Minnesota Grape Growers convert skeptics at Midwest Wine Stroll

Minnesota has one of the fastest-growing wine industries in the country. If you're in the habit of rolling your eyes dismissively at the mention of Midwestern wine, please be mindful of the infamous “Paris Wine Tasting of 1976,” wherein a British wine merchant held a blind tasting competition, judged by French connoisseurs, to prove his assertion that no California wine could possibly surpass a French one. Well, well: guess who won? The French judges claimed that they must have been tricked somehow, but the verdict stood.

Let this be a lesson to wine snobs everywhere. One of these days, wine snobs, you may be invited to a blind tasting where you unwittingly rate a 2010 Cannon River Marquette over a 1970 Mouton Rothschild. Then you’ll be mighty sorry you made fun of all the earnest, hardworking winemakers who were pouring samples of their wares at the Minnesota Grape Growers Association's eighth annual Cold Climate Conference in downtown St. Paul last week. I invite you to come along as I revisit my memories of the conference's wine-tasting event, dubbed the "Midwest Wine Stroll," where I made an awkward transition from skeptic to believer.

The Crowne Plaza Riverfront ballroom was overflowing with vineyard decor and colorful arrays of wine bottles. It was festive, but I wasn't planning to take the wine-tasting too seriously. Midwestern wine? It just didn't sound right.

Now, I’m not a wine snob -- I believe that a Three-Buck Chuck, properly decanted, makes a fine beverage at dinner, or cocktail hour, or during that mid-morning slump -- but the Minnesota wines I’d had in the past didn’t even taste like wine, particularly. I expected to maintain my usual level of free-floating skepticism throughout the evening, although I planned to conceal it politely.

I made my way across the lively, crowded room to the Parley Lake Winery table, where winemaker Steve Zeller had agreed to fill me in on the meaning of this unlikely gathering.

“Welcome!” he said heartily, handing me an empty glass emblazoned with the Minnesota Grape Growers logo. “You can taste some wines while we talk -- try the ‘Brianna Breeze.’” He poured me a splash of a bright white wine. Here we go, I thought. I peered at it doubtfully and took a sip.

“But this is delightful!” I exclaimed. “I thought -- well, I kind of thought this wine-tasting was going to be a joke.” It was a tactless admission, but I was disconcerted: the Brianna Breeze tasted like a nice Pinot grigio with a touch of Moscato. I knew I was supposed to dump or spit the remaining swallow into the little bucket on the bar -- I’ve seen Sideways -- but I couldn’t help drinking it. I tried to shore up my skepticism by asking about the silly name. Brianna? Come on.

“Funny story,” said Steve. “Elmer Swenson, the granddaddy of all the grapes grown in Minnesota, started breeding cold climate grapes back in the 1940s. A guy named Ed Swanson took one of Elmer’s plants home to Nebraska and developed it, and when it was ready for prime time, he asked Elmer if he could name the grape after his daughter, Brianna.”

“Aww,” I said. “That’s cute. Could I have a teensy bit more?”

“Elmer was very generous with his breeding stock,” Steve continued, pouring me another taste. “He actually didn’t breed grapes for wine, though. He was a teetotaler. But he was convinced we could grow grapes up north, and he wanted people to keep developing the plants.”

I tossed back the rest of the Brianna and he poured me a little of the Lakeside White. “How did you get into the winery business?” I asked Steve. He looked more like a businessman than a hardy-handed son of toil, but he seemed to know what he was talking about. “And I guess my question, really,” I ventured, “is why bother trying to have a winery in Minnesota? Doesn't the weather basically doom you to failure?”

Clearly, Steve was accustomed to tiresome questions from naive interlopers. He didn’t even sigh. “My roots are here, my family’s here, and I love wine,” he declared. “I don’t want to move to Napa Valley or Oregon. It’s exciting to be a pioneer in something like this. Everyone around here who’s growing grapes and making wine is a self-made, locavore enthusiast working hard to create this new product and new industry.”

I pondered this as I quaffed the Lakeside White; it was fruity and pleasant, with just the right amount of sweetness. “That’s the combination of the Brianna with the La Crescent, plus a little St. Pepin,” Steve said proudly. “The La Crescent is my favorite grape. Its DNA is similar to that of a Riesling. That grape is going places, mark my words.”

“How many different grapes do you grow?” I asked, trying to fit my mental image of Napa Valley into a Minnesota landscape, with moderate success.

“I have about 12,000 plants,” he said. “The four primary grapes grown in the upper Midwest are the La Crescent, the Frontenac gris, the Frontenac, and the Marquette. They were all developed at the University of Minnesota.”

