Love rekindled among the vines for Minnesota natives

  • Article by: BILL WARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 9, 2014 - 2:46 PM

Two college sweethearts from Minnesota renew their relationship in Napa Valley.

College sweethearts Tom Kalbrener and Charlotte Wolter rekindled their romance after 36 years.

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There’s something about wine country that brings out the romance. And it’s not just the wine.

Thousands of people spend their honeymoons or take regular just-the-two-of-us vacations there. The number of weddings staged at vineyards is rising almost exponentially, even in Minnesota.

As it turns out, a romance can also be rekindled in a place like Napa Valley, for folks like Charlotte Wolter and Tom Kalbrener.

The Minnesota natives dated for three years at the University of Minnesota before going their separate ways — for 36 years. Now they’re living together in an 1864 Victorian house and working in the wine business, she as a harpist who has played at countless vineyards and other wine-themed events, he as the senior tour guide at Silverado Vineyards.

While Wolter headed to California after college, Kalbrener stayed in St. Paul, working for the Waldorf Corp. When that company was sold in the mid-1990s, he started making the transition to consulting work.

“When you do that, you need to make a lot of contacts,” he said over a glass of tasty sauvignon blanc in the Silverado tasting room. “So I spent a long time calling a bunch of people I went to college with, and I was trying to find Charlotte. This was 1997, and search engines were, well, it would take about 40 seconds now. But I found someone with the same last name and called him, and he said Charlotte was recently widowed and probably would like to hear from me.

“So I extended a call of condolence and thought that was that. And then she called me back,” Kalbrener said. “It was really quite remarkable how much we still had in common and how much feeling we had for each other. On our first date we walked around the campus at the U and ate dinner in Dinkytown. There was a lot of revived chemistry there.

“We did some courting back and forth until my frequent-flier miles were gone, and then I flew out here to live with her.”

Wolter had lived in Napa since the late 1960s, when “there was one dinner house where you could get a good steak,” she said, and grapes were not even the primary crop. “This was stone fruit country,” Wolter said, “and coming from Minnesota, seeing a peach tree in full growth was like looking at a Christmas tree.”

Eventually, she reacquainted herself with a childhood passion: the harp. She had started playing at 13, working with “a lovely, lovely teacher,” Bernice Elefson. But she gave it up in college and didn’t really start back until her own children were coming of age.

She’s played in duos, trios and quartets but has done much of her work solo. And outdoors, at scores of wineries over the years. “A lot of Minnesota harpists refuse to play outside because the weather is unpredictable, plus the humidity and mosquitoes,” she said. “Out here it’s more a matter of people not knowing how difficult it is to take a harp to a vineyard or a platform.”

She has played countless weddings and tea parties and even has landed gigs in San Francisco, including one memorable doubleheader: “One morning I played for Brother Timothy, the head of Christian Brothers, and [Sen.] Dianne Feinstein in a wonderful building, and then we went and played at a Hell’s Angels baby shower in the afternoon. Only in San Francisco … ”

Ironically, Kalbrener also found that a long-lost interest helped forge his career in Napa. He had loved geography and geology courses at the U and found a lot to like on that front out West.

“It’s pretty straightforward up there. The glaciers came down from Canada 12,000 years ago and spread all over Minnesota,” said Kalbrener, a Cloquet, Minn., native. “Out here, this is the newest land on the American continent, with so many soil types.”

So he incorporates those interests into his work — the Napa Valley Register says Kalbrener “conducts the best winery tour in the valley” — and even acts as a docent for Silverado’s eye-popping collection of Belle Époque posters.

All the while, he keeps his ear out for home folks. “Every weekend in here,” he said, “there’s someone from Minnesota and I can hear it, and I’ll walk up to them and say ‘What part of Minnesota are you from?’

“I’m the translator for them.”

 

Bill Ward • 612-673-7643

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