Science-driven Minnesota wines pioneer the unforgiving North

Science-driven Minnesota wines pioneer the unforgiving North

It’s a braid of tendrils with shriveled pink berries and saw-toothed leaves that crumble in his hand. The arctic blasts of early November have left it weary. Clark’s vineyard is brimming with 10,000 unique grape varieties, and culling this one will make room for another, potentially stronger cousin. Still, he’s reluctant to mark the plant for death because it survived last winter’s polar vortexes.

Clark heads the University of Minnesota’s grape breeding program, and his goal is to develop fruit hardy enough to withstand the misery of Minnesota’s winters. The essential idea was to mate Vitis riparia, an acid-punch of a grass-flavored grape growing wild in Minnesota, with old-world European varieties that are tasty but of frail constitution.

He does to grapes what the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel did to peas 300 years ago—cross-pollinating by hand and cloning new seedlings from cuttings—but in the year 2019 he enlists the help of mass spectrometry and DNA sequencing, technologies borrowed from modern mapping of the human genome.

It takes the U about as much take to develop a commercial wine grape as it takes to raise a child. It could be five years before a vine bears fruit. If the fruit shows potential, it’ll be cloned. Another five years pass before those clones produce enough clusters for winemaking. The most promising samples are deployed to farmers throughout the upper Midwest to perform under conditions of increasingly unpredictable adversity.

The challenges of crafting a wine region in a place where none could exist without scientific intervention are enormous.

Yet since the U began grape breeding in 1908, it’s released a handful of grapes now grown plentifully from Washington to New York. They have names like Frontenac, La Crescent, Marquette, and Itasca, evoking river towns and the icy headwaters of the Mississippi. Each iteration improves upon the last in cold hardiness, flavor, girth, and disease resistance.

The wines made from these grapes are infants in the long scheme of humanity’s winemaking tradition, which dates back to the Neolithic Revolution. Consumer tastes have already been established. The industry’s gatekeepers are Europe’s oldest winemakers, masters of a craft perfected hundreds of years before Minnesotans dared to entertain the possibility of growing wine grapes on North America’s unsparing plains. Critics’ minds are made up as to what constitutes “good” wine, a definition that almost always rejects northern varietals.

Nevertheless, Minnesota competes.

II. “Where the grapes can suffer”

Nan Bailly of Alexis Bailly Vineyard is awaiting a ruling on the legality of Minnesota’s farm winery license.

Nan Bailly of Alexis Bailly Vineyard is awaiting a ruling on the legality of Minnesota’s farm winery license.

Minnesotans have been trying to make wine in the brutal north since 1880. Yet homesteaders who tried to transplant the grapes they’d grown on the East Coast found that none could survive its peerless winters.

A German immigrant came up with a grape called Beta, which was a second-generation cross between the Concord juice grape of New York and Minnesota’s Vitis riparia. Too sour for fresh eating or winemaking, it was consigned to jelly.

The University of Minnesota began to study grapes in 1908 with humble ambitions of improving on Beta. But grape specialists were proles compared to the apple department’s heavyweights (who are responsible for the Honeycrisp) and didn’t release anything new until 1944.

Almost no one noticed. World powers were preoccupied.

The Minnesota hybrids did make an impression on a Wisconsin dairy farmer, Elmer Swenson, who’d traverse the St. Croix to attend the U’s open houses. He took some prototypes home and made crosses from them, toiling in obscurity for 25 years. When he returned to the U in the 1960s, the fruit of his life’s labor surpassed what the scientists had come up with.

Many grapes in Swenson’s repertoire, such as the Summersweet and Prairie Star, still carry the taste of the wild.

The first Minnesotan to open a winery was the eccentric Minneapolis lawyer David Bailly, who, according to his daughter Nan, wanted to work with his hands after a lifetime of working with his mind.

In 1973 he bought land down in Hastings, and put all six kids to work growing finicky French hybrids that had to be taken off the trellis, laid down on the ground, and covered with straw in winter like heirloom roses. Their slogan was, “Alexis Bailly Vineyards, where the grapes can suffer.”

Cheekily, a beret-wearing Bailly told the Star Tribune in 1977 that the French master who owned the great Chateau Mouton-Rothschild once thumbed his nose at Napa Valley for being overburdened with sunshine.

“The baron maintained that great wine can only be made when the grapes suffer from drought, storms, snow, cold, etc.,” he said. “Well, there is no place where the grapes could possibly suffer more and survive than here in Minnesota.”

