There are a raft of West Coast wineries that proudly call themselves "[Our name] Family Vineyards." Nowhere would such a brand name be more appropriate than at Woodland Hill Winery, if it weren't for that gosh-darned Upper Midwest reserve.
Mike and Katie Dickerman make the wine and do most of the physical work at the scenic winery. Katie runs the tasting room, handles the marketing and performs scores of other chores. Soon after they purchased 6 1/2 rolling acres 4 miles west of Delano, Minn., Mike, two older brothers, a nephew and a brother-in-law dug holes and drove in more than 2,500 posts.
"We both come from big families, thank goodness," said Mike with a soft chuckle. "If it wasn't for family, this would be really tough."
"We really didn't have any idea how many hours it takes to put something like this together."
There's not a trace of plaintiveness or regret in the laconic man's voice. Which might be because the (literal) fruits of the Dickermans' labors have proven uncommonly tasty.
Most of the wines at Woodland Hill -- so called because the vineyard sits on the highest point in Woodland Township -- are dubbed "semi-dry" (slightly sweet, but with nice acidity).
Among the whites, the Fountain View is a melon-laced, light wine with a lot of verve, while the Day's End has big, lovely, banana-tinged flavors. Several whites bear "seasonal" names: the riesling-like Winter Wonderland, the rich Autumn Sky and the citrus-y Summer Breeze.
Noteworthy reds include the peppery, spicy but soft Hunters Red and a plumy, merlot-like Up North red.
The Dickermans use grapes from five other vineyards, but most of the wine is from the six varieties they grow themselves: four created by local legend Elmer Swenson (Sabrevois, St. Croix, 8-2-43 and 6-16-30) and two developed by the University of Minnesota (La Crescent and Marquette).
The Dickermans' Minnesota roots go deeper, though. They both grew up in Mankato and began dating when they were 16-year-olds at Loyola High School there. After marrying, they eventually settled in Woodbury, with Katie working in cosmetology and Mike at Hutchinson Manufacturing.
When they traveled, they often found themselves at wineries, and the bug started to bite. They decided after a tour of Canadian vineyards to give the winemaking business a go. After a long search, they found "just an ideal piece of land," as Mike calls it, about 55 miles west of Woodbury.
Then came the hard work, digging holes to plant 3,000-plus vines; putting in trellises, those infernal posts and more than 10 miles of wire; building the winemaking facility from the ground up and converting a granary into a nifty tasting room.
The vines went in during the spring of 2005, and the first harvest came in the fall of 2007 (it takes vines at least three growing seasons to produce wine-worthy grapes).
Katie eventually gave up her day job, but Mike still commutes 30 miles every day to Hutchinson -- and uses almost all his vacation days during harvest time in September.
That's when the first of two key decisions is made: when to pick the grapes. "We do it together, and go on pH, total acidity, brix [sugar levels] and taste," Mike Dickerman said. "We tend to pick when they're not as [high in sugar] as some others, and it's more on taste. If they get too ripe, they get vegetal flavors in them."
After crush and fermentation comes the second major call, the actual blending of the juice. "Katie has the better palate," Mike said. "I get it close, and then she does the final blend."
So after two successful vintages, what's in the offing?
"Probably one more expansion," said Dickerman, 48. "We hope to plant about another 10, 12 acres of vines, and then it's retirement for me."
And will daughter Alana continue this family tradition?
"It's there for her to follow if she wants, but we're not trying to push her in," Dickerman said. "But she's got a pretty good nose for an 11-year-old, I can tell you that."