For many of us, an autumn drive is often just about the journey, not the destination. In fact, we generally don’t need a destination.
But in recent years, a few outstate destinations have popped up to make the journey even more fulfilling.
They’re called wineries.
As the nascent Minnesota wine business grows, vintners have tried to make their home bases meccas for travelers from near and far. With alluring tasting rooms, event spaces that provide the ideal backdrop for a wedding or party — not to mention ever-improving wines — they’re attracting folks in search of a relaxing afternoon and a taste of “the good life.”
We visited three of these wineries, all an hour or two away from the Twin Cities, and found each of them worth the trek in quite different ways.
The place: In just a few years, Kent and Jane Schwickert have crafted an utterly idyllic setting northeast of Mankato. The eponymous creek (“Chankaska” is Sioux for “enclosed forest”) courses through the property, with the tasting room, the 19th-century homestead where winemaker Mike Drash lives and vineyards overlooking it.
There are three event spaces on the property, and the tasting room is beautifully appointed without a hint of stuffiness. Jane Schwickert said she culled ideas for the space’s design from the couple’s extensive Wine Country travels. Just below that is a lovely patio overlooking the creek and featuring a fireplace and perhaps the Upper Midwest’s largest Jenga game. Musicians perform there every Friday and Saturday night.
The wines: Chankaska Creek has 1,400 Wine Club members just two years after opening, and with good reason: The wines are stellar.
Chankaska’s Marquette Reserve was my favorite wine at last spring’s Savor Minnesota event. The 2013 Marquette Estate is going into bottle next month with a price tag of $40. And it is worth every penny, a wine that could be slipped into a Rhône-blend tasting and more than hold its own.
The Petite Colline blend (edelweiss and brianna) is almost as stunning, a lush but minerally mouthful of fruit cocktail.
Whether using West Coast grapes (sauvignon blanc, pinot noir) or cold-climate varieties (La Crescent) or blending the two (the Creekside Red, with Marquette, sangiovese, zinfandel, petite sirah and St. Croix), the results are exemplary.
The lowdown: 1179 E Pearl St., Kasota, Minn. 1-507-931-0089, chankaskawines.com. Opens daily at 11 a.m. through Jan. 3.
The road trip: Take Hwy. 169 to St. Peter and go east on Hwy. 22; go 2 miles and turn left on E. Pearl Street; the winery is on the right.
The place: The building was a revelation: large and airy, true to the rural farming aspect of this project.
The tasting room is actually a restaurant with high-tops and regular chairs, a spiffy bar and an outdoor seating space with picnic tables abutting the vineyards. The event-driven operation holds “Dine in the Vines” meals several times a summer.
The room looks like a new barn furnished by Pottery Barn, and the atmosphere is good ol’ country comfort.
“Bubba Kegs available now” proclaims one sign touting the delicious Honeycrisp Hard Cider.
The winery is on land owned by longtime farmers Gary and Vicky Vogt, who are in the process of adding an 8,000-square-foot event space because of the demand for weddings and other events.
The wines: The Vogts’ son-in-law, Justin Osborne, is steering a program that is growing in quantity (26,000 gallons this year) and quality. He’s being joined by Nick Smith, a super-sharp scientist/enologist at the University of Minnesota. The 2012 La Crescent is fabulous, and the Frontenac Gris and Marquette are worthy efforts.
Osborne’s ardor for these cold-climate grapes is such that he is taking the opposite tack of most Minnesota vintners. “Everybody tries to improve Minnesota wines by adding vinifera [traditional grapes such as merlot and moscato],” he said. “I’m doing the opposite, taking traditional California grapes and adding ours to it.”
So his Sunflake Moscato and Sunflake Riesling contain smaller portions of grapes such as La Crescent and Brianna to punch them up, instead of vice versa. Good idea, good execution.
The lowdown: 78757 Hwy. 16, Spring Valley, Minn., 1-507-346-7300, fourdaughters vineyard.com. Opens at 11 a.m. daily.
The road trip: Take Hwy. 52 through Rochester, then Hwy. 63 just south of there. It dead-ends into Hwy. 16. Go left and you’re there.
The place: Located near a popular ski area of the same name 10 miles north of Taylors Falls, this is a gorgeous spot, with a mystical feel to the sloping vineyards.
Indeed, on a sun-splashed Friday this summer, a local couple found a Shangri-La-like spot to take their wedding vows: atop a hill, surrounded by vines, looking out over the St. Croix River.
Through September, there are Saturday afternoon concerts amid this Arcadian vineyard.
The tasting area is comfy-cozy, with two rooms that have a North Woods cabin feel. The winery is just a few years old and is adding accommodations regularly, said proprietor Irving Geary.
The wines: “We’re grape growers gone wild,” said Geary, who started down that path as an avocation, as a North Branch High School teacher seeking a summer activity. He started planting in 1997, spent 2006 to 2009 making wine on a trial basis and opened up shop in 2011.
A few lessons along the way: giving the vines full sun exposure to soften the high acids that are inherent in cold-climate grapes, and using commercial rather than native yeasts. “The yeast out here won’t ferment wines,” Geary said, “and I like commercial yeast anyway because I want to know what I’m getting.”
The wines: Locavores, take note that Wild Mountain uses only locally grown grapes, 10 varieties of them, in fact. I was delightfully surprised by the sangiovese-like Frontenac, soft at first and firm and lovely on the finish, and loved the La Crescent’s aromatics and fruit-cocktail flavors. Two blends, the Arrowhead Red and Elmer’s White, are definitely worth checking out.
The lowdown: 16906 Wild Mountain Road, Taylors Falls, Minn., 651-583-3585, wildmountainwinery.com. The winery opens at 2 p.m. Thu.-Fri. and noon on Sat.-Sun. until winter.
The road trip: Take I-35 north to Hwy. 8 and through Taylors Falls, then take Hwy. 16 north about 10 miles. Or go to Stillwater and take Hwy. 95 north to Taylors Falls, then Hwy. 16.
Bill Ward writes at www.decant-this.com. Follow him on Twitter: @decantthis.