Rustic Roots winery burst onto the scene this past September just 20 minutes North of Stillwater on Highway 95.
Owners Andrea and Greg Sandager are new to the winery business, but have proven their knack for having a green thumb with Greg as the third-generation Abrahamson’s Nursery, a garden center and landscaping business located directly across Hwy 95 from Rustic Roots.
The Sandagers purchased the property for Rustic Roots which included a custom home built in the early 90’s and spanning 80 acres. The home was renovated down to the studs to transform it into the Rustic Roots tasting room: an airy space with elevated ceilings and a natural flow into spacious patios. Their immaculately landscaped grounds flow effortlessly into the rolling hills of their vineyards flanking the Saint Croix River Valley.
“Part of what makes their site great is that the vineyard is on a hill, which makes for excellent drainage,” noted Annie Klodd, Extension Coordinator at the University of Minnesota and a consultant to the winery.
“The reason that is important is that while grapevines need water just like all crops do, they don’t like ‘wet feet’”, said Klodd, continuing that an east-facing slope means “the sunlight hits them early in the morning, helping them warm up and dry off.”
15 acres of vineyards were planted in the spring of 2020, with an 8-acre expansion planned for this coming spring. The varieties planted include the three Frontenac grapes (blanc, gris, and red), Itasca, Marquette, Brianna, Petite Pearl and LaCrescent.
It will take a few years for the vines to bear fruit, but Rustic Roots has been working with grape growers in the nearby area to source locally-grown varieties and also bringing in many of the same varieties that grow in Minnesota from Washington to round out their wine production. The tasting menu features 10 wines from the 2019 vintage.
Winemaker Jason Kleschult is no novice to fermentations, having cut his teeth working for Wild Mountain Winery. Kleschult describes his winemaking style as “fruit forward and balanced, with an emphasis on letting the grapes shine with minimal intervention.”
As if nothing that could be fermented will escape him, Klelschult also produces cider, and is a brewer for Trap Rock Brewing Company in Saint Croix Falls, WI.
Pandemic or not, here we come
Tasting room manager Allison Sheardy packed up her bags in the midst of a pandemic and relocated from California to Minnesota in July to work for Rustic Roots. An opportunity too exciting to pass up, to “work for a family-run business, and have the opportunity to be involved in building a winery from the ground up,” as Sheardy puts it.
Minnesota’s cold-hardy varieties nor the cold weather are entirely new territory for Sheardy, who has lived in Vermont, but admits that she’s not an expert in Minnesota varieties – yet — and that “having a whole new region of wine to dig into was really appealing”.
Sheardy is likely one of the most decorated wine professionals working in Minnesota’s wine industry. She is in the final stages of completing the Diploma Level 4 certification in wine, the highest level of recognition offered by the Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET). Completion of the diploma involves at minimum, two years of study, plus passing 5 rigorous exams and completing a research paper.
Launching a new business during a pandemic isn’t something most business owners prepare for, but the Sandagers had a head start on Rustic Roots’ expansive outdoor space already in the fall of 2019. “We started working on the project about a year and a half ago, before COVID,” said Andrea, noting that their background in landscaping helped them to get the patios done pretty quickly.
Rustic Roots’ outdoor space includes three separate patio areas, a pond and waterfall, and a spacious pergola complete with fire pits. The pergola features curtains to break the wind and an Airstream trailer converted into a wine bar so that guests can opt to grab a sip without having to set foot indoors during busy weekends.
“If there is a positive, it was that we knew what the COVID restrictions were as we were opening, and we were able to adapt easily to meet the guidelines,” Sandager added, noting that another positive is the speed at which Rustic Roots has already been selling wine over the mere four weeks since they opened, “more than doubling the production already in 2020,” according to Sandager.
What to expect & what’s to come
The tasting at Rustic Roots is $10 and includes 5 pours. Guests can choose from any wines on the menu, will receive their flight at once, and then can choose where they want to take it to enjoy on the property. Advance reservations are not required, but guests are welcome to call ahead to verify availability: 651-433-3311.
Their wines are clean and bright, well-balanced with a complexity that can be hard to find in the local market. Top favorites for me were the Marquette and Rustic Roots Red, for their noticeable tannin that I find is often missing in cold-hardy reds, and the La Crescent for its sublime balance and complexity of fruit ranging from tart pineapple to rich stone-fruit.
A chef was recently added to their staff with a food menu to follow.
Rustic Roots will be open year around, and they are stacked with heaters to extend the comfort of Minnesota’s outdoors for as long as possible. Keep an eye out for the possible addition of winter outdoor activities!
Looking forward to the next few years, Rustic Roots plans to add port and ice wine to their program. As their vines begin producing fruit, they will be able to add their own estate wines, as well.
Visit Rustic Roots at online at rusticroots.wine