Taste of Minnesota

After decades of work, Minnesota winemakers are finally seeing the fruits of their labors—bottles that may someday compete with the best American wines.

FIRST, A CONFESSION: As a wine enthusiast and tourist, I’m jaded and skeptical. My line of work has led me inside some of the best cellars in America’s most idyllic wine country. At the same time, I’ve also witnessed the increasing Disneyification of these regions: hyperorganized tour packages, appointment-only tasting rooms, and party busses full of stumbling inebriates who can’t seem to distinguish a wine tour from a pub crawl. Wine tourism has become Big Business, and amid that change, the American wine industry has lost a little piece of its soul—the piece that should remind us that we’re visiting farms, not the Magic Kingdom. When I want to tour some wineries, I now seek out the paths less traveled: Long Island, Washington State, some hardscrabble corners of Oregon.

Lucky for us, wine tourism in Minnesota is still a burgeoning industry. To this cynical sightseer, that’s a good thing. It’s still possible to drop by a winery unannounced, enjoy a quiet picnic amongst the vines, chat with passionate winemakers, and taste their hard work without feeling compelled to load your truck full of cardboard cases (though buying a bottle or two before you leave is always, always, good wine-tourist manners).

Before we tour our state’s tasting rooms, however, let’s agree on something: We can—and should—stop expressing our surprise that Minnesota has a wine industry. There are now wineries operating in all 50 states. That’s right, they’re even making wine in Alaska (to pair with salmon, I presume). New grape varieties and high-tech winery gizmos—combined with our increasingly temperate climate—have made it possible to grow grapes pretty much anywhere. All this makes Minnesota’s 35-year-old wine industry seem downright established. By my count, there are 18 wineries in Minnesota, and most—if not all—of them are making respectable wines. They might not be 90-point wines, but the best of them show the same glimmers of potential displayed by bottles from other wine regions in their formative years; they convey a sense of terroir—the taste of a specific place. That is, they taste like Minnesota.

With this in mind, I plotted a very manageable one-day road trip around four wineries, all within 30 miles of the Twin Cities. Most of these operations have been around long enough for their vines to mature (older vines typically mean better wine; plus, the wine-makers have had enough time to figure out how to make the most of our difficult grape-growing climate). In their tasting rooms I hoped to discover this taste of Minnesota, bottled and ready to drink.

I begin my day, fittingly, at the birthplace of Minnesota wine:

Alexis Bailly Vineyard. The winery was founded in 1973 by a Francophilic Minneapolis attorney named David Bailly who planted 20 acres near Hastings with French vines. The problem was, his vines would rather grow in France. Although Minnesota shares the same latitude with Bordeaux, the vines hadn’t experienced our sub-zero temperatures and shorter growing seasons. So Bailly adapted, experimenting with new hybrids and burying his vines in dirt so they could endure the winter. He succeeded, and the Minnesota wine industry was born.

The driveway leading up to the winery is flanked by vines, and at the end sits the winery Bailly built from Minnesota pine and limestone. It’s an early-autumn morning, and the sun is blasting through scattered storm clouds and setting the barn-red building ablaze, creating a scene that’s about as picturesque as our state’s wine country gets.

A quote posted in the tasting room—which is also the winery’s barrel cellar—sums up the Baillys’ winemaking philosophy. It’s from Baron Philippe de Rothschild, patriarch of France’s grand Chateau Mouton Rothschild, in reference to how easy it is to grow grapes in California compared to Bordeaux: “To develop character, great wines must go through hardship. Snow. Drought. Storms. There must be suffering to produce it.”

David Bailly agreed, and adapted this quote as his winery’s slogan: “Where the grapes can suffer.” Since Bailly passed away in 1990, his daughter, Nan, has been running the operation. Although she has continued to develop new ways of adapting French hybrid grapes to our harsh climate, she admits it’s still “a Sisyphean task.” I station myself at the tasting bar while she pours a few of the nine wines Alexis Bailly produces. Although Bailly vineyard is best known for its fortified wines—the raisiny, port-like Hastings Reserve and an orange-and spice-infused Ratafia—it also makes some of Minnesota’s best dry wines, including the crisp, clean Seyval Blanc and my favorite, the Voyageur, a blend of the vineyard’s oldest and youngest, which is as complex and balanced as a good California Merlot.

I head 20 minutes south to one of the state’s newer wineries, Cannon River Winery, built inside an old Chevy dealership in downtown Cannon Falls. When I enter the building, I’m greeted by the wild, evocative scent of fermenting grapes. If you’ve never smelled the inside of a winery, a trip to Cannon River—where the winemaking takes place in the same room that visitors taste the finished product—is worth your time just to experience that scent for yourself: There’s nothing else like it. Plus, if you visit during harvest time (in September), you can watch the winemaking in action, which is the best way to educate oneself on the vine-to-table process.

The winery was started in 2004 by Maureen and John Maloney, who manage a 20-acre vineyard—Minnesota’s largest—about 10 minutes away. They built the facility with big groups in mind: There’s a demo kitchen and space enough for big events, plus a private-reserve room. The Maloneys make a diverse selection of wines—15 at my count—using an approach I don’t know exists until I ask Maureen about the provenance of the grapes listed on her bottles, which include varieties like Chardonnay, Zinfandel, and Syrah, which I thought couldn’t grow in Minnesota. Turns out they can’t. But licensed winemakers in Minnesota are allowed to mingle local grapes with fruit trucked in from California, Oregon, or anywhere else for that matter. (Just 51 percent of the juice used by local wineries must come from local vineyards.) The Maloneys use this rule to their advantage, blending some of their wines with California grapes to give them the kind of depth and complexity we’re used to finding in non-Minnesotan wines. “It helps us make very unique blends that you won’t find elsewhere,” she says, “but we want to gradually phase out the California grapes and focus entirely on our own.”

