Minnesota’s frigid climate has its perks: ice-fishing, skiing, winter carnivals, lower real-estate prices, and the use of a one’s porch or garage as a giant walk-in freezer, to name a few. But it’s an indisputable obstacle for locals who want to make great wine.
Nan Bailly of Alexis Bailly Vineyard in the Hiawatha Valley says: “People will tell you that you can grow grapes in Minnesota. But I have been growing grapes longer than anybody and I will tell you that you can’t.” Bailly is one of the many vintners who battle year after year to sustain grape vines in the state’s harsh climate.
The Minnesota cold is perpetually challenging for wine makers, but their persistence and perseverance has built a wine industry that has obtained recognition from in international competitions. Peter Hemstad, the grape breeder at the University of Minnesota Horticulture Research Center, has been influential in the Minnesota wine industry, helping to develop many of the grapes used by Minnesota vintners. Hemstad and the University recently released the Marquette grape, a variety designed to endure harsh winters and yield Pinot Noir type characteristics. The Frontenac, Frontenac gris, and La Crescent are the other cold-hardy grapes that the University has released over the past six years.
These grapes have been significant in developing the Minnesota wine industry, but they have not come without criticism. These grapes have yet to yield consistent crops that are needed for a commercial wine industry. Bailly says that “grapes from the University of Minnesota are not up to standard.” She has tried growing the Marquette grape, but was unable to establish trunks for her vines due to the harsh cold which caused the fruit to drop. Last year she was only able to collect one pound of fruit from all of the Marquette vines that she planted. Hemstad, on the contrary, has claimed to have great success with the grape at St. Croix Vineyards in Stillwater and plans to release the wine this year.
By contrast, Bailly has successfully grown many French varietals such as Foch and Millot. These varietals were planted by her father, David Bailly, in 1973 when he founded the vineyard. She says: “I grow French grapes because I think they make better wine.” These labor-intensive grapes require burying the vines to allow them to endure the cold winters, unlike the Frontenac, which has been recorded enduring -35°F and requires no burying.
Local wine makers face challenges beyond mere weather. To be a certified winery in the state of Minnesota, the majority of the product used must be Minnesota grown. This has limited vintners from bringing in juice from other regions of the world. Many wine makers have built connections with vintners around the world and prefer to bring in juice from other growers to use in their blends or to supplement their harvest.
In the early 1970s Bailly worked in the Loire Valley of France. There she learned the fundamentals of wine making, which has paid off in subsequent years. In 2006, Bailly received an award from the VinoChallenge for the best wine in North and Latin America for her Voyageur blend, a Frontenac based wine.
Bailly says that “in order to make wine you have to know how to taste wine,” a skill that she credits to her time spent in France.
Experience notwithstanding, Bailly has found it difficult to pursue wine making due to regulations put on Minnesota wine makers. Minnesota law requires that Minnesota wine makers use at least 51% of grapes grown in Minnesota to be a certified Minnesota winery. This has forced vintners to open gift shops and host events in an attempt to economically compensate for inconsistent harvests.
Maureen and John Maloney of Cannon River Winery have found more options for making wine without bringing juice in from other areas of the world. They use varietals developed by Elmer Swenson, a grape breeder from Osceola, WI, who passed away in 2004. Swenson developed popular grapes such as the St. Pepin, Prairie Star, Brianna and the Somerset Seedless, commonly known as the hardiest cold weather grape. The grapes that Swenson developed have expanded the list of options for wine makers, but for a talented wine maker like Nan Bailly, these grapes are a limitation to her abilities.
Bailly says that she likes “wines with complexity and some sort of depth.” Grapes like the Frontenac yield a wine that is full bodied and earthy with rich dark berries in the nose and into the glass. For the aspiring wine drinker it is approachable and easily agreeable. For the seasoned wine drinker like Nan Bailly, this type of grape makes a one dimensional taste unlike the grapes of France, Italy and Napa Valley, which yield layers of flavor that develop as the wine warms and ages, creating an experience that is intricate and involved.
Bailly uses the Frontenac in a blend with French grapes to bring depth to the wine and develop the palette of those who drink her wine. She continues to produce a small amount of one hundred percent Frontenac to allow her customers to experience Frontenac by itself.
Bailly and others have worked with the climate with the resources they have to develop Minnesota wine. The industry will never birth wines of the same caliber as those of Napa and France, but they can make wine that pleases not only the locals, but also to the palettes of the experienced wine drinkers. The Minnesota industry continues to grow — it contributed $36.2 million to the state’s economy in 2007, an insignificant amount compared to the $30 billion the California wine industry generated in 2007. In terms of volume, 79,000 gallons of wine were produced in Minnesota in 2007; in California, the number was 554 million gallons. The largest vintners in Minnesota would be boutique shops in Napa Valley.
The snow will soon melt and vintners will soon return from hibernation. As they sharpen their pruning sheers the same questions will be asked again; Will there be a crop to harvest and can the vines survive another season? The answer is unknown, but for the wine maker in Minnesota, it doesn’t even matter. They are persistent and patient because Minnesota wine is beyond hard work, it is a miracle.
A Selection of Minnesota Vineyards
Luedke’s Winery: Princeton
Santiago’s Winery: Alexandria