I had the pleasure of attending the Minnesota Grape Growers Association’s “Cold Climate Conference” last week. The conference spanned 3 days and included everything from how to analyze the soil and select a vineyard site, to scaling up an operation for commercial production, as well as sensory training for winemakers.
I’ll be honest: I still can’t tell you the first thing about drift issues or pesticide safety. While this conference was aimed at professionals in the grape-growing and winemaking industries — not necessarily wine writers, I had a total blast. Here’s why…
If you’ve ever had a really good sommelier or wine steward at a restaurant, you were probably also served up an intoxicating story that took you to a tiny island off the coast of Spain, down into their generations old wine cellar, and back to your table.
When you walk into a tasting room locally, you’ll get the same experience of being entertained, but in ways you never imagined — and it won’t come with a hefty restaurant markup and uncorking fee. While the region has a number of large operations, the vast majority of the locations on Minnesota Uncorked’s winery map are small and family-owned businesses. Rather than a sommelier in a restaurant relaying a story of how this wine survived the great Napa ‘quake of 2014 — he wasn’t really there, by the way — around here you’re likely to be delighted and entertained with first-hand knowledge from the folks who actually do everything from digging in the dirt, to corking the wine.
I loved having the opportunity to meet a number of pioneers in the cold-climate wine industry, who you’re likely to meet behind the bar in their own tasting rooms.
Head up to Kimball, Minnesota to Millner Heritage Winery and learn about the Millner Family’s traditional Hungarian style of wine-making. Laugh as you try to pronounce the names of their wines —like Schnickelfritz, then promptly forget how to pronounce it anyway after listening to a few of Jon Millner’s jokes. And, if you’re wondering if that’s really how he talks or if he’s acting, the answer is yes. Prost!
A private tasting appointment at Vinmark Estates in Hastings, MN might be a short drive from the city, but you’ll be amazed at the quiet peacefulness of Neil and Cyndy Bahr’s homestead there, Bahrstead’s Farm. If you caught yourself thinking a “private appointment” is sure to be an awkward experience — or maybe that’s just me — you’ll quickly forget about it, either when you meet the Bahr’s and are put at ease by their lighthearted nature — or after you kick back a few sips of wine.
A drive out to Isanti, Minnesota won’t get you a wine tasting — but you’ll be enchanted by the views from the Stone Lion Vineyard Bed & Breakfast. The Stone Lion Vineyard doesn’t have an operating tasting room, but is a short drive from several wineries, such as North Folk Winery and North Ridge Winery. If you haven’t used Air B&B for booking before, you can save $20 with my code, www.airbnb.com/c/lvoigt8 — and I get a little kickback, too!
Head down to La Crescent, MN (hey, isn’t that a wine?!) and you’ll find that wizards from Hoch Orchard have plenty of new experiments to try on you, from ciders to wines, and even ICE CIDER! No fancy tasting rooms here — just pure grit, fresh organic products and dazzling cider and fruit wine.
These are just a few of the hardworking hands I had the pleasure of shaking during my days at the conference. I’m looking forward to planning trips to visit many of them, and while I look forward to bringing their stories to you here on Minnesota Uncorked – I’d encourage you to get out and visit them yourself, too!
On the last evening of the conference 1,200 people attended the 4th annual Winter Wine Fest – where 33 winemakers were pouring samples — and telling stories. Keep an eye out for the Minnesota Grape Growers Association’s Summer Wine Fest (date TBD) – Summer Wine Fest is an open-air market, where you can purchase wine as well. Sign up for my emails and you’ll get a notice when it’s coming!
And lastly… if you were worried the folks working were to busy to have any fun (there’s always leftovers…)