Marquette,” I repeated. I’d heard the word several times on my way across the room; it seemed to be all the buzz. “What’s the big deal about the Marquette?”

“Here, try some,” he said. I swirled the ruby-colored liquid around in my glass and inhaled the nose, just like in Sideways. It smelled and tasted a little like a spicy Pinot noir. “Hey, that is not bad!” I said. “It tastes very similar to...wine!”

At that, he did sigh. “Look, the days of barely palatable cold climate wines are over,” he said. “In the last four years, the Marquette has really started to come into its own. Twenty-five years ago, people thought it was a joke that Oregonians were trying to grow Pinot noir grapes. Now, when you say 'Pinot noir,' you think of Oregon. It’s a matter of finding grapes that work in your particular climate.”

“Hey, I see that you’ve won some awards for this,” I said, noticing the array of bottles with medallions hanging around their necks. “And not just for the Marquette, but for lots of your wines. Could we drink to your good fortune with a little more of that Marquette, please?”

“Sure, he said. “Yup, we’re very proud that we’ve won five awards in the past five months. Our Marquette is twelve months on oak, in barrels that have staves made from Minnesota oak and heads that come from France. It’s all about the chemistry.”

“Twelve months on oak, huh?” I nodded knowledgeably. They probably said things about oak barrel staves in Sideways, but it’s been a while since I’ve seen it.

“You know, it’s fun to try all the different wines at a tasting like this,” he said, “but the best way to enjoy the wines is to pair them with foods. For example, the Marquette pairs nicely with steak or aged cheeses. And this Frontenac Rosso goes well with a spicy shrimp dish.” He poured me a bit of the red Frontenac.

At last, I got what I’d been expecting all along: a wine that was just not all that great. “Um, no offense, but this kind of tastes like dirt,” I said. “Or maybe more like a tomato that has some dirt on it. Or, wait, it tastes kind of flat and vegetable-y.”

“We prefer to say that it has cherry and black cherry notes,” he said patiently. “Why don’t you go talk to Jim Luby over there? He teaches horticulture at the U, and he can tell you more about about how the grapes were developed.” He pointed to a professorial-looking fellow who was chatting with people at the Crofut Family Winery booth.

I thanked Steve for his unwarranted graciousness and made my way over to Professor Luby, stopping to slam back a few well-advised glasses of water and some snacks. The Minnesota Garlic Fest folks had a table full of crackers, pickled garlic, and locally made cheeses, which I “paired” with whatever the Crofut Winery people were pouring into my glass.

Suddenly the loudspeaker came on with a deafening announcement: St. Paul mayor Chris Coleman was about to declare this "Minnesota Cold Climate Grape & Wine Day," in honor of the more than 600 members of the Minnesota Grape Growers Association. The conference-goers were impressed, I’m sure, but Mayor Coleman’s lengthy declaration didn’t appear to slow down their mission to taste every offering from the 27 wineries represented in the room. When the cacophony diminished, I asked Jim Luby about his role in the grape-growing scheme.

“Basically, I do dating and mating services for grapes,” he said, grinning wickedly. “I decide who’s going to hook up.” I must have looked scandalized, because he hastened to add, “I'm talking about cross-pollination. I analyze the faults in one grape and try to mate that grape with the strengths in another, so we can breed a cold-hardy, disease-resistant grape with the right combination of sugar and acidity.”

“What’s your success rate?” I asked. “Are you better or worse than OkCupid?”

“We try to get 100 seeds out of every mating,” he said. “Here’s how it works. We plant the seeds from our cross-pollinated mates. Then it takes three or four years for the plants to bear fruit, because they have to be adolescents before they can reproduce, of course.”

“Of course,” I agreed. It had never occurred to me that there was anything sexy about a vineyard, but maybe all the grape dating-and-mating action is why vineyards are such popular wedding destinations these days? It was a thought.

“When they bear fruit, my colleague Peter Hemstad tastes the grapes from every single vine,” he continued. “Some taste right, and some have a weird flavor, like tomato.”

“Aha!” I said to myself.

“Grapes that pass the ‘vineyard test’ go to the next step: we make small batches of wine in glass vessels,” said Jim. “We make the wine with a sort of neutral protocol -- no oak barrels or anything like that. Then we taste all the wines; then we make cuttings of the vines of the very few grapes that made it through the small batch test, and those are the ones we grow.”

“So, out of the hundred seeds that result from a match made by your dating and mating service, how many have offspring that make it to the cloning stage?” I asked.

“Actually, only a few of the children even survive the vineyard test,” he said sadly. “And only one in every 15,000 to 20,000 seeds results in a grape that merits an official name, like the Marquette.” He paused, and I wondered if he was taking his anthropomorphic analogy a little too personally.

