Uncorking Minnesota's wine market

  • Article by: MARIA ELENA BACA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 22, 2009 - 6:48 AM

Local wineries want more latitude to offer tastings off-site, to help boost their fledgling industry. But alcohol distributors have fought off a change in state law that would allow it.

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Mark Hedin is owner/operator of White Rabbit Winery in Andover. He’s part of a consortium of vintners working on legislation meant to help the fledgling industry in Minnesota. He makes a NuVo red from Minnesota Marquette grapes and a rhubarb wine from the crops he grows.

Photo: David Brewster, Star Tribune

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Go to Mark Hedin's White Rabbit Vineyards and Winery in Andover and you can sample a NuVo red, made from Minnesota Marquette grapes. Or you can sip a rhubarb wine, made from Hedin's own crop grown out back between trellises of grapes and a purple-stemmed tangle of raspberry canes.

For the most part, however, to taste Hedin's wines, you'll have to go to the source.

Hedin and other Minnesota farm-vintners have been frustrated in their attempts to get their wines off the farm. A key provision has been removed from a bill in the State Legislature that would have allowed small vintners to hold tastings at commercial locations, such as jewelry stores and art gallery openings.

"We're up against the misconception that wine isn't made in Minnesota, as an industry, and that the wine is bad," said Leon Ohman, owner of Goose Lake Farm and Winery in Elk River.

"We need to have the opportunity to go to these off-site tastings promoting a Minnesota product," Ohman said. "That would help our industry tremendously."

In the House, the bill sponsored by Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, may be attached to the omnibus liquor bill and could come to a vote in the next few weeks. It still would remove some legal and financial restrictions on wineries producing less than 50,000 gallons a year.

In the Senate, a similar provision, sponsored by Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, is awaiting a hearing in the Public Safety Committee.

Finding a compromise

Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association Executive Director Frank Ball has spoken out against the off-site tasting provision, saying his organization, representing alcoholic beverage distributors, opposes any measure that would allow small vintners to operate without the regulations and restrictions that have long governed the rest of the industry.

"The liquor industry is the most highly regulated industry in the United States," he said. "We want to help, but they can't take it out and do things with this alcohol that we can't do."

Ball said he's concerned about youth access and the ramifications of handing out any intoxicating substance, issues traditionally addressed by Minnesota's three-tiered liquor distribution system -- manufacturer-distributor-retailer. Still, he emphasized that his group wants to encourage small wineries, and is willing to work to help market their products.

Hackbarth said he hopes to find a compromise for next session.

Paul Quast, co-owner of Saint Croix Vineyards in Stillwater and president of the Minnesota Farm Winery Association, noted that folks tend to visit his winery -- on the edge of a tourist town -- as a destination. But he said he understands that it's different for visitors to out-of-the-way vineyards, like Hedin's and Ohman's.

"It's like any organization that's growing," he said. "Establishing the legitimacy of what you're doing entails market access, and one of the best ways of getting market access is to have people taste your wine and realize it is good and has market quality."

To Ohman, the issue is about the survival of a purely Minnesota industry. He produces as much as 1,700 gallons and 32 varieties of wine a year. He grows much of his produce right on the farm: nine varieties of grapes, plus strawberries, plums, pears, peaches, apricots, cherries, currants and more.

The farm and winery are his full-time job.

"We're not asking for tax breaks," he said, "but what we'd like to do is promote the industry as a whole, as a viable industry, and not something we're out there playing with."

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409

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