Wine country in our backyard

Taster’s Guild wins Chapter of the Year

LAPEER — Not many people would think of Lapeer County as wine country, but that’s exactly what it is — at least to the members of the Lapeer County Tasters Guild. And this year the rest of the country has recognized the Lapeer chapter as an outstanding organization and awarded it with the Chapter of the Year Award.

Dave Ethridge, wine columnist for the Lapeer Area View, is the chapter director of the Lapeer Tasters Guild. Ethridge will travel to Grand Rapids to receive the Chapter of the Year Award on April 29 at The B.O.B.

“I’m delighted that we did (win the award),” said Ethridge. “I wasn’t even thinking about it.”

Ethridge began the Lapeer Tasters Guild in 1987 at the same time that the Tasters Guild International began. At that time, the meetings were held in Lansing. Ethridge went regularly to the meetings but the long drive began taking a toll on him.

Robert Gordon, then the director of the Tasters Guild International was present at the meeting one night, and Ethridge said, “I went up to him and I said, ‘How come there isn’t a chapter over in Flint or Lapeer, so I don’t have to drive so far?’ And he grabbed my hand and shook it and said, ‘Congratulations. You’re the new chapter director of the Flint and Lapeer Chapter.’ And that’s how it started.”

The Lapeer chapter originally had only 11 members, including Ethridge, and it met in his living room. Over time, he was able to make contacts with distributors and shop owners and convinced local restaurants to host their meetings.

Today the Lapeer chapter boasts more than 125 members and meets almost every month of the year for dinner banquets and special wine tasting events. It is the sixth largest chapter in the United States, with more members than the chapters in New York, Los Angeles, Scottsdale, San Hose or Indianapolis. The two largest chapters are centered in Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids.

“Some people tell us it’s the best kept secret in Lapeer,” said Ethridge.

Ethridge credits much of the chapter’s success to his wife and assistant director, Joni, as well as all the members in the Lapeer Tasters Guild. “Without them we wouldn’t have it.”

The Chapter of the Year Award is given annually based on several criteria, including chapter activities, participation in national events and membership, though not necessarily the largest but rather chapters that are increasing their membership. Ethridge said members from the Lapeer Tasters Guild are very active, going on national and international wine-centered trips each year. Last year a group of 17 Lapeer members went on a Danube River Cruise wine event where they sampled regional wines and visited vineyards in Budapest and elsewhere.

The wine market has grown exponentially in recent years. When Ethridge began writing his wine column, there were less than 20 wineries in of Michigan. There are currently around 80 wineries throughout the state. There is also at least one winery in every state of the union. Ethridge believes the wine market is growing as people travel more, “especially to Europe where wine is the custom. It’s a cultural thing.” Publications revealing the positive health effects of wine, particularly on the heart, have also helped increase the market for wine.

Ethridge said he will be bringing the award back from Grand Rapids and will show it at the meetings so all the members can see it. The next meeting of the Lapeer Tasters Guild is on Thursday, April 21 at Devil’s Ridge Golf Club in Oxford. The meeting will focus on Discovering Chile “Land of the Andes” and feature regional wines from Valle de Leyda, Valle Central and Valle de Maipo.

“The dinners we have are grand affairs,” said Ethridge. “And they’re a bargain.”

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