Discovering Minnesota Wines

Is Minnesota the Next Sonoma Valley?
By Charli Mills

Sandy soil presses into my Keen sandals as I stand among the oldest commercial grape vines in Minnesota. I am stalking the rising sun to capture a glimpse of grapes at daybreak. The sky is already alight with streaks of orange and pink when the crow of a rooster reminds me that this vineyard is an anomaly among corn and soybeans. The road sign directing visitors to this particular swatch of vineyard is surrounded by predictable stalks of corn. No doubt that this is Midwestern farmland. Come winter, frozen ground and drifts of snow will plunge the landscape into legendary severity. I am amazed as I linger among twisted vines that have survived oppressive humidity and below zero temperatures for some thirty-three years. In fact, these magnificent twining plants have surpassed mere survival-they are fertile with broad jagged leaves and clusters of ripening fruit. My pursuit to define Minnesota wine has led me to this morning, seeking to connect to a burgeoning regional industry that is as captivating as our romanticized views of the bold voyageurs who embodied the amalgamation of the old and new worlds.

Voyageurs, the French Canadians who paddled birch-bark canoes into the Great Lakes region, trading European staples for native fur pelts, make a fitting metaphor for wines from a climate typically considered too harsh to grow traditional wine grapes. While native varieties of grapes have survived in Minnesota, they do not produce quality wine. There were, of course, the traditional fruit wines developed by farmers. But these were only bottled for their own tables. Despite the challenges, local grape growers, farmers and winemakers have pioneered in an unlikely region, combining old and new world harvests to produce award-winning wines.

Alexis Bailly Vineyard, the oldest in Minnesota, has earned over 45 national honors. It also carries on the namesake of the family’s very own voyageur ancestor, Alexis Bailly. Nan Bailly, second-generation winemaker at ABV, is no stranger to pruning shears, casks, or hardship. Growing up in the shadow of her father David Bailly’s dream to create a new viticultural region taught her a truism of the French winemakers: in order to make good wine, grapes must suffer. The family originally planted old world vines known for their wine-producing quality, but they were not enduring of the harsh climate. The reality of growing such varieties in Minnesota pressed the Bailly family to adopt such laborious methods as protecting the vines by removing them from their trellises after harvest and burying them in the dirt. “I’ve been growing grapes for 30 years,” Nan says, “and I’ve had to replant five times.” Grapes do suffer in Minnesota: winter freezes the vines, hail damages budding fruit, and prolonged heat stresses the plants. But for all their suffering, Nan understands that tending to the right grape can make her task as winemaker easier.

Simply put, Nan is a good winemaker. She learned to love the lifestyle working her father’s vineyard as a kid and she mastered winemaking in France, returning home from the Old World with a traditional French recipe for Ratafia. Considered a fortified red dessert wine, Bailly’s Ratafia gives off a heady scent of oranges, herbs, and spices. It is warming to sip on a cold autumn day and it brings out the best in a hand-made truffle. It’s one of those traditional wines that differs from region to region, reflecting the qualities of place. Bailly’s newest release is aptly named Voyageur. It is ABV’s unique expression of combining the vineyard’s oldest vines with its newest plantings. It also demonstrates Bailly’s ability to create a linear wine from bouquet to finish-the kind of wine consumers expect to taste.

The newer plantings at ABV include cold-hardy vines developed by the University of Minnesota, which established a formal breeding program for wine grapes in the mid-1980s. Combining 100 years of research with that of pioneering viticulturist Elmer Swenson, the university ascended as a world expert in cold-hardy varieties of wine grapes. Swenson spent a lifetime developing varieties to withstand extreme cold yet produce a quality wine. One challenge is agricultural: to grow a grape that can survive 20 below zero. The other is production: to create quality wine. The vine of the Frontenac grape (first introduced by the University of Minnesota in 1996) has fruited after surviving 33 degrees below zero, yet winemakers have to overcome the grape’s high acidity. While challenging, the Frontenac has proven versatile in capable hands and has thrust Minnesota into a promising viticultural region only dreamed of by visionaries such as David Bailly and Elmer Swenson. The new voyageurs of the day are rendezvousing.

In 1978, when ABV released its first wine, it was the lone outpost to an industry yet to come. Today, due to the innovative spirit of Minnesota grape growers supported by a strong University of Minnesota program, there are 23 commercial wineries and vineyards. Fieldstone Vineyards, 12 miles southeast of Redwood Falls, is one such newcomer. In a flat expanse of prairie where the tallest mark on the horizon is a grain silo, the Reding Century Farm opened its winery in 2003. Eldest of the family-owned business is Don Reding who remembers milking cows in the circa 1930s barn that now serves as a tasting room. Yet, some things have not changed. Reding jokes that on Ladies Night, “What happens in the hay loft stays in the hay loft.” Another expression of humor is found on a bottle of Fieldstone wine labeled “Wine-ing Farmer.” You can tell that Reding is enjoying this new enterprise, growing hybrid vines of Frontenac, La Crescent, Frontenac Gris, and Marquette in fields that once yielded only corn and soybeans. Reding’s son-in-law Charlie Quast understands that these hybrids are unusual grapes, but Fieldstone has a naturally talented winemaker in partner Mark Wedge. Quast is confident that, “Out of our 14 wines there will be at least one style you will like.” He has hopes that Minnesota wine will be the economic boost needed in rural areas.

