard” came across the desk of Gov. Rick Snyder in 2012 and he briefly mentioned it in a keynote speech for the Mackinac Policy Conference. Since then, it seemingly remained an interesting concept.
John Burtka, president of Detroit City Cellars, and partner Blake Kownaki, have revived the pursuit of the 10-acre vineyard that would sit on Belle Isle’s Southeast corner (near Lighthouse Pointe) in addition to a wine tasting space and restaurant that would ideally occupy the old casino building. Completely open to the public via existing walking trails, this new urban vineyard will sit on “one of the best spots in the state to put a vineyard.” Burtka had the island’s soil analyzed and tests determined Belle Isle to be an ideal microclimate. The thought of a Midwest-based vineyard off the coast of the Detroit River is somewhat perplexing yet oddly intriguing.
Ron Olsen, Chief of Parks and Recreation for the DNR, expresses a faint interest in the proposal. “It’s a proposal to consider but one that doesn’t exactly fit into the master plan for Belle Isle right now.” The Friends of Belle Isle aren’t exactly thrilled with the idea of a Detroit Vineyard either. They feel the vineyard could jeopardize the historical prestige and recreational use of the island, and take away from the city skyline view and walking trails citing grapes being an invasive species as the driving concern. My guess is that there will be a very slim chance that rogue grapevines will become that much of a problem.
On the up-side, Burtka hopes to bring light to the local produce industry with his plan for Detroit’s Urban Vineyard. “I don't want to make wine here in Michigan with grapes grown in California. On top of that I want to make Detroit wine with Detroit-produced fruit."
Despite the current ban on alcohol consumption at Belle Isle, the passive enforcement will allow a picnic featuring a glass of Chardonnay or two.