In this tale of two cities, it’s the best of times for wine lovers.
Oh, and the cities aren’t the ones you’d expect. Instead, we’re talking Rochester and Waconia, both suddenly vinous meccas in their own right.
Yes, Rochester, which is evolving from a sleepy medical community sipping white zinfandel to a dining destination with smallish pours of high-end gems and ever-expanding wine lists. And yes, Waconia, which boasts three cool, distinctive wineries and would welcome even more.
In a summer that begs for day trips, if only as an escape from the urban area’s relentless orange cones, here are two that beckon enticingly.
And here’s how they got that way:
Rochester: An evolutionary clinic
Jason Zubay might be only 23 years old, but as part of one of Rochester’s foremost restaurant families, he is soaked in the scene there. His father, Jerry, pioneered the notion of a strong wine program back in the 1980s at Bank restaurant.
“He was doing wines like [Bordeaux stalwart Château] Haut-Brion,” Zubay said, “but he was kind of forced to change because people loved to do that, but only once a year. So he changed [to a simpler] concept.”
Twenty years later, it was still an uphill slog for the likes of Tessa Leung at the tapas restaurant Sontes.
“We put in a wine machine so we could do 40 by the glass, and we picked wines that at that time were not too crazy, like monastrell and cabernet franc,” she said, “and our bestselling wine was DeLoach white zinfandel. I cried every day [chuckles] and said, ‘What did I do?’ ”
Even going with superior glassware caused problems.
“We got a lot of angry feedback about stemware. We were doing 6-ounce pours in [larger] Riedels, and people thought we were ripping them off because we didn’t fill the glass.”
Eventually Sontes and Rochester’s other primary wine-centric restaurant, Chardonnay, closed, but Leung said the clientele became more savvy and adventurous during the ensuing years. At the same time, several Minnesota wholesalers started delving into a region that had been dominated for decades by one distributor.
“The turnaround in the vendor scene is amazing,” Zubay said.
That has helped newer eateries such as Bleu Duck Kitchen and Porch and Cellar trot out semi-obscure, stellar wines. Both hold frequent wine dinners and offer smaller pours of high-end offerings via the Coravin device, which extracts wine with such a thin membrane that the cork reseals to preserve what’s inside.
“The Coravin program at Cellar is obliterating the by-the-glass offerings,” said Zubay, who co-owns Porch and Cellar with his sister Lindsay and executive chef Justin Schoville. “It has really saved the wine market, because you have such a low commitment that it’s not difficult to get people to step out of their comfort zone.”
Slowly but steadily, consumers are reaping the rewards. A big portion of those folks, said Leung, now the proprietor of Tessa’s Office wine store, are the families of patients who are being treated at the Mayo Clinic. “We’re super-lucky. We live in this tiny town with people from all over the world,” she said, adding that some restaurants are busier early in the week, when those families are around, than on the weekends. “We learn a lot just from listening to them.”
But hometown folks, especially younger health professionals, are having a bigger impact, Zubay said. “Wine is becoming a cool thing for everybody, and I see that in younger doctors. The camaraderie among the newer generation is strong, and you don’t get that in beer and spirits. You don’t really open up a beer and share it with people.
“Rochester has always been a comfort city, with a very soft spot for the Napa Valley and the big houses in France. But now the wine scene is becoming broader.”
As for Twin Cities area residents daunted about driving down and back for a great meal, it should be noted that it’s the same distance as the long popular Harbor View Cafe in Pepin, Wis.
Waconia: winery central
Back in 2000, fresh out of college (where he had been “making wine illegally at age 19”), Aaron Schram wrote up a 52-page business plan for his own winery. It took more than a decade to bring his plan to fruition. By the time he found a site and opened his winery in Waconia, the town had two “competitors” up and going.
Except that Schram doesn’t see Parley Lake and Sovereign as rivals.
“I view it very differently than others might,” he said. “The more locations that are by you, the busier you will be. When Parley Lake or Sovereign has an event, we get more visitors. I’d like to see seven other wineries out here.”
That’s a practice widely seen in other businesses, particularly restaurants: Proximity brings people. And it plays into another catchphrase oft heard in the wine world: A rising tide lifts all boats.
In other words, these three business have promotional opportunities that wouldn’t exist were there just one winery in Waconia.
“We are competitors for medals and stuff,” Schram said, “but we also play off each other’s marketing.”
That cooperation certainly assuaged the trepidation felt at Parley Lake, the town’s first winery.
“When Sovereign opened, we were pretty worried,” said Parley Lake co-owner/winemaker Steve Zeller, “but business continued at the same or better pace after they came along. And then Ashley and Aaron [Schram] opened up, and I finally said, ‘OK, this little town, how are we gonna support three wineries?’
“And now we get more traffic than ever. It used to be one limousine or bus per weekend. Now four or five is a light day.”
It helps, Zeller adds, that the experiences vary widely at each of the wineries. While Schram would look right at home in West Coast wine regions with its rustic-chic tasting room and airy pavilion, Sovereign features sprawling grounds and a lovely lake view, and Parley Lake is based in an 1880s barn and features sculpture by Steve’s wife, Deb.
What they have in common: wines that are getting better every year, as local growers and vintners continue to make strides in growing and vinifying grapes. Schram, in fact, is doubling its production this year, to 6,000 cases.
“Each winery has its own story,” Zeller said. “It’s just three different families that wanted to get into this crazy business.”
Bill Ward writes at decant-this.com. Follow him on Twitter: @billward4.