Science-driven Minnesota wines pioneer the unforgiving North

Dec 11, 2019 | people/passions

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




Recent Posts

Shop Share Gallery











Pin It on Pinterest

Share This