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John and Alex Falconer

John (left) and Alex Falconer of Falconer Vineyards in Red Wing, Minnesota.

Grape expectations

U plant breeding has transformed the Minnesota wine industry

By Sarah Barker

May 5, 2006

Until recent times, any wine grape that could survive Minnesota's harsh climate was celebrated--cherished solely for its strength of character. It seemed too much to ask that it also taste good. This spring, however, the University of Minnesota's Horticultural Research Center will release the much-anticipated Marquette, a cold-hardy, disease-resistant grape that yields a pinot noir-like red wine comparable to that produced in sunny California. Marquette marks the fourth variety released in six years by the University's grape-breeding program--a shot in the arm for the emerging Minnesota wine industry and an unlikely boost for traditional Minnesota agriculture.

"Our mandate was to develop more varieties of high-quality, cold-hardy grapes," says Peter Hemstad, the grape breeder at the Horticulture Research Center (HRC). "I think we've done that. Twenty years ago, there was one commercial winery in Minnesota. Now there are 16 wineries, about 50 commercial vineyards, and more than a hundred small hobby vineyards. Well over half of those grapes are varieties developed here at the HRC."

One of those commercial vineyards is Winterhaven Vineyard and Nursery in Janesville, Minnesota, owned by Ray Winter. He grows some of the University's new varieties and is licensed to propagate vines the U releases. Eighty to 90 percent of Winterhaven Nursery's stock is University-developed grapes.

As a farmer who also grows 650 acres of corn and soybeans, Winter sees grapes as good business-an in-demand, high-value crop that diversifies his crop portfolio. "I make between $4,000 and $5,000 [net profit] per acre of grapes. When I have 10 to 12 acres of fully producing grapes, I'll make as much from them as I do from the 650 acres of corn and beans," he says. "Of course," he adds, "you can't grow grapes from a tractor." Much of the work, pruning and harvesting, must be done by hand. To be a licensed winery in Minnesota, at least 51 percent of the juice must come from Minnesota-grown grapes. "Now several of my neighbors are growing grapes. The wineries can't get enough. I think it will be a long time before there are too many grapes in Minnesota," Winter says.

Viticulture in Minnesota

Viticulture is the cultivating of vines that leads to wine making. The activity is alive at the University of Minnesota. To learn more, read "Seeking a cup of the cold-hardy.

For a list of Minnesota wineries, most of which open to the public this month, visit the Minnesota Grape Growers Association.

Evidence connects wine and other alcoholic beverages to good health; to learn more, read "To your health!"

Tour the U's experimental vineyard and learn firsthand how the U develops cold-hardy grapes when you register for Wine Made in Minnesota, a Curiosity Camp sponsored by the College of Continuing Education.

Although Minnesota is not strongly reminiscent of Napa Valley, grapes are native to Minnesota and grow wild as far north as Manitoba. "Horticultural records show that the area around Minnetonka was filled with vineyards in 1885," says John Marshall, secretary of the Minnesota Grape Growers Association (MGGA). The University has had a grape-breeding program since 1907, but the advent of the railroad, which brought grapes and wine from California, followed by the temperance movement, effectively crushed the Minnesota wine industry.

In 1944, the problem of developing cold-hardy grapes was approached by a Wisconsin dairy farmer. Considered by many to be the father of grape growing in Minnesota, Elmer Swenson worked for 50 years developing varieties still grown today in Minnesota and other northern states. "He didn't have a degree but he really knew his stuff," Hemstad says. Swenson did much of the time-consuming cross breeding on his farm. In 1969, he approached the University of Minnesota, showed them what he had developed, and was offered a job as a gardener at the Horticultural Research Center. Swenson and the University jointly released Edelweiss and Swenson Red in 1978. Swenson released La Crosse and St. Croix varieties in the early 1980s.

In 1973, attorney and gentleman farmer David A. Bailly (J.D. '56) planted French hybrids near Hastings, Minnesota, and started Alexis Bailly Vineyard. These grapes were not cold-hardy and had to be planted at an angle, then tipped and buried in a straw-covered trench over the winter. "To say it was labor-intensive is not a strong-enough term," says Marshall. Despite the pampering, vines do not appreciate being buried and many die. But even more die if they aren't buried. French hybrids, such as Marechal Foche, are still grown in Minnesota but they are rapidly becoming obsolete, replaced by hardy University of Minnesota varieties.

