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April 23, 2010

Recession hasn't slowed Minnesota's vineyards

Originally published in the April 16, 2010, print edition.

By Dick Hagen
The Land Staff Writer

— A new industry quietly keeps ramping up in Minnesota. In 1990 Minnesota had eight grape growers. Today there are over 650 grape growers in the state with approximately 1,400 acres of vineyards. In 1997, Minnesota had three licensed wineries; today there are 36. Today the Minnesota wine and grape industry is generating nearly $40 million in yearly economic impact.

Two newcomers to the growing ranks of Minnesota grape growers are Tom Carlson and his wife, Joyce, of rural Darwin, who last spring planted 2 acres (about 1,300 vines) of Marquette grapes. Why? "We've been looking at this for about five years. The real key was the introduction of the Marquette variety and its excellent quality grape. That was the trigger," he said.

Genetic quality is a major trump card for Carlson, who has nearly 40 years in the selection and development of better corn hybrids, currently with Gold Country Seeds in Hutchinson. Though initially committed to the Marquette variety, he's curious about a few other Minnesota proven grape varieties too.

"It's the same process when you're trying to decide what variety of seed corn to plant. You often end up with three to four varieties. So I thank the University of Minnesota's horticultural research team. They have developed several winter-hardy grapes responsible for this industry expanding so rapidly up there in the northlands," Carlson said.

He sees his challenge as a grape grower as producing a product wanted by the consumer. Does that suggest a bit of the wine making process with their own grapes? "That's yet to be determined," chuckled Carlson, who won't have grapes to harvest until 2011. "We'll learn to grow good fruit first and then see what market opportunities there might be." His vineyard soils range from silt loam to clay loam, with both gravel base and silt loam subsoils. "The micro climate because of these varying soil types will be interesting for these vines."

Over 500 exhibitors at conference

Tom Martell, president of the Minnesota Grape Growers Association, reported that their 2010 Winter Conference in February had more than 500 exhibitors. The 2009 event registered 412 exhibitors. Each year they experience record attendance from grape growers and "wannabe" growers from throughout the state.

"A most notable event in 2009 was the International Cold Climate Wine Competition," Martell said. Some Minnesota wineries were winners in this prodigious event, with Faulkner Vineyards of Red Wing winning the Governor's Cup.

A new winery scheduled for an April 24 opening is Indian Island Winery of rural Janesville, developed by the Ray and Lisa Winter family. For several years they have grown and marketed Minnesota rootstocks and now have 12 acres of their own grape production.

"We've been building for two years. April 24 is our 'opening' and we're excited," said Lisa Winter. Their daughter, Angie, is enologist (wine maker) at this sparkling new facility. Son, Tom, manages the 12-acre vineyard. Daughter-in-law, Angela, handles the bookkeeping chores.

The MGGA winter conference is a huge event for Winterhaven. "It's important to network in this industry," Winter said. "And most importantly, we get to see face-to-face many of our customers. Even though 99 percent of our rootstock business is now done by phone or internet, meeting our customers at this event is so reassuring."

Like others in the winery business, the Winters stress the importance of building a total facility with an ambiance that attracts beyond the single adventure of sampling some local wines. Even the name Indian Island Winery builds off Indian history.

"Offering the experience of a leisurely visit with special landscaping effects and interests for the entire family is our goal," Winter said. "We're looking forward to see more wineries out here in the more rural areas of Minnesota because tourism benefits everyone."

Big for economic development

Coupled with the multiplying effects of each dollar spent on wine, a study of the Iowa wine industry indicated it now generates a $235 million economic impact. Iowa now has 74 licensed wineries and Iowa tourism and economic development groups have made Iowa vineyards and Iowa wineries a major focus. A recent Iowa newsletter claims that for each $1 spent on "Iowa" wine, $34 is cycled through the economy.

There's little doubt the Minnesota wine industry will continue to expand. Martell said that at an MGGA conference Q&A session with an audience of about 300, 17 hands were raised to the question: Are you considering a winery within the next five years? When asked, "Are you putting in, or expanding your vineyard the next couple of years?" Martell estimated at least 100 hands went up.

Is there a concern of over expansion? Martell said you are considered a "mature industry" when at least 6 percent of wine consumption comes from locally grown grapes. Iowa is approaching that mark; Minnesota is not.

Martell credited the Iowa legislature as being helpful in the development of their "in-state" industry but questioned similar ambitions by the Minnesota legislature for the growth of the Minnesota wine industry.

"Legislative backing is key. So to is the University of Minnesota and their R&D programs for viticulture. Both are engines helping to power the industry," Martell said.

He mentioned that Iowa State University saw fit to hire an Extension specialist to serve the Iowa grape and wine industry. Minnesota does not have such a specialist, and because of tighter budgeting that position is not likely to happen soon.

Lisa Winter agreed that more viticulture information would be most welcome. "We used to be corn and soybean growers but when we decided to diversify, we found there just wasn't a convenient source of good information about growing grapes and other crops."

Martell, however, cautioned about the supply-demand issue with any crop and its potential customers. Minnesota grower production might be outstripping winery capacities thus he too welcomes a future with even more Minnesota wineries.

