BENTON TOWNSHIP — Friends, faculty members and supporters gathered at Lake Michigan College Tuesday to celebrate a $7 million vision of hands-on wine-making.

That vision is the Welch Center for Wine and Viticulture – one that will offer an in-depth education into the art, science and business of making wine, said LMC President Trevor Kubatzke.

“This is one of a very few programs where students go from the very beginning of the chain, to the very end of the chain – from trimming and growing grapes, to bottling and watching our customers drink them,” he said before Tuesday’s grand opening and ribbon-cutting for the new building.

LMC broke ground last May for the new center at 2774 E. Empire Ave., north of the Mendel Center, at its Napier Avenue campus.

The 14,000-square-foot building is named in honor of longtime LMC supporters Mike and Lisa Welch, who gave major gifts – along with Greg and Marian O’Niel – to get the project moving, Kubatzke said.

Both couples have served LMC in numerous roles. For example, Mike Welch has served since 2002 on the LMC Foundation Board of Trustees, including two years as president, from 2012 to 2014.

“During the Foundation’s ‘Campaign For Tomorrow,’ Mike provided leadership at a cabinet member level, to raise more than $7 million, for both this center and the Hanson Technology Center,” Kubtazke said.

Celebrating a space

Other significant contributions came from former state representative and budget director Al Pscholka, who helped to secure $1.1 million in state infrastructure funding for the project, Kubatzke said.

Kubtazke also recognized LMC Board Vice Chairman Jeff Curry, who organized a campaign last year that raised funds in the Welches’ honor, “with the naming of this building,” he said.

Contributions came in from LMC friends and supporters nationwide, which helped make the center a reality, while underscoring the team effort of bringing it alive, Kubatzke said.

“We’re here to celebrate, not only a space, but the people who made it possible,” he said.

In many ways the center also builds on the work and effort of previous generations of local winemakers, according to St. Julian Winery President John Braganini.

“We now have the opportunity to recruit and educate winemakers, marketers and growers at a local level. My grandfather, father and brother were visionaries. They wanted to make great wine right here, and struggled for years to get it right,” he said.

Getting into gear

The college began the project in 2015 under Kubatzke’s predecessor, Bob Harrison, in an effort to meet the demands of Southwest Michigan’s thriving regional wine industry.

The program then operated in a temporary two-room laboratory in the Mendel Center as LMC worked to find it a permanent home.

Those efforts kicked into gear with a trip to Walla Walla, Wash., that led to LMC’s hiring of Mike Moyer as the first director of the new enology and viticulture program.

That step proved more important than anyone realized at the time, pointed out Lisa Welch.

“We just thought it was a fun trip – going with the Harrisons to taste some wine. Little did I know we were going to build a wine center here in Michigan,” she said.

Lisa Welch thanked the crowd for supporting LMC’s vision for the center, and the couple’s role in making it happen.

“This is a great place, and it’s not an understatement that this beautiful wine center would not be here without the astonishing support of each and every one of you guys,” she said.

The building features a new grape press, large tank and bottling rooms, a dry storage area and a laboratory.

There are two classrooms, three offices, a workroom, and an open commons area for wine tasting, community education classes and special events.

In 2017, Lake Michigan Vintners winery opened a tasting room in Baroda, where LMC wine students work to gain tasting room operations experience. The tasting room will likely relocate to the new Welch Center in early 2020.

A word-class winery

The program has come a long way from its temporary Mendel Center housing, said Moyer after Tuesday’s ceremony.

“It’s really amazing when we first walked into the building,” Moyer said. “It’s a really great feeling. This been a long journey, a lot of design and a lot of work, and a lot of help from the local community to make this into a reality.”

Moyer looks forward to seeing how students react once they see the building for themselves. He’s starting with about 16 students this fall.

“They’re going to see what a world-class wine facility’s supposed to look like, what a winery’s supposed to function like. It’s designed to flow according to how production works,” Moyer said. “It’s tremendous for this area, and I can’t wait to see what happens to the program.”

Grand Rapids resident Kristin Kohane is starting her last semester here this fall.

She came to LMC to make a change, after ruling out her original career choice of accounting.

“After researching online, I found this (school). I liked what they had to say about the program and figured that I could learn a lot from Mike and the crew here, and decided to start taking classes,” she said.

Portage resident Madeline Kelley voiced similar feelings, having already interned at St. Julian. She’ll finish at LMC next spring.

“I always wanted to be in the wine industry, and this (program) was the next step. There’s so many different angles here you get to experience, from going into the vineyard and being in the lab,” she said.

‘Now I can ask questions’

The importance of a facility that’s focused on wine-making as a craft can’t be emphasized enough, Hickory Creek owner Adam McBride told the crowd.

“You can have all the passion that you want, but without the technical expertise, you can easily invest a lot of money and time making high-quality, expensive grapes in a low-quality vinegar,” he said.

Cathy Bremer, of St. Joseph, seconded those thoughts.

Bremer, a former attorney and nurse, enrolled after buying a vineyard in Argentina in 2008. She started making wine there in 2011.

After awhile, though, “I realized that I knew nothing about making wine, and it was affecting my ability to sell the wine,” Bremer said. “Now I feel much more confident, being able to oversee the people in Argentina. Now I can ask questions.”

For information about LMC’s Wine and Viticulture Technology program, visit www.lakemichigancollege.edu/wine.