In 1984, the Legislature appropriated $125,000 to establish a serious breeding program at the U. Horticulturist Peter Hemstad was hired to develop cold-hardy cultivars and kickstart a wine region. He recalls that California headhunters offered to double his salary if he’d move to Sonoma County and grow its common varieties.

While the top commercial grapes of the world were being cultivated to monocultural proportions, Minnesota offered the chance to explore the fruit’s hidden genetic diversity. Grapes have more genes than humans, which means they come in all shapes and colors imaginable and can mimic the flavor of any other fruit on the planet.

Hemstad’s debut was a black grape with blood-red juice called Frontenac, a first-generation descendant of Vitis riparia, now one of the most widely grown grapes in Minnesota.

As he picked clusters of it one year, he crushed a grayish berry on his hand. It left a smear of clear juice—a mutation potentially so profitable that word spread and someone cut the shoot nearly down to the trunk that winter, making off with the only bud in existence. A police report was filed. No one was ever arrested. Luckily, scientists nurtured a growth from the residual limb, which they quickly propagated and patented as the white wine variant Frontenac Gris.

Hemstad is now co-owner of Saint Croix Vineyards in Stillwater, which makes a white wine from La Crescent, another grape he bred with the same aromatic compounds found in apricot, tangerine, lime, and pineapple. Easy to drink, like a stern Riesling, La Crescent was what U scientists served visiting deans and dignitaries.

“We’re all familiar with Cabernet, Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot. They’re great varieties, don’t get me wrong. But it can get a little boring if that’s all you drink all your life, and every restaurant you ever go to, you pick one and just cycle through.”

“Just like Bud’s a perfectly great beer, but there are other possibilities.”

III. Real. Minnesota. Wine.

Tom Plocher examines the thickness of a grape leaf with a caliper.

Tom Plocher examines the thickness of a grape leaf with a caliper.

On the western bank of the St. Croix River, where the midafternoon sun beat down over the bluffs, Northern Vineyards Winery was a mob scene on its final weekend in business after 41 years in the heart of Stillwater.

Northern Vineyards was the state’s second-oldest winery, founded by a consortium of farmers called the Minnesota Wine Growers Co-op, which needed an outlet for its grapes. They were “Real. Minnesota. Wine,” paying unapologetic homage to Elmer Swenson’s legacy with bone-dry varietals.

The co-op members chose to liquidate because they were getting too old to maintain their vineyards, says general manager Dennis Youngquist. They couldn’t convince their kids to inherit the hard labor of growing, pollinating, cultivating clusters, thinning leaves, and pruning vines in the midst of winter to collect a harvest that must sell or go to waste.

A late May frost could wipe out an entire season’s crop. Too much rain in August could dilute the berries’ sugar content, splits their skins, and expose them to egg-laying fruit flies. Grape growers can’t can their harvest like corn. Winemakers can’t brew year-round like beer, with shelf-stable hops and a recipe. Everyone has but one shot to make a palatable vintage.

Some years Northern Vineyards would have to source grapes from out of state, but never from the East or West Coasts, where everything under $30 was starting to taste the same—like gentrification, Youngquist says.

“When people go to a store, they don’t really understand how to read a label,” he says, pulling his last bottle of Edelweiss from a private shelf and showing off its Minnesota appellation. “When you see the word ‘American’ on there, it looks really patriotic, but it just means the juice is from anywhere.”

Farm wineries in Minnesota do a lot of business out of tasting rooms attached to their vineyards, where they get to pour and sell their own wines without a distributor. As a condition of licensure, the state requires them to source a minimum 51 percent of their grapes from within Minnesota.

Nan Bailly, who has run Alexis Bailly Vineyards since her father died in 1989, considers that “protectionism,” and an unconstitutional barrier to free trade.

In a 2017 lawsuit, Bailly and Tim Tulloch of Next Chapter Winery declared Minnesota grapes to be too acidic.

Significant crop loss in recent years has forced them to purchase grapes from other Minnesota growers, which are often twice as expensive as California grapes and of lesser quality, according to the suit. They say they need out-of-state juices to improve the flavor of their wine, and to make the warm-climate styles their customers still ask for despite all local wineries do to educate people about Minnesota grapes.

Every year that they import too much of their raw materials, Bailly and Tulloch have to file affidavits and apply for waivers from the Department of Public Safety. Such an exemption has never been denied, but they argue relying on the discretionary benevolence of the state is no way to run or expand a business.

“The state needs to give us a break. Consumers too, realizing how hard it is to make wines here,” Bailly says, surveying her vineyard the morning after the fall’s first frost. She predicted most of her primary buds are already tarnished, which means she won’t have a crop next year.

