Most Minnesotans grew up thinking they’d never be a part of the romantic, sun-soaked vineyard scene – at least not without leaving the state. But a burgeoning hybrid wine grape industry has taken root in cold-climate states, led in part by one known for its warm people and freezing temperatures.
As experimentation with cold-hardy grapes continues by experts at the University of Minnesota, more and more Minnesotans are being bitten by the vintner bug. People from diverse backgrounds develop a shared passion that starts with dreams of a picturesque backyard vineyard or maybe a trendy DIY hobby, and leads to a combination of growing, bottling, selling, and discussing their artisan creations with visitors.
At the same time, aspiring grape growers may have been encouraged by a state law that requires farm wineries to source at least 51 percent of their grapes from Minnesota. According to an economic impact study of the American wine industry by John Dunham & Associates, there were 58 wineries in Minnesota in 2017. Today there are already more than 70.
There are so many people taking the plunge, that Minnesota makes a strong showing every year at international-level competition. Locally grown wines can be purchased in stores and restaurants, and wine tours are not just for vacations anymore.
Below are some of the Southern Minnesota wineries you can visit this summer. Of course there are so many more, but we hope this list gets you started.
Flower Valley Vineyard – Red Wing
Situated in the Mississippi River bluffs just outside of Red Wing, this vineyard was planted in 2002 on a gently sloping hillside of the family farm. Two generations of growing experience combined with a lifetime in catering inspire Flower Valley owners to help people deliciously pair their award-winning wines. (Several of the wines medaled in the 2018 International Cold Climate Wine Competition [ICCWC].) Founding partner Mary Mohn conducts tastings in the winery and is soon to complete her Sommelier exam; food delivery is available from the locally established Liberty’s Restaurant. Visitors wandering the grounds can spy a few of the resident animals, and leashed pets are welcome outside. Several events are hosted around the farm, including the Cannon Falls Wine and Art Festival, and one of the event facilities rented is an 1872 barn on the National Register of Historic Places. Another standout facility is their Air B+B (aka Flower Valley Inn) at the edge of the vineyard, with a view of surrounding bluffs and the country-chic style of a renovated farm house. www.flowervalleyvineyard.com
Grandview Valley Winery – Belview
Grandview Valley Winery sits off a gravel road in the heart of the Minnesota River Valley in southwestern Minnesota. The winery building was constructed in 2011 by a couple and their son and daughter-in-law, on land that has been in the family for four generations. In 2009 their former soybean field was completely transformed into a 7 1/2 acre vineyard with more than 4,000 vines and 11 grape varieties. Weather has caused some setbacks over the years, with vine-damaging hail, extremely cold temperatures (35 to 40 degrees below zero), and excess rain. But on weekend nights the winery and patio fill up with people enjoying wine, local beer and house-made pizza. With the exception of their Cabernet Sauvignon, all of the wines are made from grapes from the vineyard or grown elsewhere in southwest Minnesota. Wine names are inspired by what’s around the vineyard, such as their popular semi-sweet Frontenac blanc, called “Night Owl.” Take a scenic drive and follow the Minnesota River Valley Birding Trail, visiting parks and wildlife refuges along the way–Audubon Minnesota published a paperback and online birding trail guide to introduce newcomers. In July, shop the annual “Vendors in the Vineyard” event for crafts, gifts and locally-sourced food. www.gvwinery.com
Indian Island Winery – Janesville
Indian Island Winery was built in 2010 on a site once used by Native Americans as a summer hunting camp and almost completely surrounded by water. Intriguing artifacts discovered on the property have been displayed at the winery, and the grounds are still popular with wildlife. The winery was a natural extension for the Winter family, who focused on the newest cold-hardy varieties at the vineyard and nursery they’d run for about a decade first. The vineyard grows about 6,000 vines and 17 grape varieties. Several wines have been awarded medals at the International Cold Climate Wine Competition (ICCWC), as well as regular wine competitions. They sell an unusual dessert wine called “Indian Island Ice,” which is a true ice wine, harvested in mid-December in an air temperature of 5 degrees above zero. The winery offers a food menu that includes bison burgers and pizza, and a variety of beer is also available. Visitors can hear live music every Friday and Saturday night. Register to participate in the 10th Annual Grape Stomp competition on Sept. 14. www.indianislandwinery.com
