The pieces are in place for the still-nascent Minnesota wine industry: better grapes, better sites, better techniques. Unfortunately, we’re still dealing with some of the most freakish weather conditions in the country.

That’s one takeaway from last week’s International Cold Climate Wine Competition, held recently at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chaska, where I was among 21 judges. The wines were, in a word, disappointing, although the better ones were superb. The competition is sponsored by the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota Grape Growers Association.

It takes good grapes to make really good wine, and the conditions in recent years have all too often not lent themselves to that. The effects of the 2014 polar vortex were felt for years, said John Thull, who with wife Jenny manages the vineyards at the University of Minnesota and at their own commercial property in Greenwald, Minn.

As the vines’ recovery slowly unfolded, the 2016 harvest season (August through October) was slammed with 23 inches of rain, which dilutes the grapes and often cracks their skins.

Which helps explain why the whites, most of which were from the more favorable 2017 vintage, showed better than the reds, which generally were from the troublesome years. Two 2017 Minnesota whites, the Carlos Creek Frontenac Gris and the Northern Hollow La Crescent, were true standouts. The latter garnered the competition’s Governor’s Cup as best Minnesota wine for the second straight year, and Carlos Creek was named winery of the year.

I still maintain that the growing and cellar techniques are improving rapidly here, but winemaking is above all about farming. In wine regions on the West Coast, the weather is only slightly sunnier, but it’s infinitely more reliable. Walla Walla doesn’t get 23 inches of rain in an entire year, never mind as much late frost in the spring and early frost in the fall, Napa and Sonoma virtually never get hail (grapes’ public enemy No. 1).

Basically, slow and steady is the only way this race will be won here.

For a complete listing of the awards, see competition.

State Fair sips of wine

For those looking to sample the local product, the Minnesota Wine Country building is up and running at the State Fair (1271 Underwood St., across from the Ag/Hort Building). They’ll be pouring a dozen wines and ciders, including four slushies; don’t miss the Parley Lake Frontenac Gris or the Winehaven Marquette Reserve. Daily seminars at 3:30 p.m. will feature the likes of local instructors Nikki Erpelding and Leslee Miller.

Cannon River brings it home

Besides having its St. Pepin and GoGo Red featured at Minnesota Wine Country, Cannon River’s wines are being poured at five other fair locations. This caps a good stretch for the Cannon Falls winery, which earned the first reviews for Minnesota in the Wine Advocate.

The red and white Family Reserves both received 87-point reviews, respectable in any context and downright dandy for wines made with cold-hardy grapes. Winemaker Sam Jennings said that reviewer Mark Squires told him that the history of cold-climate wines not aging well lowered the scores a good bit (the magazine is aimed largely at collectors).

Squires wrote in the Advocate that the red showed “a fresh feel, some lift to the fruit, and the ability to linger nicely on the finish … dry and serious, not overly fruity.”

He said that the white is “a bit light in the mid-palate, but it is fresh, and it handles its wood perfectly. It was also surprisingly tasty as it warms (if it’s too cold, all you will get is acidity), showing better balance.”

Pioneer Paustis passes away

Daniel Paustis was a man of many talents. But his ultimate legacy is as a pioneer in the Minnesota wine world. He died in July at age 94.

For years, Paustis played in Chicago big bands with the likes of Gene Krupa, Stan Kenton and Tommy Dorsey, a path that ultimately led him to wine. Entrepreneur Arthur Wirtz hired Paustis to call on Rush Street clubs because of his familiarity with the owners of said establishments.

He ended up in Minnesota and in 1973 opened the nation’s first wine-only wholesale operation. “People said he wouldn’t make it,” said his son Bill, “but five years later people from places like Nebraska were calling him saying ‘I want to start a wine-only distribution company. How do I do it?’ ”

A longtime purveyor of Blue Nun Liebfraumilch, Paustis quickly upped his local game by being the first person to bring in wines designated “Qualitätswein,” denoting a higher quality of fermented grape juice. After his wife died in 1987, he handed over the operation to sons Bill and Dan, and Paustis & Sons was born.

“He was an innovator and a visionary,” Bill Paustis said. “He was smart, and he had a very, very good palate.”

And he will be missed.


Bill Ward writes at Follow him on Twitter: @billward4.