Ken and Grace Evenstad dreamed of having a winery for 20 years before they acted upon it -- and almost certainly wondered what they had gotten themselves into out Oregon way.
The hilltop acreage they bought in 1989 "had just been logged and was a total mess," Grace said last week. Every autumn for the first eight years, she left the comfort of Wayzata to work as a "harvest intern." The winery was an old power plant before graduating to an erstwhile glove factory in 1994. For years, the Evenstads hand-corked and hand-labeled every bottle of Domaine Serene (named after their daughter).
And they loved every minute of it.
"We have always wanted to be heavily involved in the vineyards," Ken Evenstad said last week. "Grace started out as a gardener, so she's always had a lot of interest in growing. I'm more involved in the winemaking, not much of a botanist myself."
Actually, Evenstad is a chemist: The winery's seed money came from his Maple Grove pharmaceutical company, Upshire Smith Laboratories. But over the years, his most important lesson has come from the field, not the fermentation tanks.
"You really have to farm at 2 to 2 1/2 tons per acre and no higher to make outstanding pinot noir," he said while in the Twin Cities for a 20th-anniversary celebration last week. "You can make ordinary wine above that level, but the kind of wine I really love requires the concentration that you get from 2 to 2 1/2 tons."
To be sure, Domaine Serene doesn't make ordinary wine. The Evenstads make three chardonnays -- the 2006 "Cote Sud Vineyard" is a pure, smooth delight -- two syrahs and a viognier. But the prime focus is on pinot noir, including one of the world's few white wines made from red grapes, Couer Blanc. "We get a little squirt of the white heart of pinot noir grapes," Grace told a crowd of 120 at Meritage restaurant last week.
The vast majority of the pinots are, of course, red. And flat-out delicious. The best known offering is the Evenstad Reserve (see Wine of the Week, below), but the Winery Hill Vineyard and Grace Vineyard pinots being poured at Meritage were every bit its equal, dark and lush and silky.
The Evenstads are back in Oregon awaiting harvest, where Ken, an inveterate inventor (part of how he built his fortune), can't wait to break out one of his favorite concoctions:
The Bug Sucker.
"There's a lot of material in among the grapes [after picking] that you don't really want. Earwig bugs can be quite prevalent," Evenstad said. "So this thing is just outside the picking bin, and it has air pulling from below and a strong vacuum from above. It pulls out the dried leaves and bugs and some of the less ripe berries."
We'll take your word for it, Ken. Especially when the end result is so yummerific.