This is probably the first winery spawned in a backyard in Edina: iOTA Cellars.
“We were on my patio enjoying some wine, one of those really nice Minnesota summer evenings,” said Lynne Pelos, “and the conversation got around to ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to have a vineyard?’ A couple of days later Johanna [Sandberg] called and asked me if this was serious.”
Turns out it was. Within a decade, Pelos, sister-in-law Sandberg and her husband, Don Sandberg, had released the first pinot noirs from their Oregon winery. This year’s vintage will be their 10th.
These things take time, but this trio also was very prudent in starting and building the business.
First off, they eliminated California because of the soaring cost of vineyard land. Then in 1998, the Sandbergs moved from Tonka Bay to Oregon, where he continued to work in prosthetics and she as an insurance underwriter. They spent their weekends scouring the nearby Willamette Valley for the right property. Quickly, Don became enamored of the idea of growing grapes in the Eola-Amity Hills area, in the path of a “wind tunnel” that brought late-afternoon cooling breezes from the ocean.
“We liked the idea of facing the Van Duzer Corridor,” he said. “The Van Duzer winds help grapes retain natural acidity.”
In 2000, they bought a 58-acre parcel in Amity, Ore., and started planting the plots themselves, “learning the business from the vines on up,” said Pelos, who had stayed in the Twin Cities raising her children. They sold grapes to some big hitters (Bergstrom, Beaux Freres), and Johanna Sandberg took winemaking classes and worked at wineries.
At a certain point, Pelos said, “We realized that as great as being growers was, the margins were better for making wine.”
So they started making wine, at first just for themselves — “our families got to be the beneficiaries,” Pelos said with a chuckle — from purchased fruit in 2002.
Meanwhile, they picked the brains of the more-than-willing locals.
“Everybody has helped us and influenced us,” Johanna said. “People here really do want you to do well. It’s competitive, too, but overall that sense of community is here.”
Among those helping them along the way was fellow Twin Cities transplant Steven Westby, a St. Olaf grad and Surdyk’s wine buyer before heading west himself in the mid-1990s. He’s now winemaker at Witness Tree.
“All the help really comes in handy, because it’s not an overnight business,” Don Sandberg said. “These are really good people, really friendly. The Minnesota Nice thing, Oregon is like that.”
The trio launched iOTA Cellars in 2006, using fruit from the 15-acre Pelos Sandberg Vineyard (PSV), and built an onsite winery in 2010. The current annual production is just under 2,000 cases, primarily of pinot noir and a rosé made from the same variety. They planted more pinot and some chardonnay last year.
Don Sandberg, who now serves as both vineyard manager and winemaker, said his primary goal is to have the wines be harmonious and expressive, with an earthiness that speaks to its origins.
“The vineyard dictates style a little bit. We have always tried to be true to what the vineyard gives us,” he said. “It’s not Burgundian, not Californian; it’s unique to this area.
“And we’re always looking for balance.”
They certainly achieved it with the gorgeous 2011 PSV Pinot Noir ($38), a heady amalgam of herbs and red berries with plenty of body and stuffing and a surpassing finish. The 2012 ($42) is quite promising and, like most Willamette pinots from that vintage, should reward those who cellar it for a year or three.
The wines are available on Twin Cities shelves — including at Thomas, Cellars and the downtown Minneapolis branches of Haskell’s and Lunds & Byerlys — so just look for the brown label with the odd upper/lower-case thing going on in the brand name. What’s up with that, anyway?
“It came from our first graphic designer, and sometimes people of call it ‘lota,’ ” Johanna Sandberg said. “The word is to convey that we’re small. The ‘i’ is the smaller part of it because it’s not about us, it’s about the place, and the ‘ota’ is the place.”
And that place is the windswept slopes of Eola-Amity Hills. By way of Edina.
Bill Ward writes at decant-this.com. Follow him on Twitter: @billward4.