Because I don’t have the fortitude to taste all 15 bottles, I decide to taste the two wines made exclusively with native grapes. I’m pleasantly surprised. With its herbal, grassy nose and tropical-fruit flavors, the St. Pepin evokes Sauvignon Blanc. Next I try Sogn Blanc, made from Maloney-grown Edelweiss grapes, a hybrid developed by the late University of Minnesota horticulturist Elmer Swenson, who developed several cold-hardy grapes and who had a profound impact on the local wine industry. The Sogn Blanc is round and slightly sweet, with ripe peach flavors and a long, grapey finish. As soon as I take my first sip, it becomes my favorite Minnesota white.

By afternoon the storm clouds have consumed the sun, and by the time I finish the 50-mile drive to Northern Vineyards Winery in downtown Stillwater, rain is imminent. I’m greeted there by winemaker Robin Partch, who sources grapes from 25 wineries in Minnesota and Wisconsin, all members of the Minnesota Winegrowers Cooperative, which established the winery in 1983.

Northern Vineyards is probably the best place to experience the breadth of Minnesota terroir. The tasting room pours about 25 wines, most of which are made exclusively with local grapes. Many of these are made from Swenson-developed hybrids, including St. Pepin, Edelweiss, and LaCrosse.

There’s also an especially distinct, port-like dessert wine called Ruby Minnesota, which Partch makes by blending different vintages of Frontenac—a vine introduced by the U of M in 1996, which can withstand cold winters without being buried—with wine made from wild grapes indigenous to the nearby St. Croix River valley. (Throughout the day, some of the best wines I taste are derivatives of port: concentrated, complex, and full of dark cherry flavors. Some say these wines are what Minnesota vintners do best. I’m not surprised, as it’s easier to mix and blend different grapes and vintages than it is to produce a single-harvest varietal wine.)
Partch takes me into the winery to show me his giant oak barrels, which he uses instead of the standard stainless-steel tanks to ferment some of his white wines; the oak is supposed to add depth and complexity you can’t achieve with steel alone. Back in the tasting room, we try one of these barrel-fermented wines: Prairie Smoke, a dry white made from LaCrosse grapes. It’s a crisp, delicate beauty, with subtle grapefruit flavors. We finish our tasting with Partch’s flagship wine, the St. Croix Reserve, made from, you guessed it, St. Croix grapes. It’s medium-bodied and deeply plummy, though overwhelmed by tannins, and will improve with a few years of aging.

I drive a few miles west to Saint Croix Vineyards, which opened in 1992. As I pull into the parking lot, the sky unloads buckets of rain. I dash inside the century-old barn that serves as the tasting room, joining a throng of would-be picnic-goers.

The winery is one of the best places to taste the future of Minnesota wines. Co-owner Peter Hemstad spent more than 20 years breeding grapes at the U of M, and his vineyards continue to be a test site for new hybrids, including its latest creation, Marquette (which is still too young to make drinkable wines in sufficient quantities. Check back in a couple of years). The tasting-room manager, Matthew Scott, walks me through the winery’s 11 offerings. The most exciting are also some of the most obscure I’ve tasted today. There’s the semisweet Delaware, made from a grape found in Ohio in the 1850s, a relative of the Catawba and Niagara grapes that’s rarely planted today. It’s a shame, because the wine it produces is great, with big, tropical-fruit flavors and a flowery nose. I also love the Vignoles, a French-born variety with a racy acidity and peach flavors. It reminds me of an off-dry Riesling.

Saint Croix also makes the only Minnesota rosé I’ve enjoyed, a summery, cherry-flavored beauty made from Frontenac grapes. (If you ever taste a Frontenac-based wine and aren’t sure how to describe it, just say “cherry” and you’re set.) My theory is proven with my final taste of the day: a garnet-colored Frontenac aged in American oak. It’s a bright, tangy cherry bomb with—what’s this?—a whisper of earthiness that I haven’t tasted in any of the wines I’ve tasted today.

This is the Minnesota terroir I’ve been looking for. It’s not the best glass of wine I’ve ever tasted but—like many of the wines I tasted today—it’s more than quaffable. More importantly, it was made by someone hard-headed enough to attempt grape-growing in this crazy climate of ours. Plus, I got to meet this stubborn winemaker and hear his story as he proudly poured me a glass.

Minnesota will likely not become the next Napa, and that makes me happy. Why? Because if Frontenac and Edelweiss wines start scoring 95 points in the Wine Spectator and the limousines start lining up in front of Alexis Bailly, I’m heading for Alaska.

If you go

Alexis Bailly Vineyard
18200 Kirby Ave.

Cannon River Winery
421 Mill St. W.
Cannon Falls

Northern Vineyards Winery
223 Main St. N.

Saint Croix Vineyards
6428 Manning Ave. N.

Nick Fauchald, a former editor at Minnesota Monthly, is an editor at Food & Wine in New York.