Wine trails and wine tourism is still in its infancy and may never measure up to California's Napa Valley. But then again, it might. Something called the Tatanka Bluffs Corridor, bordering the Minnesota River Valley from Montevideo to New Ulm, is quietly ramping up with an entire agenda of tourism development, including winery tours to the eight wineries located in this scenic landscape area of west central Minnesota.

Where do you start?

If the "grape growing fever" is catching you, where do you start? Martell suggested buying a book offered by the MGGA, "Growing Grapes in Minnesota," now in its eighth edition and considered the most complete primer in the Upper Midwest. He also suggested starting small; an acre with about 600 vines depending upon row spacing, etc. And recognize your first harvestable grape crop doesn't happen until the fourth year.

Winter agreed that reading, talking with other growers and your local wineries, plus going to meetings such as the winter conference of the MGGA is all part of the process of getting ready to become a Minnesota grape producer.

Use Minnesota winter-hardy varieties

Thanks to the grape program of the U of M, there are several variety choices. A visit to a local winery is also recommended. For example, Hinterland Vineyards, at the Ron and Karen Koenen farm near Clara City, now grows 5,800 vines on nine acres and opened its new winery last fall with this wine list.

. La Crescent - Semi-dry white table wine

. Frontenac Gris - Semi-sweet white table wine

. Frontenac - Dry red table wine

. Marquette - Dry red table wine

. Bin 1472 - Rose blend

. Happy Creek Red - Semi-sweet red table wine

. "45" - Dessert wine

Their brochure reads: "Our labor in the vineyards ends in an experience that can be taken in and shared with family and friends, to bring people together in conversation and laughter."

Koenen suggested starting with a couple different varieties, and at least 200 to 300 vines of each variety so that you have enough potential production to interest your local winery. Winter also suggested multiple varieties so that your harvest isn't squeezed into just a single weekend. Knowing how and where to market your grapes ultimately is key to your success as a grower. So taking advice from your potential buyer often dictates varietal choices.

Perhaps easily ignored, but paramount to financial success, is producing quality. "Your winery can't make quality wine unless you market quality grapes. And contract your production ahead of harvest," Martell said. His five-acre vineyard operation across the St. Croix River Valley in Somerset, Wis., produces about 15 tons of grapes yearly, "and our grapes are sold Dec. 31 preceding the year of harvest."

As you get bigger in the business, multiple varieties are a necessity simply to spread the workload of spring, summer and fall harvest over multiple days. This also gives you the opportunity of multiple marketing outlets. Martell, for example, has sold portions of his crop to three different wineries. His 2010 crop, however, was contracted with just a single winery. "We love them. We think they are a great winery."

The Winters, with 12 acres of their own production, are self sufficient at this stage. "But we are hoping in years to come that we have to buy additional grapes," Lisa said.

Hand harvesting is the labor of love in this business. That means great weekend opportunities for church groups, 4-H clubs, etc. Many growers report friends and families are now making the annual grape harvest a special event. It's even becoming part of fall tourism packages in Minnesota.

"People want to visit the wineries. And people also want to get involved in the vineyard, often offering to help with the harvest just for that special touch provided by the environment of a beautiful vineyard," Martell said. Volunteers making an event out of harvesting grapes are becoming special.

Economics of growing grapes

Based on current grape prices (65 cents to 80 cents per pound), and predictable yields of upwards of 3 tons per acre, it takes about 45 acres of grapes to support a family of four. But that means extra labor and mechanical harvesting equipment, which when new is expensive. Used harvesters from the heavy grape growing regions of New York, Michigan or California are showing up in Minnesota. The Winters, for example, purchased a used machine out of California.

"But I think what might happen with the mechanical harvesting machines is that they will be purchased and operated cooperatively among several growers within a local area," Martell said.

You get some idea of harvesting challenges from this comparison: a 300-foot row yielding upwards of 6,000 pounds per acre takes four to six hours to hand harvest, while a mechanical harvester gets that row done in about 5 minutes.

Suffice to say grape growing and wine making is quietly emerging as one of Minnesota's new and exciting industries. That speaks well for the expanding interest in locally grown foods across the entire Minnesota landscape.

"Minnesota wineries are producing very good wines. And as more of their product gets entered into wine tasting competition across America, recognition will come on much faster," said Bill Gartner, University of Minnesota economist.

"The association (MGGA) needs to make more people aware of their award-winning wines. This will be a continuously growing industry for some time. Virtually all growers responding to our survey indicate they intend to expand. The same for most of the wineries. So this is a young industry with lots of ambition, and certainly huge growth potential," Gartner said.

He cautioned the still-infant Minnesota wine industry about pricing "to meet the competition." That would mean selling $8 to $10 wine; Gartner said grape growers and wineries can't make a living at those prices. "So emphasize the value of Minnesota 'locally grown' grapes and sell your wines in the $14 to $20 range. You're selling quality, not price, and that's important when selling against imported wines."

For more information, log on to www.mngrapes.org. Tom Martell may be reached at tom.martell@mngrapes.org.