“You must be a very patient man,” I said consolingly. “Do you have a favorite grape?”

“Oh, that’s like asking if I have a favorite child!” he cried. “I love them all, of course. But I suppose if I had to pick, I do love the Marquette a bit more than the others. I named it myself, and I’m very fond of the name as well.”

“It is a classy name,” I agreed. “How do you go about choosing a name for a grape?”

“Same as when you name your kids,” he said. “Well, sort of. You want the name to make a positive impression and to fit the child’s personality. With a wine, you think about how it will look on the label; it’s got to be easy to spell and easy to say. ‘Marquette’ has a French association, which is obviously a good thing for a wine. It’s all about branding, really.”

People were beginning to cluster around Jim, and I realized I was monopolizing his time. He was a bigwig at this conference, so everyone wanted a chance to chat with him. And I had lots more wine-tasting to do.

I bid Jim farewell and immediately ran into my old friend Gary Gardner, another horticulture professor at the U of M. Gary is a connoisseur of all wines from everywhere. Once Jim Luby fooled him into thinking a Marquette was a Pinot noir, though, so I guess he doesn’t know everything.

“Well, I’d been telling Jim that I thought some of the Minnesota grapes, vitis riparia, tasted a lot like the European vitis vinifera,” Gary explained. I’ll google that later, I thought, knowing that there was no way I was going to keep up with a Harvard Ph.D. on this subject, especially after about eight glasses of wine.

“Of course, our riparia have a lot of vinifera bred into them by now, so there are similarities," Gary said. "What happened was, Luby and I belong to a wine-tasting group, and one night he poured a nice red that was really good, very fruity, and I thought it was a Sonoma Pinot noir.”

“And what was it, and can I have some?” I asked.

“It was a Lincoln Peak Marquette,” he said. “And no, you can’t have any, because the Lincoln Peak Winery is in Vermont, and they’re not at this conference. But that’s an example of what’s happening with our Minnesota-bred grapes: people in other states are growing them and making wonderful wines with them.”

Gary and I made our way across the room so he could introduce me to Minnesota State Senator LeRoy Stumpf. In 2000, LeRoy and his wife Carol started a vineyard up near Thief River Falls, self-deprecatingly called “Two Fools.” A band had started to play near where we were standing in the ballroom, featuring some overly-enthusiastic steel drums, but I think what I heard Senator Stumpf say was that he was in the legislature in 1983 when the U of M first requested a grant for a formal grape-breeding program.

“I don’t think those plant breeders really knew what would happen when they requested the grant,” LeRoy shouted over the music, “but they had faith and persistence, and now we’ve got a wine industry that’s growing at 28% every year, and it’s contributed $2.9 million in excise and sales tax to the State of Minnesota over the last seven years. And it’s a huge boon to the tourism industry.”

“Impressive!” I shouted back. Just then, I spotted some friends from the soon-to-open Villa Bellezza Winery and Vineyard in Pepin, Wisconsin: owners Derick and Julie Dahlen and events manager Allison Lisk. The Dahlens have been making wine for quite some time, but their new winery and event center in Pepin is the talk of the town.

“Is this great, or what?” yelled Derick, gesturing around the room. I think the high-spirited gathering was making him feel that opening a winery was the right choice, or at least an extremely fun one. Allison agreed, but she was shouting something about the words “cold climate” and shaking her head.

“I think we should change the name of the conference and competition to “Northern Climate” instead of “Cold Climate,” I heard her say. “‘Cold climate’ sounds off-putting and makes people think it’s cold here all year. ‘Northern’ is just a region, not a temperature. Plus, with global warming, who knows?”

Everyone within earshot nodded in agreement. But it was time for me to go; I was coming down from my vitis riparia high, and I didn’t want to harsh the mellow of the happy wine geeks in the room.

Furthermore, I was beginning to realize that this Wine Stroll had created a problem for me. How was I going to maintain my pointless self-image as a skeptic if I went around trumpeting the virtues of MIdwestern wines? I mean, I actually enjoyed almost everything I'd tasted. People might think I was losing my edge.

I was going to have to sit down with a bottle of Marquette, and maybe a La Crescent, and give it some serious thought.


Photos by Miranda Lippold-Johnson

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Lu Lippold's picture
Lu Lippold

Lu Lippold is a freelance writer in Pepin, Wisconsin.



Having been to most of the wineries in the state, I can safely say that California and France do not have to worry about Minnesota wines anytime soon.  I'm not being snobby, I'm being honest.  I respect and appreciate that these people are having a go at making wines.  And not all wines have to be amazing.  But Minnesota wines can not compete with real winemaking regions.   And it bugs me when journalists claim otherwise.