Despite cold climate, East Grand Forks winery hopes to thrive
A scene out of northern California was playing out in northwest Minnesota last Saturday.
There, on a rural property southeast of East Grand Forks, sits a small building near the bank of the Red Lake River. Visitors sat on a patio while sipping wine made from grapes grown just a few hundred feet away.
The operation has been years in the making for the Halverson family, who opened Grape Mill Vineyard and Winery in June. They purposefully kept a low-profile early in order to ease into the business. But word has spread, keeping them busy on weekends.
"We know that a lot of people like wine and a lot of people would be curious," said Russ Halverson, who runs the business with his wife, Gail, and son, Matt.
Grape Mill is among a growing number of wineries in Minnesota. The Alcohol and Gambling Enforcement Division of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety has licensed 42 new wineries in the past five years alone.
Those involved in the industry cite the development of grapes designed to withstand cold temperatures and an increased interest in locally made beer, spirits and wine.
"I think most people envision the winery, sitting amidst the vines," said Tami Bredeson, co-owner of Carlos Creek Winery in Alexandria, Minn., and secretary/treasurer of the Minnesota Farm Winery Association. "I want to be immersed in the experience, from growing it to drinking it."
Despite the popularity, only a few wineries have made it into the immediate region. Bredeson said Grape Mill is unique for its high latitude.
"East Grand Forks is a very northern location for a winery, which is why you haven't seen a ton of activity up in that area," she said.
From interest to business
Russ and Gail Halverson, a potato farmer and nurse practitioner, "have always had an interest in wine," Russ said while giving a tour of the vineyard.
"When I found out that we could actually grow cold climate grapes in our area, I thought it would be pretty neat to grow a few," he said.
The Halversons planted their first grapes in 2006, and began experimenting with wine-making and ways of arranging the wood and wire structures that hold up the vines, known as a trellis. Eventually, they had about 1,700 vines.
"And we decided we needed to open a winery," Russ Halverson said with a laugh. "We can't drink all this wine."
Grape Mill wine is available in bottles to take home, but they also sell it by the glass in an indoor tasting room that's adjacent to the room where it's made. In their first two months, they've hosted everything from company get-togethers to yoga classes.
The venture hasn't been without its challenges. They initially had problems with drifting pesticides or herbicides from nearby farms, but Russ Halverson said they've worked that out with their neighbors. The biggest problem now are hungry birds sneaking past the nets protecting their grapes.
Despite those kinds of obstacles, more people are seeing wineries as commercially viable operations. That's thanks in part to cold-climate grapes developed by the University of Minnesota.
"People now have discovered you can grow grapes in Minnesota, so that's a big plus," said Irv Geary, president of the Minnesota Grape Growers Association.
Matt Clark, an assistant professor of grape breeding and enology at the University of Minnesota, said they have developed four varieties of cold-hardy grapes for making wine. The university formally launched a breeding program for wine grapes in the mid-1980s.
"Concord is probably one of the widest-planted grapes in the United States, but it doesn't grow here, it isn't hardy enough," Clark said. Cold-hardy grapes "created a new market here."
Moreover, successful wineries are helping inspire more Minnesotans to take it up, Bredeson said.
"Now people see that as financially sustainable," she said.
Grape Mill Vineyard and Winery
Address: 18696 430th Ave. SW, East Grand Forks
Phone: (218) 499-9463
Hours: Friday through Sunday, noon-7 p.m.