Vincent Negret, Cannon River Winery

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Don Reding, Fieldstone Vineyards

If the local market continues to build, growing grapes will be an agricultural boost. Northern Vineyards, founded in 1983 as the Minnesota Winegrowers Cooperative, grows most of its grapes in small vineyards across southern Minnesota. The winery itself is set in scenic Stillwater. Crofut Family Vineyards is the first vineyard to grow grapes in Scott County. Walking the vineyard with owner and winemaker Don Crofut revealed the value of growing good grapes. Crofut knows the vines by sight and easily named off each row of hybrids. He doesn’t hesitate to pluck a handful of grapes to taste the development of the fruit. His expert palate can already name the notes these grapes will develop as wine. My novice tongue could only tell that I was eating wine. Crofut went on to describe his work in the vineyard, combining different hybrids at the vine as though he’s making wine at the soil level. When you consider the time it takes to develop a vine that won’t die in the winter, the four years it takes to bear fruit, the ten years it takes the vine to mature, and the process of crushing, aging, and bottling grapes, you have to marvel at the patience of the grape grower. One day, Crofut will produce his own legacy, a Crofut vine. In the meantime, he will continue to harvest with friends and rely on his grape growing skills to lend to the quality of the wine he will finally get to sell next year.

Minnesota wines can also mean an economic boost to existing fruit farmers ready to join the experience. Consider the artisans of Forestedge winery. Paul and Sharon Shuster, both crafters in wood, poured the foundation of their dream winery back in 1978. They were convinced that they could make commercial wine out of Minnesota fruit. In 2000 they, along with partner John Wilmo, released 5,000 bottles of pure fruit wine and sold out in six weeks. Shuster likes the idea that this venture is a local endeavor sustaining a community’s economy. They buy black currants from Hastings, strawberries from Park Rapids, and pay local grandmas and kids good money to pull rhubarb. Shuster says that some of their wines taste like you would expect; strawberry wine has a definite strawberry nose and finish. But wines like their signature rhubarb can be very similar to a dry Riesling and blueberry wine is reminiscent of a merlot. While Forestedge has won national awards, Shuster is most proud of their recent award for Best of Show at the Twin Cities Food and Wine Experience. As Shuster put it, “That one means more to us because it’s local.”

In addition to agriculture, part of the boost to rural Minnesota will be the tourism that local wineries and vineyards are creating. Like the voyageurs whose travels eventually sparked the journey of a nation, local wineries and vineyards are creating a mystique others want to experience. Three Rivers Wine Trail explores six wineries and one vineyard/nursery all along three waterways: the St. Croix, Minnesota, and Mississippi Rivers. The journey itself is a beautiful ride into river valleys, bluffs, and countryside that is like a calming balm to the stress of modern life. Each destination captures the romance of the vineyard with trellised vines, tasting rooms, and special events. Events range from bring-your-own picnics to bluegrass music to vineyard tours to actual grape stomping. Each season offers opportunity to discover: a new taste of the latest vintage in spring, a tour of the growing grapes in summer, a celebration of the harvest in autumn, and the chance to purchase unique wines as holiday gifts in winter. Three Rivers Wine Trail of Minnesota can be found online at

Consider also, that there are myriad journeys to take in addition to the newly designated wine trail. Mix and match your own destinations and tours, taking in bike trails, fly-fishing, and antiquing along the way. Often the wineries will have excellent suggestions for dinner or you can even consider staying in a rural bed and breakfast. Remember, too, that there are certain expectations at each tasting room: ask if there is a fee, know it is okay to swish and spit (locate the proper basin first), mind your alcohol intake, and leave the glass behind.

Whether you marvel at the agricultural feat represented by the development of cold-hardy wine grapes, or simply enjoy the character of our own local wine country, know that those in this new local industry also seek to earn a reputation for Minnesota wines. As Cannon River Winery’s master winemaker Vincent Negret puts it, “This [industry] is for real. Make it or break it. It’s important for us to start winning competitions.” Negret is a third-generation winemaker from Columbia with a degree in Viticulture from Fresno State. Escaping chaotic pressures in his native Columbia, Negret found employment in Minnesota as a winemaker. He landed in Minneapolis during a blizzard, thinking, “What planet have I come to?” After the shock of snow passed, Negret fell in love with Minnesota and hooked up with Cannon River Winery owners John and Maureen Maloney as they began developing their business. You can see Negret at work because there is no divider between the tasting room and winery located in the old Lee Chevrolet Garage on Mill Street in Cannon Falls. His hand-crafted wines are already gaining attention for Cannon River Winery. Other budding wineries are also already displaying medals and blue ribbons that set the expectation for quality.

Back at the Alexis Bailly Vineyard, where grapes suffer and winemakers continue to lead the state in awards, I am still waiting for dawn. I was not aware how slowly the sun actually rises until I took the time to slow down and watch. It represents a mere fraction of the patience a winemaker must nurture. As I stand here waiting for the glowing orange globe to crest the tops of the trellised vines, I understand the beauty that draws us in to fuse with the land under our feet. I have tasted this beauty in a grape, found its essence in a wine glass, and feel grateful that a handful of new voyageurs have descended upon Minnesota.

Many of Minnesota’s wineries and vineyards are open to the public for wine sampling, tours, even vineyard picnics and harvest parties. Find out more by going to their websites. Or, if you’d rather stay home and sample, many of these wines can be found in your local wine shop.
Alexis Bailly Vineyard, Hastings

Brush Wolf Winery, Alexandria

Cannon River Winery, Cannon Falls

Carlos Creek Winery, Alexandria

Crofut Family Winery & Vineyard, Jordan

Diamond Ridge Winery, Peterson

Falconer Vineyards, Red Wing

Fieldstone Vineyards, Morgan

Forestedge Winery, Laporte

Goose Lake Farm & Winery, Elk River

Minnestalgia Winery, McGregor

Morgan Creek Vineyards, New Ulm

Northern Vineyards, Stillwater

Saint Croix Vineyards, Stillwater

Scenic Valley Winery, Lanesboro

Two Fools Vineyard, Plummer

WineHaven Winery, Chisago City

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