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Continued: Nowthen winery faces showdown with city over hosted events

  • Article by: SHANNON PRATHER , Star Tribune
  • Last update: February 12, 2013 - 4:09 PM

Cindy Ohman says her great-grandmother Eva's beet-strawberry-rhubarb wine recipe was a family favorite. "We would always get this little thimbleful of wine before bed," Ohman recalls of the evenings she and her seven siblings spent with their great-grandmother.

Relying on her family's roots in winemaking and her own background in horticulture, Ohman transformed a cornfield in the city of Nowthen into acres of grapevines, fruit trees and berry bushes, and she opened Anoka County's first winery in 2004.

Today, Goose Lake Farm & Winery offers visitors nearly 50 varieties of wines. It has become a destination for wine tastings, a seasonal artisan and farmers market, and a site for intimate weddings and other summer gatherings.

But the Ohmans now face a showdown with the city, which says the winemakers have violated the terms of their conditional-use permit. The city attorney contends that the Ohmans are allowed to sell wine, and that's it -- that all the events, including weddings, seasonal markets and harvest celebrations, are violations of their permit.

The city is demanding that the Ohmans apply for an additional permit that outlines the winery's seasonal events and go through another public hearing.

After several terse exchanges and fearful that the city is overreaching, the Ohmans have hired an attorney. Ohman said that the city doesn't understand Minnesota's emerging winery business and that it is punishing Goose Lake for simply marketing and selling wine. She said creative tasting events are critical to sales because many wine connoisseurs are unfamiliar with Minnesota wines.

"This is about the experience. You can taste and shop and walk around the farm," Ohman said. "You will see that's what wineries are doing. We are not a liquor store."

Nowthen Mayor Bill Schulz is complimentary of the winery. He acknowledges that he's attended a dinner and tasting event there. But the bottom line, he says, is that the Ohmans need to comply with the ordinance, which requires more permitting and a public hearing.

"I think they've been a good business. Any business that is trying to be successful, that is something that you should welcome into the community if it's following the guidelines," Schulz said. "There is some controversy. ... I would say yes, there are a lot of additional activities there that were not actually agreed upon in the [original] permit."

"The city wants to work with them," said City Clerk Corrie LaDoucer.

The city's position has made Ohman indignant, because she said the winery has always been conscientious of the law and of neighbors.

"We've never had a complaint, a police call or had a neighbor come and yell at us. Our neighbors are our customers," Ohman said. "They [city officials] want to be able to control our business."

The mayor agreed that no one has complained about the winery. Rather, someone with the city noticed advertising for an artisan market in a local newspaper last year.

The winery has no employees other than the Ohmans, who live in a modest home on the 70-acre farm. Family, friends and neighbors help out with bottling and other business activities.

The winery produces as many as 10,000 bottles a year that sell for $12-$15 each. Ohman uses grapes and a variety of homegrown fruits including apples, pears and plums to make her wines.

The winery is closed to the public most of the winter. All events during the spring, summer and fall end by 7 p.m. and are designed to market their wines. With dozens of animals, including horses, sheep, llamas, goats, ducks, dogs and cats, Goose Lake Farm draws families, Ohman said.

The Ohmans have added on to their winery a few times, applying for the necessary building permits, she says. Leon Ohman is a building inspector for the city of Columbus.

For the past three seasons, the couple has hosted a free-admission weekly artisan and farmers market to help promote other local growers and artists, and to promote their wine.

Koli Fyten-Swap, the artisan and farmers market manager, affirmed that the Ohmans make no money off the market, other than bringing more potential customers to the winery. Fyten-Swap, a friend of the Ohmans who oversees the event for free, said about two dozen vendors are charged a $40 sign-up fee and $10 for each market. All money goes to signs and local advertising.

Fyten-Swap sells homemade canned items and condiments at the market.

"We see around 100 to 200 customers come through. It's all vendors selling their handmade goods," Fyten-Swap said. "We have our food truck out there. There are all sorts of veggies, crafts, jewelry. It's a really well-rounded experience."

Schulz said the push for additional permitting is simply a matter of fairness -- treating all businesses equally and giving the public an opportunity to comment, especially when a new business venture can mean more traffic and inconvenience for neighbors. The additional permit will cost around $480 and could place more requirements and restrictions on the business.

"The winery has been a good addition to our business community," Schulz said. "It's a real difficult situation when you are dealing with sensitive issues. This has turned out to be a very sensitive issue."

The Ohmans said this isn't the first time the city has taken action that threatens to run off a small business.

Neighbors who raised goats and were gearing up to start a goat dairy business sold their four acres after permitting disputes with the city.

Todd Parent was one of those involved in that business. "They weren't allowing us to use our own property. They were coming after us," he said.

Parent and Zane Reynolds, both banking professionals, bought 18 acres in neighboring Elk River. Their business, Parey Farm, is up and running and couldn't be busier, Reynolds said.

"It was the best thing we could have done. Elk River welcomed us with open arms," Reynolds said. "I can't say enough kind things about Elk River."

Schulz said the dairy goat business involved a host of issues.

"I do regret that they left. I think it's a situation where we've lost a taxpayer," said Schulz.

For now, Ohman said she'll let her attorney deal with the city.

"We are too close to it. We're too passionate about it," Ohman said. "We don't want to burn bridges. We still want to live here and be part of this community."

But she may erase the city's name from the winery's legacy. She's thinking of renaming her "Nowthen Red" and "Nowthen White." They will instead become the "House Red" and "House White."

Shannon Prather • 612-673-4804

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