Vineyards beat harsh winters, are now multi-million dollar industry in Minnesota
STILLWATER, Minn. -- When Alexis Bailly Vineyard in Hastings and Northern Vineyards in Stillwater opened the first wineries in Minnesota in the mid-1970s, the concept was astounding. Minnesota's harsh, unpredictable climate made it difficult to g...
STILLWATER, Minn. -- When Alexis Bailly Vineyard in Hastings and Northern Vineyards in Stillwater opened the first wineries in Minnesota in the mid-1970s, the concept was astounding.
Minnesota’s harsh, unpredictable climate made it difficult to grow reliable wine-worthy grapes, and only a few followed the pioneering vineyards’ lead.
Thanks to recent horticultural breakthroughs, however, wineries are popping up across the state, setting Minnesota on track to becoming a winemaking region. Today, the state is home to 60 wineries, compared with just six in 1999.
“It’s been a learning curve. Once grapes were consistent and could survive from year to year, you started to see more vineyards,” said Irv Geary, president of the Minnesota Grape Growers Association. “That’s when the industry really started to take off. Today, we have a lot of high-quality wines.”
Wine making in Minnesota is now a multimillion-dollar industry. The increasing number of wineries also has prompted local governments to grapple with licensing, zoning and other regulatory issues.
For decades, researchers worked on cold-hardy grapes that could withstand the Midwestern climate.
The late Elmer Swenson, considered one of the area’s most famous grape-breeding pioneers, started intercrossing French hybrids with native grapes from his 120-acre Osceola, Wis., farm as early as 1943, according to the Minnesota Farm Winery Association.
Swenson eventually joined forces with researchers at the University of Minnesota, and in 1978, they engineered two cold-hardy grapes, the Edelweiss and Swenson Red.
Swenson is credited with other grape varieties, including the St. Pepin, La Crosse and Prairie Star. The U also would introduce other grapes, including Frontenac varieties that continue to be widely used.
It was in the 2000s that more breakthroughs in commercial winemaking surfaced, Geary said.
The U started to focus not only on grape hardiness, but also on palate-friendly varieties for wine making. In 2002, the U rolled out the La Crescent white wine grape, which was soon followed by the widely used Marquette red wine grape.
“That really changed things. Grapes had been bred here before then, but they weren’t really great wine grapes, and it was really hard to make good wine out of Minnesota,” said Geary, noting that Minnesota wines now are winning awards in high-profile national competitions. “They’re not from California or New York. They’re Minnesota wines. That’s a testament to the quality of wines we’re making today.”
For winemakers, having more grape varieties that can survive a Midwestern climate has been a long time coming.
Geary, who is also a winemaker at Wild Mountain Winery in Taylors Falls, attributes the horticultural innovations to why more people have been willing to take on the financial risk and the hard work of opening a winery.
“Back when Alexis Bailly and Northern Vineyards started, they would have to bury the vines at the end of every season so they could survive the winter,” Geary said. “Every spring, they would dig it out and put it back on the trellis. That’s an amazing amount of work. No one was going to do that and that’s why there were only two wineries in the state.”
For Nan Bailly, who is the second-generation owner of Alexis Bailly Vineyard after her father, David Bailly, founded the business, the innovations mean more diversity.
The French grapes that Nan Bailly’s father first planted in the 1970s have long been the backbone of the business - but new varieties, such as Minnesota and California grapes she also carries, have let her expand wine production.
Still, wine making can be a gamble in other ways.
“Winter is still very, very difficult. I can’t guarantee I can get a crop out of all the grapes every year,” Bailly said, adding that last year’s wet and cool summer allowed some grapes to thrive, while others did not. It also made for some grapes that were not as sweet.
“The circumstances - the climate, the composition - changes every year. You have to adjust,” she said.
Bailly added that there is a small window from when grapes are picked in the fall to the winemaking process that follows:
“The thing about wine making is you only get one chance a year to make it. It’s not like, say, at a brewery, where you can go in, and if something went wrong, you can do it over the next day.”
A June 2013 U study shows wine agritourism is a multimillion-dollar industry. In 2011, grape-growing and winery businesses contributed $59 million in economic activity.
In 2002, there were 200 acres of grapes in Minnesota. By 2010, that number totaled 1,500 acres, according to Geary of the Minnesota Grape Growers Association.
While state laws addressing farm wineries have kept pace with the growth - in order to hold a farm winery license, the state requires a person to have an operational farm and a minimum of 10 acres of land, and growers must also grow their own fruit, which can include grapes, apples and rhubarb - some local governments are addressing issues for the first time.
“The most difficult part of the Minnesota wine industry is getting through your local municipality,” Geary said. “Those type of requirements hang people up more than anything else when they want to open a winery.”
Dave Beckstrom and his wife, Kathy, have put on hold the winery they want to open on their 30-acre farm in Isanti County.
Currently, there is a county moratorium on agritourism events, and the county is drafting an ordinance addressing agritourism issues, such as zoning and setbacks.
“We planted our vineyard three years ago with the intention of opening a winery,” Dave Beckstrom said. “Our lives have been on hold while things get sorted out.”
Beckstrom, who is on the county task force charged with drafting the ordinance, wants to make sure that it is not so restrictive it discourages opening a winery. He sees the growth of wineries as having a large impact at a time when family farms are starting to disappear.
“It makes it easier for young people to get into farming,” he said. “You can plant on 5 acres and it’s not a huge expense.”
At the same time, he wants to address neighbors’ concerns about whether a winery would bring noise or traffic to the area.
“My job on the task force is to change perceptions and educate people about wineries. There seems to be this perception that wineries might disturb the surrounding neighborhood,” Beckstrom said. “In most cases, wineries are pretty quiet. I look at them as a positive thing for the community, and that’s what I’m hoping to get others to see as well.”
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