Minnesota Wines… 81 years in the making


He was five years old when he first picked up his grandfather’s book about American wild grapes and began a lifelong interest in developing hybrid wine grapes for cold climates. On a farm near Osceola, Wisconsin, Elmer Swenson first learned about growing grapes while walking through the family’s orchards and fruit fields with his grandfather and then from a teacher who lived on the farm. 

Over the years he continued his interest in grape growing and in 1943, after taking over the farm’s operation, Swenson started his own vineyard laboratory and imported 15 French hybrid cuttings.

He spent the next twenty years experimenting with intercrossing the French grapes with local wild grapes in an effort to produce a hybrid grape that could withstand Midwest winters. Word of his experiments reached Cornell agriculturists in New York and eventually the University of Minnesota. In 1969, the University of Minnesota Horticultural Research Center asked Swenson to join its staff as a senior plot manager. In addition to his other duties, he also continued his grape experiments.

By the late 1970s, Swenson and his collaborators had successfully developed their first hybrids which they sold to vineyards in Minnesota, New York, Colorado, Norway, Sweden and Poland. It helped make possible the growth of the wine industry now in Minnesota and nearby states. Today, the University of Minnesota continues its development of wine grapes for cold climates with four sold worldwide – Frontenac, Frontenac gris, La Crescent, and Marquette.

Minnesota’s first commercial vineyard was opened in 1978 by David Bailly near Hastings, and three years later produced its first bottle of Alexis Bailly wine. Today the state has 21 commercial vineyards and wineries producing thousands of bottles of wine annually and selling them worldwide.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon I visited one of the state’s largest wineries, Cannon River Winery in Cannon Falls, Minnesota, just south of the Twin Cities. In an 1880s limestone building that most recently housed a car dealership, Cannon River Winery processes grapes from its own vineyard in huge metal vats lining the back wall. Perched on a stool nearby, winemaker Vincent Negret offered visitors samples of the winery’s newest wine, Gunflint Trail, from the small uncorked wooden keg in front of him.

“The keg is just for show,” he explained, because they don’t use wooden kegs anymore to age the wine, but big metal vats and then add wood chips for flavor.

As he filled each person’s glass, he asked, “How do you like the wine?” and told me that responses from visitors will help the winery determine the wine’s final blend before bottling. With a smoky, slightly fruity flavor, the deep red wine seemed to be a hit with the tasters that day. The flavors were intended to live up to the name of the area where winery owners John and Maureen Maloney have a cabin.

Negret comes from a family of winemakers in Columbia, South America. “My father sent me to California to train in the wine country there and then I helped run the family winery until drug dealers in Columbia ran us out,” he said. Looking for another place to work, Negret finally settled on Minnesota and was hired by the Maloneys in 2004 as their enologist.

The winery includes all of the huge equipment for pressing, processing, blending, and bottling the wine, a wine and gift shop including a few antiques, an antique bar for wine and cheese tasting, and, on this Saturday, live music.

Just six miles south, the Maloney’s 20-acre vineyard offers another kind of sightseeing experience. Perched on top of a steep hill, the vineyard overlook is a good spot for picnics and sometimes weddings. (Do bring flat non-slip shoes for the climb up the hill is very steep.) Dominating the hill is a 19th century timber frame barn that once belonged to one of the proponents of the prohibition act.

It is ironic that the barn now offers the best view of the extensive vineyard and the rolling hills of the Sogn Valley below. The vines were in full bloom the day I visited with millions of white flowers dotting the row after row of vines covering the hill below. Negret had told me the blossoms last only four days then fade to begin the process of creating the grapes that are harvested in the fall.

Open every day through the season, Cannon River Winery is located in downtown Cannon Falls at 421 Mill Street West and has its own parking lot next to the building. For information on hours and events go to www.cannonriverwinery.com or call 507-263-7400. Their website also lists places throughout the state that sell the award winning Cannon River wines including the Bootlegger’s Red Port Wine which received the 2010 Grand Harvest Award and the 2010 Tasters Guild International Wine Competition award.

The Cannon River Winery is one of 10 area wineries included on the Great River Road Wine Trail running from Prescott, Wisconsin, to Marquette, Iowa. The other nine are Falconer Vineyards, Valley Vineyard, Vino in the Valley, Maiden Rock Winery and Cidery, Danzinger Vineyards, Seven Hawks Vineyards, Garvin Heights Vineyards, Vernon Vineyards and Eagles Landing Winery. Each has its own website as does the wine trail at www.greatriverroadwinetrail.org. Many offer special events, tastings, tours, picnic areas, and things to do when you visit. Find a designated driver and wind your way down the wine trail for a day or two of fun.

For additional information on wineries throughout the state of Minnesota, get your free copy of the 2010 Minnesota Grown directory listing all 21 wineries. Go to www.minnesotagrown.com and print out the list of wineries or order the directory filled with information about more than 800 Minnesota resources. It makes summer so much more fun! ■

Cannon Falls is also the western end of the Cannon Valley Trail which runs 19.4 miles east to Red Wing through some of the most beautiful scenery in the state. A favorite with hikers and bikers, no motorized vehicles are allowed on this trail which follows the Cannon River through wildlife areas, ski runs, parks, and an archaeological preserve. It was created on the route of a former Chicago Great Western Railroad line and still includes some of the concrete posts that marked the miles along the tracks. For information and wheel passes go to www.cannonvalleytrail.com or call 507-263-0508. Cannon River Winery in Cannon Falls, Minnesota.

Phyllis Louise Harris is a cookbook author, food writer and cooking teacher specializing in Asian foods. She is founder of the Asian Culinary Arts Institutes Ltd. dedicated to the preservation, understanding and enjoyment of the culinary arts of the Asia Pacific Rim. For information about ACAI’s programs call 612-813-1757 or visit the website at www.asianculinaryarts.com.