“What about breweries with their Cascade hops? They’re not grown here. But Surly makes some of the best beer in the country, and I trust them to source the hops they need to make it. I’m still proud of them as a Minnesota brewery.”

Last year the federal trial court dismissed the suit, ruling that Bailly and Tulloch lacked standing because they didn’t have to choose the “farm winery” license with its unique privileges and caveats. But this summer the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals revived the case, ordering the trial court to go ahead and make a call on the merits.

To survive, most Minnesota winemakers blend grapes of many regions. They have to update their vineyards as new varieties emerge from the University of Minnesota, or backyard breeders such as the retired Honeywell scientist Tom Plocher, whose Petite Pearl is one of the most commonly grown grapes in Wisconsin.

These aren’t casual transitions. Planting a newly invented grape is a long-term investment, and figuring out the best wine to make from them is an uncharted endeavor.

Parley Lake Winery’s Steve Zeller is about as close to a purist as it gets. Down in Waconia, he makes wines that are 95 percent cold-climate varietals, many of them Minnesotan.

But he didn’t start out that way. Parley Lake used to buy Syrah from Central Valley, California, and Chardonnay from the Russian River Valley. He didn’t think people knew about Minnesota grapes, and didn’t think he had time to teach everyone who came into the tasting room.

A libertarian part of him agrees with Nan Bailly. He resents red tape and government overreach in matters that have little to do with consumer health as much as the next small-business owner.

“But you know, people didn’t come to our vineyard and winery to buy stuff that was made from grapes in California.”

Zeller eventually cut his teeth on the U’s grapes, developed just three miles from Parley Lake, and came to believe that “pioneering” went to the heart of Minnesota’s identity as a wine region. Chardonnay belonged elsewhere.

“It’s kind of a once-in-a-lifetime experience that you get an industry created from nothing,” Zeller says. “Now all of a sudden there’s 70, and winemakers from California are coming here to work for them. It’s not quite mainstream. It’s underlying. It’s definitely more cult.”

IV. A new dialect

Sam Jennings of Cannon River Winery pours samples of wine made from Brianna, a Minnesota white grape developed by Elmer Swenson.

Sam Jennings of Cannon River Winery pours samples of wine made from Brianna, a Minnesota white grape developed by Elmer Swenson. Image: Susan Du

Despite the hardships, in 2016 Minnesota wine generated more than $80 million and supported more than 10,000 jobs, according to the latest University of Minnesota Extension industry report.

In southeastern Minnesota’s Sogn Valley, where the Cannon River flows into Lake Byllesby, a 40-acre vineyard sits atop a limestone hill, surrounded by ravines that funnel the cold down.

The winemaker here is Sam Jennings, a Washington state transplant who used to work for a fine wine broker that sold first-growth Bordeaux and back-vintage bottles. He now presides over the semi-sweet Feisty Bitch brand at Cannon River Winery, which he calls the “wild west of winemaking.”

Naturally, critics are suspicious. Jennings has sent samples ad nauseum, in cases stamped “Minnesota,” to all the major wine publications. Most are so indifferent, they won’t even bother responding with a rejection letter.

Ironically, the legendary wine judge Robert Parker, whose nose is insured for $1 million, was the only one willing to give Cannon River a try. He rated its reserve red blend 87 on the 100-point scale he invented.

Jennings says taste is subjective. It’s about branding, the opacity of the bottle, the texture of the label, the ambience of the restaurant. Wine is complicated and daunting. A lot of people think their preferences reflect their discrimination and refinement, and fear being judged for making the wrong choice.

The psychology of the high-end collector market leaves it vulnerable to rampant scams. The most expensive wines in the world come from aristocratic estates the French government certified in 1855, even though the same region contains many smaller wineries selling far more modest bottles. In a famous blind tasting study, the winemaker Frederic Brochet duped enology students into thinking a white wine dyed red tasted “jammy,” like “crushed red fruit.”

“We’re not wine snobs,” Jennings says, with a sort of mad chortle. “It takes real skill to make decent wine out of the stuff we grow out here.”

“Half the time, weather’s the biggest thing we’re fighting. We triage-pick grapes every year. It’s not like, ‘The grapes are almost ready, the acidity and the sugars are almost there.’ It’s ‘Oh my god, the frost is coming, we gotta get this shit off before it rots!’”

