"Visiting wineries in the winter is a thing?" asked my husband, Mike, as I outlined my latest beat-the-winter-blues scheme: a winery crawl. Granted, his skepticism made sense. Our past winery road trips have revolved around sipping wine on shady patios and wandering through leafy vineyards, the sun warming our bare arms.
But many of Minnesota's 70-plus wineries are open year-round, although hours are usually more limited in the winter. I wanted to plan an easy day trip from the Twin Cities, so I plotted out a southwesterly course with stops at three wineries: Crow River Winery near Hutchinson, Minn., and the Winery at Sovereign Estate and Schram Vineyards, both near Waconia. All are within an hour of Minneapolis.
Crow River Winery
I couldn't have done a better job of timing the quintessential winter winery crawl — as we started our trek, the outdoor temperature reading on our car's dashboard topped out at 5 degrees. Nubs of cornstalks poked up from snow-dusted fields, and red tumbledown barns were the only pops of color in the stark landscape.
Our first stop was Crow River Winery (crowriverwinery.com), located 2 miles east of Hutchinson on Hwy. 7. The winery produces over 20 wines, some made with their own Minnesota-grown grapes and others with familiar varietals hailing from warmer climes. The cheerful tasting room features a bar, tables and picture windows overlooking the barn across the road. Proving that Minnesotans are indeed a hardy bunch, our server offered us white wine sangria, flavored with citrus and served over ice.
We passed on the sangria, but we did put in an order for the Minnesota tasting flight, a sampling of five wines produced with estate-grown grapes. Standouts were the surprisingly smooth Frontenac red and the Marquette Dessert Wine, which would be perfect with a square of dark chocolate. There are also white, red, sweet and build-your-own tasting flights, or you can order wine by the glass or bottle.
Hungry for lunch, we split a pizza topped with pepperoni, sausage and a housemade tomato sauce featuring the winery's garlic cooking wine (garlic lovers, take note: Hutchinson is home to the annual Minnesota Garlic Festival in August). In addition to pizzas, the bistro menu includes a selection of appetizers ranging from onion rings and kettle chips to baked Brie and bruschetta.
"You're always welcome to wander the vineyards," said our server as she cleared away our plates. "Actually, I think they look pretty in the snow."
I took her advice, bundling up and taking the short journey across the patio to the rows and rows of grapevines. The brilliant blue sky belied the sharp chill in the air, the snow crunching beneath my feet. Each row was labeled with the grape variety and the year the vines were planted, the names familiar from the wines I had just tasted. For me, the appeal of visiting wineries is sampling wines just steps from where the grapes were grown — it's a way to support local agriculture and appreciate the wines' unique terroir.
Meanwhile, Mike passed on the self-guided vineyard tour, electing to stay in the warmth of the tasting room with a generous slice of tiramisu.
The Winery at Sovereign Estate
We backtracked on Hwy. 7 to the Winery at Sovereign Estate (sovereignestatewine.com), about a half-hour drive east. Located on the north shore of Lake Waconia, the winery produces several wines made with estate grapes, as well as wines with grapes sourced from other Minnesota and U.S. vineyards. The intimate tasting room offers wine tastings (1-ounce samples), flights (3-ounce pours) and wine by the glass. A food menu includes pizzas, cheese boards and dips, and there's local craft beer on tap.
We elected to split the "signature" wine tasting (when you're on a daylong winery crawl, you need to pace yourselves), which featured a lineup of New York, Minnesota and estate-grown selections. One was a rosé vinified with Frontenac grapes — our server noted that it was perfect for sangria in the summer and mulled wine in the winter. Our favorite was the Marquette '15, a light-bodied red with a pronounced oak flavor.
The winery hosts live music on Friday evenings, and on Sundays there's a special menu of brunch pizzas and mimosas.
Schram Vineyards Winery & Brewery
Our final stop was only 10 minutes away: Schram Vineyards Winery & Brewery (schramvineyards.com), which bills itself as the state's first combination winery and brewery. The tasting room has a laid-back, rustic feel, with tables improvised out of wine barrels and picture windows overlooking a small lake. It was also the liveliest stop of the trip, with several groups of fellow patrons relaxing with bottles of wine chilling in buckets of ice.
The chalkboard menu of beer proved too intriguing for Mike to pass up, with everything from an IPA brewed with locally grown hops to the flagship Dirty Up Blonde Ale. Ultimately he settled on the seasonal Bourbon Stealth Stout, aged in barrels from nearby J. Carver Distillery.
Given the theme of the trip, I obviously had to order the winter tasting flight. While the grapes and styles varied, each of the selections had a crispness that evoked the falling temperatures outside. Again, my favorite was Minnesota-grown: the 2015 Frontenac Blanc. Keep in mind that wine tastings and beer flight sales end at 5:45 p.m. here, but wine is always available by the glass or bottle, with beer available by the pint or glass.
In addition to beer and wine, the tasting room offers a rotating menu of simple snacks like cheese plates, soft pretzels and hummus. We enjoyed the spinach and artichoke flatbread, served with a creamy spread on a toasted pita.
We left for home just as dusk fell, the property's pine trees illuminated by strands of holiday lights. "You know," said Mike as we started up the car and cranked up our heated seats to full blast, "visiting wineries in the winter is really something we should do more often."
Stacy Brooks is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer who focuses on food and travel. She blogs at tangledupinfood.com.