The drive to Waconia's Parley Lake winery was beautiful. "Very photogenic," Jenna Looney said. She loved the century-old barn housing the tasting room, and the tractor tour, and bonding with the winery's dog, Smoky.
But what really grabbed a-hold of her was the beaker.
"They brought out wine in a beaker [from a barrel of still-aging juice]. This was so great," said Looney, 27, of Eden Prairie. "You don't normally get to see the winemaker bring out samples from a beaker. That whole feeling that you're part of the process and get to provide feedback is really great."
The entire small-town experience, as Looney called it, was memorable, made infinitely more so by the day's other big surprise. "It's hard to get that ambience with really good wine, and they had both," she said. "Normally you only get a couple of good wines, but I liked all of them, actually. We bought the Frontenac gris."
Less than five years old, Parley Lake is the very embodiment of two growth spurts: in the quality of Minnesota wines and the quantity of Minnesota wineries. Twenty years ago, there were three wineries in the state; now there are two just in Waconia (Parley Lake and Sovereign Estate). Ten years ago, sampling a Minnesota wine was a crapshoot; now the odds of getting something tasty are markedly better, if still not a sure bet.
"The quality is uneven. We have a few that we can really point to and hope that we can encourage others to move up to that level," said Peter Hemstad, a University of Minnesota research viticulturist. "We've gone from a relative novelty to it being an accepted fact that we can produce good wine. People are no longer mystified by the concept."
Still, it's an ongoing, ever-uphill battle. Luring younger consumers like Looney is easier than winning over Gen X and boomer drinkers who might have had a bad experience with earlier Minnesota efforts, even if it was just one.
"It's hard to change an impression that's already been made," said Steve Zeller, owner and winemaker at Parley Lake. "If you drink a bad Kendall-Jackson chardonnay, you assume it's corked. You drink one bad bottle from around here, and it's 'Oh, Minnesota wines.'
"We don't get second chances. We sink or swim together."
A decade of promise
Until the mid-1990s, locally grown and produced wines came from cold-hardy hybrid grapes with names such as Maréchal Foch, St. Croix and Sabrevois, many of them created by Wisconsin's Elmer Swenson.
Making even passable wines from these grapes was not a job for the weak-willed. Their high sugar and high acid contents proved a daunting challenge for the vintners, and was not even possible if they had been grown improperly.
In 1996, Hemstad's U of M team released the Frontenac grape to great fanfare, but it, too, had rippin' acidity, "higher than most wine textbooks will say is even possible," Hemstad said. Making good table wine from it was a rare feat. Frontenac did, in the early years, lend itself well to rosés and dessert wines.
As it turns out, Hemstad said, the problems in the fledgling industry might have been more about viticulture (vineyard management) than viniculture (winemaking). "The grapes that do well here are high in sugar and acid," Hemstad said, "and the acid thing is an issue that has to be dealt with by the grower before the winemaker can do anything with it."
Recent table wines I've sampled indicate that growers are learning how to maximize Frontenac's potential. Ditto for Swenson's Brianna and St. Pepin grapes.
Meanwhile, truly promising grapes have been released by the same U extension operation responsible for the Honeycrisp and Zestar! apples: the whites La Crescent (2002) and Frontenac gris (2003) and the red Marquette (2006).
"I don't know if I could have been a winemaker 10 years ago," Zeller said, "because none of the grapes produced wines that you could pair with food, except Frontenac, which was so acidic it had to be sweet. The revolution is these three new grapes. They give us something to work with."
More are on the way, Hemstad said, including "a dinner white that would be kind of a poor man's chardonnay ... a big, tannic red, and we have some excellent muscats coming along."
Event planning is crucial
While the increase in the number of grapes has been incremental, the increase in the number of wineries has been exponential. There are now more than three dozen, from south of Rochester (Four Daughters) to north of Bemidji (Two Fools) and even smack dab in the middle of the Twin Cities (Warehouse Winery in St. Louis Park).
For most of them, the focus has been as much on creating the best possible experience for visitors as on crafting the best possible wines. Minnesota wines have not been outliers in the "locavore" movement and still lack a strong presence on store shelves and restaurant lists. Besides, wineries reap more revenue by selling direct to consumers, so they strive to attract as many visitors as possible, mostly, of course, in the non-winter months.
That means not only a welcoming tasting room with a friendly staff but also events: Concerts, picnics and weddings abound, joined on some wineries' dockets by murder-mystery dinners, river cruises, grape stomps, even vineyard yoga classes. Several wineries will be pouring at this weekend's Cannon Falls Wine & Art Festival.
On a recent Saturday at Sovereign Estate, bridal-shower attendees were buzzing about a dining area as three sets of parents were sampling in the nearby tasting room. (You know you're at a Minnesota winery when cans of Off! sit alongside the Corkcicle and other vinous accoutrements on the sale shelves.) Across the lawn outside, a massive grill, a couple dozen picnic tables, a 300-person entertaining tent and a softball field beckoned.
"We get tons of families. We keep drinks and cookies for kids," said owner/event coordinator Terri Savaryn. "We also have lots of corporate events, private parties. That's where we're finding a good niche. People want to have someplace elegant and not just a restaurant for these events.
"If you have the right experience, you'll come back," Savaryn said. "There's great agrotourism potential here."
Many wineries have formed alliances as "wine trails" (see above) to promote outings that could involve several stops, including some in Wisconsin. "They really do bring people out," Hemstad said. "You can do a couple of wineries, have lunch in Stillwater or New Ulm or any of these scenic towns, and do another winery or two. That's not a painful proposition for people."
Some alliances are equally homed in on what goes into the bottle. Zeller and his partners on the west-of-metro Heartland Wine Trail get together and try each other's stuff and provide honest feedback; Minnesota Nice is not allowed in the room.
"These people call a spade a spade," Zeller said, "and I'm not smart enough to figure it all out myself. This industry is a lot more collaborative than it was five years ago."
Makes sense. After all, visitors like Looney can be lured simply by the idyllic nature of a winery outing, and perhaps even buy a bottle or three. But only tasty wine at a fair price will bring them back for more.
Chances of that happening are decidedly higher than they were just a few years ago, and figure to be even higher a few years hence.
Bill Ward • 612-673-7643