In November, the U’s in-house winemaker, Drew Horton, went to Kansas City to judge the Jefferson Cup Wine Competition, which appraised more than 700 entries. He attends these contests to remind his palate of the world of wine beyond Minnesota.

Yet rarely will warm-climate winemakers think it necessary to keep abreast of their competition in the north, Horton admits. He was one of the exceptions, a former Santa Barbara winemaker who grew bored of imitating wines the Burgundians had already figured out. He moved to Minnesota to be among the first generation to work with its new grapes.

Horton grew up in a place where citrus and avocados grew in plenty. But it wasn’t until he arrived in the Midwest, driving through an eternity of corn and soy, that the reality of the American farm economy dawned on him. It’s harder than ever to make a living as a small farmer. As extractive corporations consolidate land and devalue crop, it’s become nearly impossible to survive on 40 acres of land the way it used to be.

“These darn cold-climate crops, whether they’re grapes, apples, you name it, give this beating heart of agriculture, which is Minnesota, a way to diversify their enterprise and enhance the value of their land,” Horton says.

A mature vineyard could produce three tons of grapes an acre, and the minimum a winemaker will pay for Minnesota grapes is $1,500 a ton. That’s $4,500 an acre of fruit, or $45,000 worth of wine—far more than the price of beans. Every winery that opens a tasting room creates a dozen local jobs, state and federal tax revenue, and a reason for city slickers to visit the open country, stay in small-town hotels, and fill their gas at a local pump.

For now, no one thinks of wine as greater Minnesota’s raison d’etre. A lot of startup wineries host concerts and weddings, doing all they can to keep the business afloat as Minnesotan tastes develop.

Every winter, the Winery at Sovereign Estate drapes Christmas lights over all 50 acres of its vineyard, where Marquette, La Crescent, and Frontenac Gris grow on a south-facing slope on the north shore of Lake Waconia.

Winemaker Ben Banks’ hope is that a decade down the road, young adults will look back on the photos they took with their parents and think of Sovereign Estate as part of their Minnesota culture.

Just as Lake Waconia’s prized walleye is meant for pan-frying rather than sushi, Banks believes that Minnesota’s grapes are destined for something other than old-world flavors. The climate yields certain clues as to what that might be, he says. Minnesota grapes have inherently stronger, fruit-forward aromatics. They have higher acidity, so wines will be crisper on the palate. Lower tannins means they won’t be as chalky, astringent, or parching.

“That to me means the wines want to be bright. They don’t want to be too earthy. They would rather be fresh fruit, and don’t want to be overwhelmed by oak.”

But if the Minnesota appellation means anything in specific, Banks doesn’t know—yet. Should the region ever develop a distinct wine dialect, it can’t be forced, he says, just as consumers’ minds won’t change overnight.

“You engage people as they’re ready. There are a lot of wine regions in the country that have bootstrapped the industry from nothing,” Banks says. “It takes about 25 years for that to happen, because almost a whole generation has to be born into it and say, ‘This is who we are, and we like it.’”


Susan Du  Food & Drink


Osmo Vänskä – Music Director, Minnesota Orchestra

Osmo Vänskä – Music Director, Minnesota Orchestra

Osmo Vänskä, the Minnesota Orchestra’s tenth music director, is renowned internationally for his compelling interpretations of the standard, contemporary and Nordic repertoires. He has led the Orchestra on five major European tours, as well as an August 2018 visit to London’s BBC Proms, and on historic tours to Cuba in 2015 and South Africa in 2018. The Cuba tour was the first by an American orchestra since the thaw in Cuban-American diplomatic relations, while the five-city South Africa tour—the culmination of a Music for Mandela celebration of Nelson Mandela’s centennial—was the first-ever visit to the country by a professional U.S. orchestra. He has also led the Orchestra in appearances at New York’s Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, Chicago’s Symphony Center and community venues across Minnesota.

Explore the 2019-20 Season

Osmo Vänskä will become the new Music Director of the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra next year. He will step down from his position as Music Director of the Minnesota Orchestra when his contract expires in 2022, but will maintain positions with the Lahti and Iceland Symphony Orchestras.

The previous Music Director, Myung-Whun Chung, departed in 2015, and the orchestra appointed both Markus Stenz as Conductor-in-Residence and Thierry Fischer as Principal Guest Conductor in 2017.

Vänskä has won Gramophone Awards with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra for recordings of Sibelius’s music, including the Violin Concerto (with Leonidas Kavakos, 1991), the Fifth Symphony and En Saga (1996), and a programme of orchestral works called ‘Rondo of the Waves’ (2003). His recording of Sibelius’s Symphonies Nos 3, 6 and 7 with the Minnesota Orchestra was shortlisted for a Gramophone Award in 2017. And with the Minnesota Orchestra Vänskä has produced a highly regarded Beethoven symphony cycle for BIS.