Javens Family Vineyard & Winery – Mankato
Five miles southeast of Mankato, on the banks of the Le Sueur River, the Javens family offers up a range of locally grown white and red wines and a large outdoor patio space to socialize and enjoy weekly live music. After his retirement, winemaker Heather Javens’ father-in-law established the vineyard in 2010 in a nostalgic return to his farming roots. As the vineyard grew and expanded, members of the Javens extended family took up roles in the business, with even the kids helping to plant, water, prune and harvest. Over the years, their wines have taken awards at the International Cold Climate Wine Competition (ICCWC), including Frontenac Gris, La Crescent, Marquette, and “New Traditions,” a mix of Frontenac Gris and Brianna grapes that pairs well with buttered popcorn. Another Javens blend is an easy-drinking wine, called “Patio Prints,” for their two dogs who like to roam the patio and help out on the farm. The winery hosts a Bruschetta Bar workshop that combines cooking, wine pairing and crafting, in conjunction with a local company called Design & Wine. They also have Saturday hours through December, when visitors can shop holiday gift baskets. www.javenswinery.com/wines.html
Doppeleichen Vineyards – New Ulm
The owners of this rural winery decided to close the tasting room during a highway interchange project that would make travel difficult. Now that road construction is expected to lighten soon, owner/manager Paul Neyers is tentatively planning to reopen in mid-August. www.doppeleichenvineyards.com
Montgomery Harvest Cider and Wine – Montgomery
At its heart an apple orchard, this 22-acre site provides for the production of several hard ciders and wines, including a semi-sweet blend of Toka, Superior and Alderman plums that took a bronze medal in the 2018 International Cold Climate Wine Competition (ICCWC). Guests earn special bragging rights for trying the hard apple wine, dubbed “The Full Monty,” while the white apple wine can be paired with many meals. Relax on the porch during fall weekends, listening to local acoustic artists, or for more active enjoyment go apple picking or attempt a six-acre corn maze. The farm’s 2,000 apple trees occupy less than a tenth of the acreage, allowing visitors to stroll maintained paths through prairie areas, hardwood and evergreen forest. Wines are available to taste and purchase during regular business hours in the fall season. www.montgomeryorchard.com
River View Vineyard & Winery – La Crescent
Take a winding trip along the Mississippi River Valley before stopping for some serious views at this small country winery in the bluffs above the river. Bring a picnic lunch and your pup or just visit the outside tasting room, overlooking Lake Onalaska. Owner Brad Helstad and his father originally intended to sell their grapes to other area wineries when they planted their first 200 vines in 2003. But after getting established, Helstad opened the winery to the public in 2011. Nine different types of wines are available, including reds, whites and blushes. There’s a new white Frontenac Blanc to try and two “River Boat” blends–in red and blush. About half of the wine is made from Helstad’s grapes, with the rest from grapes grown within approximately 30 miles. River View is one of a dozen wineries in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa, near the Upper Mississippi, that form a group called the Great River Road Wine Trail. The winery is open April through November and can make arrangements for large groups or special events–not surprisingly; several couples have chosen this spot for their wedding. Sign up for their new monthly email newsletter to learn more. www.riverviewwinery.com
Round Lake Vineyards & Winery – Round Lake
This family-owned and operated business in the southwestern corner of the state includes a Bistro with an extensive menu and an event center that hosts weddings and corporate functions. Visitors can take in a view of the lake or wander the pastoral setting with more than 19,000 vines across four vineyards. First planted in 2007, the 30-acre operation is one of the largest in the midwest, producing more than 15 white and red, sweet and dry wines. The composition of the area’s dark soil benefits the vines with good drainage and passes on a unique mineral character. The first three varieties planted, La Crescent, Frontenac Gris and Marquette, are still producing some of the winery’s most award-winning wines. The last grape planted was Itasca–the latest of the University of Minnesota releases. Check out the winery’s calendar for events such as summer Sunday brunches, live music, and the Grape Harvest Party & Stomp on Aug. 24. Open year-round; visit the website for hours. www.roundlakevineyards.com/home.html
