Why are Minnesota Winemakers Moving to California?

There’s something about beer and wine that makes us dream big (could be the alcohol). And while Minnesota has recently seen dozens of entrepreneurs get into the booming microbrewery business, the state is also home to more than 30 winemakers, who are busy tending vineyards and fermenting grape juice.  

Of course, in Minnesota, the grape vines have to survive temperatures as low as 30 below, which means that many vintners plant Frontenac and La Crescent grapes and make a lot of fairly sweet wines. But there are also a surprising number of Minnesotans who moved westward to realize visions of creating the perfect Pinot or classic Chardonnay.

One such transplant is Robert Hall, head of the titular winery in Paso Robles, California. Before wine, Hall, 84, made his living in bowling alleys and owned 15 Carlson Wagonlit Travel agencies. About 20 years ago, he headed west to swap bowling lanes for rows of grapes.

“I wanted to go into the wine business, but I couldn’t do it in Minnesota,” Hall says. And while he could have opened a winery in Minnesota, the potential for growth would have been limited. On his vast California property, Hall just planted an extra 80 acres of grapes (“I’ll be 88 when that’s ready,” he laughs) and plans to build an on-site hotel and restaurant—businesses that Minnesota wine tourists wouldn’t likely be able to sustain. Still, those of us back in the tundra can benefit from Hall’s bounty: his excellent Merlot sells for less than $20 in liquor stores around the state.

Iron Range–born Robert Mondavi may be the most famous Minnesotan to make wine in California, but there are several other notables. If you’ve enjoyed an Opolo wine, it’s because Rick Quinn left Duluth for Paso Robles. And if you’ve appreciated a Stephen Ross Edna Valley Chardonnay, it’s thanks to Stephen Ross Dooley leaving Mankato to study agriculture in San Luis Obispo.

Dooley’s winery has just 27 vines—for decoration. (He calls it “an urban winery.”) Dooley owns eight acres of Pinot grapes nearby but buys most of his fruit from other California growers. He currently makes 17,000 cases of wine a year, including that great Chardonnay, which is sold widely in the metro area.

Dooley’s newest brand, Flying Cloud, is named after the airport in Eden Prairie. He’s now working on an as-of-yet-unnamed Flying Cloud red blend. If it ends up being Flying Cloud Runway, I’ll be claiming some of the credit.

Jason Derusha is a morning anchor at WCCO-TV. Have a dining mystery you want Jason to solve? Email him at DeRushaEats@gmail.com.