Chris Dinesen Rogers opens our eyes to a wine-friendly corner of the harsh Mid West. You can find links to all the other articles in this series in Writing competition 2019 – latest.
Wine isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when someone says Waconia, Minnesota. But you’d be missing out on something special if you didn’t give it a sip. What can you say about a town that has a lake – of course! – with a place once known as Paradise Island?
Waconia is located in east-central Minnesota about 35 miles southeast of Minneapolis. It is a bucolic setting, dotted with hobby farms spread across rolling hills. A gem like this couldn’t stay hidden forever. The town has caught the attention of many city dwellers, looking for a respite from the hustle and bustle of urban living. Waconia offers it all, along with some delightful wines.
Minnesota Nice is the name for the politeness and courtesy of the people you’ll find when visiting the state. There are three wineries in the so-called Waconia Triangle that embrace this notion and then some. Each one promises a unique experience. All capture a heartfelt passion for everything wine. But first, let’s talk grapes.
It certainly helps the wineries that they are a mere stone’s throw from the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum Horticultural Research Center. That gives them the necessary expertise to meet the challenges of the state’s cold climate head-on. Researchers at the University of Minnesota strive to develop cold-hardy and disease-resistant grape varieties.
The other obstacle is fertility. The soils of central to southern Minnesota are nutrient-rich. They fuel vine vigour so much that vintners must fight to force them to focus on berry growth instead of their lush foliage. However, the winters still put them to the test with freezing temperatures and snow. The results are wines with bold acidity and flavours that dare you not to take notice of them.
Frontenac was one of the institution’s great success stories, dating back to 1996. It is a beguiling wine with crisp notes of plum and cherry that dance on the palate. Next, there was La Crescent, a wine reminiscent of a fine Riesling with its aromas of pear and tropical fruits. Frontenac Gris hit the scene in 2003 with tantalising notes of peach and apricot.
Then, in 2006, Marquette made its debut. It has a Burgundy-like character with medium acidity and juicy scents of raspberry, cherry, and a bit of earthiness with smoke for balance. The latest addition to the cold-hardy varieties is Itasca, a winemaker’s grape. It brings lower acidity and superior disease resistance. Its story is yet to be told, having just been released to nurseries in 2017.
The development of these winter-hardy grapes paved the way for the burgeoning wine industry in the state. Here are just three of the treasures that await the wine lover. Their stories are intertwined with partnerships that support each other and the local economy.
Owners of Parley Lake Winery, Lin and Bonnie Deardorff along with Steve and Deb Zeller, began planting vines in 2005 for Parley Lake Winery, established in 2008. The rest, as they say, is history. Plantings include all five of the hybrid grapes, including the Itasca, set to hit the stage in 2020.
The tasting room is a restored 1885 barn which gives the winery a pleasing rustic feel. They offer both flights and wine by the glass. Live music including its Concert in the Vines series along with a variety of visiting food trucks strikes the perfect note. Visitors can take a sculpture stroll through its peaceful gardens. Art is on the menu in July with the annual ArtStock Wine & Art Festival.
Parley Lake Winery produces single varietals and signature blends. And the labels are as beautiful as the contents, thanks to the Artisan Series Wine. Each vintage features the work of a Minnesota artist. Many of their wines are award-winning too, including its 2015 Marquette Red Wine which garnered high praise at the International Cold Climate Wine Competition.
Sovereign Estate is more than a winery. It is open year-round with a full slate of events, including live music on the weekends with its Sunsets at Sovereign series. Located on Lake Waconia, it offers visitors stunning views of the water and countryside. Its bistro menu features satisfying appetisers and made-to-order pizzas, including its famous cheeseboard for two with its delicious tomato dipping oil.
The wine selection at Sovereign Estate includes all four winter-hardy grapes and ones from Washington State and New York. All wines are fermented and bottled on-site. Its wines have captured the hearts of locals and tourists alike. The magazine Taste of Home called it the best winery in Minnesota.
The winery invites visitors to get a true wine experience at its annual Grape Stomp and Jam Festival, just in time for the September harvest. The event includes the grape stomp competition where teams vie for who can get the most juice in a nod toward traditional winemaking. There is live music, a barbecue and vineyard tours.
Schram Vineyards Winery & Brewery is the first of its kind in Minnesota, crafting both beverages on-site. Owners, Aaron and Ashley, chucked city life and headed to the country to chase a dream. Luckily, they found it. Visitors can enjoy wines in the Tasting Room or in the Barrel Room for a seated tasting of pre-selected wines. The Tasting Room Kitchen provides a rotating section of nibbles and treats.
Their wine selection includes Minnesota and sourced grapes. Schram Vineyards Winery & Brewery produces white, red, specialty, and reserve bottles, including its Last Course Dessert Wine and 2016 Sangiovese. Their wines have won several awards, such as the coveted Finger Lakes International Wine Competition. The beers feature a wide range of styles from IPA to porter to German Weissbier.
And no winery would be complete without bocce ball. Schram Vineyards Winery & Brewery hosts leagues that run through the spring and summer. Their on-going list of events includes their popular Schrampagne Sundays with brunch and a glass of bubbly, of course.
Wine enthusiasts may view these winter-hardy wines with a sceptical eye. After all, they are the new kids on the block. But think of it like this. When they hit the international stage by storm, you can say you were there from the beginning. Napa Valley had to start somewhere too.