What a difference a half-century makes.
In 1969, most Minnesota liquor stores and restaurants carried a lot of Blue Nun, Silver Satin and Pink Chablis — but no red wines from France. Local distribution giant Johnson Brothers focused more on spirits than wine. And the list of Minnesota wineries, well, there weren’t any.
The ensuing decades brought a trickle and then a torrent of progress.
Today, wine-centric stores abound, scores of restaurants carry bottles from regions around the globe, and the state boasts copious wholesale operations, plus dozens of wineries.
And good luck finding a bottle of Silver Satin.
The exception that proved the rule a half-century ago: Haskell’s carried an expansive inventory of great wines from France and elsewhere. Longtime co-owner Fritzi Haskell “had Minnesotans drinking wine when the rest of the country was drinking gin fizzes,” said current owner Jack Farrell. While Fritzi’s husband, Benny, focused on spirits after Prohibition in 1934, she became enamored of the classic wines of Bordeaux, journeying to that French region and elsewhere to garner top bottles for the store.
By 1969, she was getting ready to retire, and the next year she handed over the reins to Farrell, who still runs Haskell’s, which now has 12 outlets.
The rest of the scene was pretty bleak. “At most restaurants, wine glasses looked like eyewash cups,” Farrell said, “although at Murray’s you got a half-bottle of Mateus with the Silver Butter Knife Steak. And at every other liquor store in town, their broom closet was bigger than their wine section,” he said.
For the most part, the drinking public in the 1970s still embraced sugary wines. Besides Mateus and its Portuguese sweet-tinged rosé mate Lancers, the bottles that ruled were Boone’s Farm, Blue Nun, Riunité Lambrusco, André Cold Duck and fortified wines such as Thunderbird and MD 20/20.
Thankfully, though, there were still pioneers with different agendas bubbling up through that same decade.
In 1973, former Chicago big-band musician Daniel Paustis landed here and opened the nation’s first wine-only wholesale operation. That same year, David Bailly and his family planted Minnesota’s first vineyard near Hastings. Broker David Ready Sr. started showing local folks how great the wines of California could be.
Restaurants such as the Rosewood Room, the Blue Horse, Charlie’s Cafe Exceptionale and Chateau de Paris upped their wine game. On the retail front, France 44 and Surdyk’s started going “all in” on wine.
And a teenager named Mike Thomas started working for his father at Thomas Liquors, a St. Paul pharmacy that transitioned to spirits during Prohibition, when doctors could legally prescribe alcoholic beverages.
“We had mostly mass-market wines,” Jim Thomas said of the store in 1969. “There were all those fads where different wines became popular, and we just kind of followed the market. Gallo was the innovator and had so much marketing power that they could create a market around any of their wines. We weren’t innovative. We would just give the people what they wanted.
“But then [his son] Mike started stocking at 14, and he took to it like a fish to water.”
Today that young man oversees a destination emporium with wines of all prices from all places. And at least a couple of dozen other Twin Cities outlets lure cork dorks with similarly stellar selections.
All of this is made possible by a burgeoning contingent of importers and wholesalers. Johnson Brothers has grown mightily (adding Wine Merchants and Phillips to its holdings) and still is the biggest player, and it has been joined by fellow behemoths Breakthru and Southern Glazer’s.
In most states, mammoth operations such as these dominate if not monopolize the market. But medium-sized contenders, including Paustis & Sons, Winebow, the Wine Co., Bourget and New France, are bringing countless great brands to this market.
In recent years, smaller contenders have joined the fray, among them Rue 38, Rootstock, Libation Project, Tradition, Small Lot, Lompian and Margron-Skoglund.
Thus, a dizzying array of wines are there for the asking in local stores and restaurants. And as the chef- and ingredient-driven scene has exploded over the past two decades, restaurants have made a boatload of once-esoteric grapes and regions staples of their programs, even as most suburban spots have stuck with more familiar brands.
The wine-bar scene has been more ebb-and-flow, often mostly ebb. The Riverview Wine Bar is the exception that proves the rule in terms of staying power. Recent and upcoming openings — the Vine Room in Hopkins and Bar Brava in Minneapolis — provide promise, and wine-centric restaurants such as Terzo, Monello and Meritage offer up enough by-the-glass pours to serve as de facto wine bars, and dandy ones at that.
Also using more small pours (in the form of free samples) are retail outlets, in part because of increased competition from groceries (Hy-Vee, Trader Joe’s), big-box stores (Target, Costco) and the especially mammoth chain Total Wine & More.
A few mom-and-pop booze marts have fallen by the wayside, but local (and locally owned) wine-centric stores so far have been weathering the storm.
Consumers, meanwhile, have benefited from more options and more competitive prices.
The state of the state
The offerings at the better stores include not only bottles from far-flung regions such as the Republic of Georgia and Tasmania, but also fermented grape juice made much closer to home.
When David Bailly decided to plant grapes here, he was ignoring the advice of viticulturists at Cornell and the University of California, Davis, that wine grapes won’t grow in what his daughter Nan calls “the deserted tundra nothingness of Minnesota.”
He planted thousands of hybrid vines — and lost them all over one brutal winter, then lost most of another planting the next winter.
So Bailly started burying the vines after harvest, encouraged by the words of Bordeaux icon Baron Phillippe Rothschild: “There must be suffering to produce [wine].”
“And Dad,” said Nan, now the winemaker at Alexis Bailly, “thought Minnesota would be a great place for that, since the suffering never ceases.”
Twenty years later, there were still only four wineries in the state. But five years after it unleashed the Honeycrisp apple on the world, the University of Minnesota’s Horticultural Research Center started releasing cold-hardy grapes: Frontenac in 1996, La Crescent in 2002, Frontenac Gris in 2003, Marquette in 2006 and Itasca in 2017. And a Honeywell scientist, Tom Plocher, testing hybrids in his backyard acreage in Hugo, came out with Petite Pearl, Crimson Pearl and Verona.
Of all these, the real game-changer will be Itasca, the first cold-hardy white grape that will not suffer in comparison to sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio and the like.
Trying to make the most of these grapes are 70 wineries — or 70 more than the state had back in 1969.
It’s yet another sign that while the situation 50 years ago looks rather bleak in hindsight, the present and future of wine in Minnesota is seriously favorable.
Bill Ward writes at decant-this.com. Follow him on Twitter: @billward4.