Three Oak Vineyards and Winery – Albert Lea
In the summer of 2011, Albert Lea natives Jay Enderson and Dan Sorensen purchased what was once a nursery on the outskirts of town. They converted the existing buildings for wine production and planted the first two varieties of grapes, which had been developed at the University of Minnesota. Just a few years later they planted their west vineyard, and before they were even open, their Frontenac Gris and LaCrescent white wines picked up awards at the International Cold Climate Wine Competition (ICCWC); even more of the wines received medals at the 2018 ICCWC competition. The tasting room was completed in 2017 and the menu, available online, offers local fare from Conger Meats and Eichtens Artisan Cheese. Groups looking for celebration space can hold outdoor parties on the east vineyard’s wine porch or gather around a fireplace in the barrel room—the newest private addition, with access to a patio and an option for more space with the tasting room. Weddings are held in an outdoor event area in the west vineyard. Live music is announced via Facebook while larger concert and event details are available on their website. www.threeoakwines.com
Union Valley Vineyard & Winery – Hokah
This boutique farm winery, the first to be licensed in Houston County, began as a hobby and turned into a passion for owners Robin and Jim Schlegel. They opened for business in 2015 on their scenic valley property near the junction of the Root River and the Mississippi River. More than 200 vines contribute to the wines on offer, including La Crescent, Brianna, Marquette, Frontenac, Moonlight, Edelweiss, and Marechal Foch, as well as strawberry rhubarb and a newly released cranberry wine. In an effort to support locally grown products, all wines are produced from fruit grown on-site or purchased from area growers. This year the winery joined forces with two of Robin’s sisters to plant a new vineyard, called River Reflections, in her hometown of Buffalo City, Wisconsin. The expansion will provide varietal wines from the Verona grape and the new University of Minnesota release, the Itasca. Visit the tasting room, then relax in the sun or shade on a spacious patio. Connect on Facebook to learn about special events, such as wood-fired pizza at the winery. Union Valley Vineyard Winery on Facebook.
Vintage Escapes Winery & Vineyard – Kilkenny
Dan and Ashley Reller just opened their winery and vineyard to the public in May, a dream venture the husband and wife team built from the ground up. While the vines currently occupy a small area of the 32-acre property, they plan to expand an acre per year. Sit and gaze over lake and countryside from an outdoor patio, or enjoy the vintage-inspired features and live music of the tasting room. All wines are made from the vineyard’s fruit or locally purchased grapes. White wines include the tropical flavored Brianna and La Crescent and a citrusy Edelweiss. The first red wines on the menu are a Marquette–a stroll through a Minnesota landscape–and a semi-sweet Frontenac. Two more are expected to join them this fall, and the winery is hoping to make a fortified red wine available soon. Supplies of the popular “Pioneer Rosé” have been depleted for the year, but will be replenished with the 2019 grape harvest. Wine flights can be paired with shareable plates of cheese with meat or charcuterie, bread with dipping oil, or dessert. The Rellers are happy to offer information or answer questions and to arrange for large groups or private parties. History buffs should take note that Dodd Road and Kilkenny are part of the “James-Younger Gang Outlaw Trail,” the popular name for the route used by the bank robbers to flee after a shoot-out at the First National Bank of Northfield. www.vintageescapeswinery.com.
BREAKOUT: Adding To Our List
In 2018, we featured these wineries that are, of course, still great choices to visit.
Alexis Bailly Vineyard – Hastings
Aspelund Winery – Kenyon
Cannon River Winery – Cannon Falls
Chankaska Creek Ranch & Winery – Kasota
Falconer Vineyards – Red Wing
Four Daughters Vineyard – Rochester
Garvin Heights Vineyards – Winona
Morgan Creek Vineyards – New Ulm
Next Chapter Winery – New Prague
Painted Prairie – Currie
Salem Glen Winery – Rochester
Whitewater Wines – Plainview
By Heather Kuchinka