Even though Bailly's was the only commercial winery in Minnesota for more than a decade, interest in growing grapes and regional wineries increased in the 1980s due to a blend of reasons, including poor crop prices, an entrepreneurial streak, stubbornness or determination ("who says I can't grow grapes?"), and the romance of dew-jeweled clusters hanging heavy in the sun. In 1984, the MGGA asked the Minnesota State Legislature for $125,000 per year for a viticulture (grape-breeding) and enology program at the University to develop grapes as a new high-value crop for small farms. The growers argued that grapes would improve traditional farmers' income potential, diversify crops, and augment the state's tourism industry.

The following year, Hemstad joined Jim Luby (Ph.D. '82), a horticulture professor who is responsible for all fruit breeding at the University, as the HRC's grape breeder. Among the challenges Hemstad faced was developing cold-hardy (meaning the vines could survive winters without being buried), disease-resistant grapes that ripened quickly, had an orderly growth pattern, and contained the right chemical balance of sugars, tannins, and acid to produce a mainstream, commercially acceptable wine-and on a shoestring budget at one of the most northerly latitudes of any wine-producing region in the world. He got right on it.

The HRC's 11-acre vineyard near the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum west of Chanhassen is the setting for the vinous version of "Survivor." "Every year we plant out about 3,000 seedling crosses," Hemstad says. "We don't spray them, we don't cover them. The few that survive the rigorous selection process are probably cold-hardy and disease-resistant."

Less than 1 percent of the seedlings are selected for further testing. A few selections are given to experimental growers around the state and other research stations around the nation to further test the vines' mettle in various environments. In the fourth and fifth year, fruit from selections are made into wine that is evaluated by a panel of growers and wine experts. In all, it takes about 15 years to produce a named variety: the ultimate survivor.

"About one of every 10,000 seedlings has all the qualities necessary to become a named variety," Hemstad says. The University has released four varieties: Frontenac, Frontenac gris, La Crescent, and now Marquette.

Wine facts uncorked

* Cold-hardy vines generally have higher salinity in their cells that keeps them from freezing.

* One acre of grapes is about 650 vines.

* One acre of vines produces between three and five tons of grapes at about $1,200 per ton profit (start-up costs can be $7,000 per acre).

* Twelve pounds of grapes equals one gallon or five bottles of wine.

* Tannins are not a flavor, but rather a mouth feel or texture that add complexity to wine.

* European winemakers traditionally added bovine blood, egg whites, or milk to clarify wine during the winemaking process, but these are rarely used today.

* A student at the University of Minnesota wishing to pursue viticulture would major in horticulture; a student concentrating on enology would major in food science.

* Wine has been described as figgy, herbal, jammy, briary, big, explosive, toasty, supple, forward, having an elegant frame, and spicy with a long savor of pie crust.

* "You can't make good wine from bad grapes, but you can make bad wine from good grapes" are University enologist Anna Katharine Mansfield's words to live by.

To speed up the snail's pace of vine production, most commercial nurseries pay a horticultural lab to culture the plant material. Hemstad says one grape bud can produce a million vines in one year via tissue culture, though there is always some attrition. The University provides plants to about a dozen nurseries in Minnesota and other northern states. (According to the U's Office of Patents and Technology Marketing, in 2005 the University received about $35,000 in licensing fees from Frontenac, Frontenac gris, and La Crescent-a substantial increase over the three previous years. The U sold about 80,000 Frontenac vines in 2005.)

John Falconer, owner of Falconer Vineyards in Red Wing, is bullish on Minnesota grapes-and Marquette in particular. He first became licensed as a nursery and later as a winery, selling, growing, and producing wine from University-developed grapes. "In the nursery, I could have sold three times as much Marquette as I had, the demand was so great."

Untroubled by his five landlocked acres, Falconer has three other growers producing grapes for his winery. "Diversification of location makes sense," he says. "If your entire crop is in one place that gets hit by hail or other bad weather, you're in trouble. If it's spread around, you'll always have a good crop." Even though his wine was only available at the winery and in Red Wing, he sold out his inventory in 2005 and registered a 75 percent increase in revenue over the previous year. Ever the entrepreneur, Falconer is building on the romance of wine and his picturesque location by offering the winery as a venue for weddings and picnics and selling Red Wing stoneware as well.

In contrast, Nan Bailly has no romantic notions about running a vineyard. Head grower and winemaker at Alexis Bailly Vineyard, the oldest operating vineyard and winery in Minnesota, Nan Bailly has a unique, seasoned perspective on the business. She is one of the HRC's wine experts and grows experimental selections before they're released to other growers. University varieties make up more than half of her vineyard, but she's thirsty for even more varieties, with less extreme flavors. "Frontenac is very tricky to work with and is, frankly, a niche wine," she says of the popular grape. "Even Marquette is a specialty wine. I just want a good, simple workhorse wine," she explains.