Explore the 2019-20 Season

Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra

Kimber Olson: Bound by Nature/Art from the Lathe – St. Paul, MN

Kimber Olson: Bound by Nature/Art from the Lathe – St. Paul, MN

Bound by Nature is an exhibition of sculptural wool art by Kimber Olson inspired by symbiotic partnerships in woodland environments. The exhibition is complemented by Art from the Lathe, featuring sculptural work in wood from the AAW permanent collection.

Mutuality abounds in woodland environments. It also explains why an exhibition of textiles in a venue that specializes in wood art may not be as unlikely a prospect as it seems. The AAW Gallery of Wood Art will host an exhibition of wool sculptures that are premised on mutuality, a type of symbiotic relationship where two distinct species work cooperatively to the benefit of both. Kimber Olson’s textiles reference organisms like lichens, mycorrhizal root networks, and more. Lichens are made up of algae and fungi. The algae benefit the fungi by providing nutrients through the process of photosynthesis, and the fungi provide protection and humidity for the algae to thrive. Organic materials are at the core of woodturners’ and Olson’s art. Trees are the source of art from the lathe. Wool is the principal material in Olson’s art, however, the works are thematically tied to woodlands. Organic, sustainable and biodegradable — wool is an ideal material for art that explores ecological processes. Olson’ art includes traditional and nuno felt, a process in which cloth and wool are combined to produce highly textured surfaces evocative of living organisms. And in a nod to the woodturners, Olson integrated wood into some of her works. Kimber Olson aims to deepen understanding of how nature works and inspire commitment to the environment through her art. Infusing traditional hand processes with contemporary twists, Olson explores organic processes to mine themes of temporality, interdependency, and regeneration. Bound by Nature was made possible by a 2017 Artist Initiative grant Kimber Olson received from the Minnesota State Arts Board.

Showing through Sunday, December 8 2019

American Association of Woodturners’ Gallery of Wood Art

Visit St.Paul

‘Sioux Chef’ eatery, historic mills to anchor new Mpls. riverfront project – Minneapolis, MN

‘Sioux Chef’ eatery, historic mills to anchor new Mpls. riverfront project – Minneapolis, MN

This rendering shows an open green-space and stairs that will let visitors reach the riverfront from 1st Street when the Water Works project is finished in 2023.
Courtesy of HGA Architecture
A $30 million revitalization project on the Mississippi River will surface long-buried relics of the city’s milling history, host a new Native American restaurant and add park space near the Stone Arch Bridge. The restaurant will be the first for Sean Sherman, the so-called “Sioux Chef,” who has won a James Beard award for his advocacy and revival of Native American cuisine. It’s scheduled to open in the spring of 2021. Sherman noted the site, formerly the site of the Occidental, Columbia and Bassett mills on the riverfront, has a long historical link to food.It was most recently the site of a former riverfront Fuji Ya restaurant, vacant since 1991. He said it has an even more ancient link to Native American culture at the Mississippi River’s only waterfall. “It’s just something, I think to have the indigeneous perspective on this waterfront, to have some of the histories that go much much deeper than the city … right here in front of a sacred Dakota area,” Sherman said during a groundbreaking ceremony.
“Jay’s Longhorn” Film Screening & Panel Discussion – St. Paul, MN

“Jay’s Longhorn” Film Screening & Panel Discussion – St. Paul, MN


Jay’s Longhorn was the epicenter of the Minneapolis punk rock and indie rock scene in the late 1970s. At a time when the music scene was dominated by Top 40 cover bands, a group of punk rock visionaries-led by Andy Schwartz, former publisher of the New York Rocker-scoured the city in search of a place that would welcome the New Wave.

The Suicide Commandos, Flamingo, Curtiss A, and The Suburbs found a home at Jay’s Longhorn, which also served as the launchpad for Hüsker Dü and The Replacements and the preferred venue for touring acts like Elvis Costello, The B-52s, and The Police.

Join Sound Unseen for the St. Paul premiere of the film Jay’s Longhorn. A Q&A with director Mark Engebretson and special guests will follow the screening.

“Jay’s Longhorn” Film Screening & Panel Discussion with Local Musicians

Minnesota History Center, St. Paul
Tue., Oct 22, 2019, 7:00 pm – 9:30 pm


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