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Jim Luby in a vineyard, holding a wooden tray of cheeses and grapes and lifting a glass of red wine.

Horticultural science faculty member James Luby has been a member of the team working to develop grape breeding, wine making, and agritourism in Minnesota over the past 25 years. He credits the rapid growth to strong public engagement.

From the grapes to the glass

A century of public engagement is producing quality wine from cold-hardy vines

By Stephanie Wilkes

Brief, Oct. 24, 2007

Minnesota wineries are taking a breather now, watching as the newly harvested grapes begin the fermentation process. That's more than 20 wineries across the state, where only four wineries existed only a dozen years ago.

Winemaking in Minnesota may seem like a new phenomenon, but developments in wine grape varietals have been going on for almost 40 years and are now making Minnesota wines a reality. James Luby, head of fruit breeding in the U's Department of Horticultural Science at the Twin Cities campus, has led a group in developing four cold-hardy wine grape varietals that can stand the tests of time and winter.

Luby credits a great deal of local wineries' growth to their collaboration with the University.

"This is a really good example of Minnesota citizens taking a research product that was developed by the U and being able to put it to commercial use," says Luby. "It's a kind of a partnership between the U and the local wine community, a partnership to work out some of the difficulties of growing grapes and making wine in our climate. It's taking a bit of the U and bringing it off campus, working together to turn it into something that is good for the state."

The benefits of this partnership are apparent to U alum John Maloney, '85 , who co-owns Cannon River Winery in Cannon Falls, Minnesota, with his wife, Maureen.

"I became very intrigued with the whole idea that the U of M was breeding cold-hardy wine grapes that were actually capable of producing some very good quality wines," says Maloney. "The more we looked into the idea of opening a winery, the more we liked it, and it has worked out very well for us."

The history of grapes at the U goes back an entire century, but it wasn't until the 1970s that the idea of producing wine grapes was explored. Local farmer Elmer Swenson and U researchers Patrick Pierquet and Cecil Stushnoff began crossing local grapes with traditional wine grapes in hopes of creating a good wine grape that could survive the Minnesota climate. The seedlings from these crosses began to produce fruit around the time of Luby's arrival in 1982.

"It's taking a bit of the U and bringing it off campus, working together to turn it into something that is good for the state."

Key to the success of the budding grape-breeding program was the arrival of scientist Peter Hemstad in 1984. Since then, four varietals have been introduced.

Then, in 1997, the Minnesota Legislature appropriated funds for an enology program. That allowed Luby and other viticulturalists greater exploration into the study of wine and winemaking.

The U's first varietal was Frontenac, a red-wine grape variety introduced in 1996. In 2002 came La Crescent, a white-wine variety, followed by Frontenac gris, a white-wine variety and surprise mutation of the Frontenac. Marquette, a red-wine variety, debuted in 2006.

Marquette's potential has brought a lot of excitement to the Minnesota River Valley, reports Audrey Arner, co-owner of Moonstone Farm near Montevideo.

"There was a lot of Marquette planted in our region this spring," she says. "It's the one that people are the most excited about for its potential to create a nice, dry red table wine with lower acid than most of the cold-climate grapes that we have experience culturing."

Arner collaborates with the University's West Central Regional Sustainable Development Partnership. She's working to foster a learning circle among the Wine Growers of the Upper Minnesota River Valley, helping to create the web of communication among winegrowers, and between winegrowers and the University.

"We are linking with other wine growers in our region to monitor how well certain varieties are doing here in our soil and our climate," says Arner. "Together, we serve as a feedback loop to the University, to provide information on what is working and also to identify future needs that the University can help us meet."

The U connects with the local wine community in ways besides grape development. Anna Katharine Mansfield, a senior research fellow in horticultural science since 2001, hosts a few workshops throughout the year to provide an in-lab experience for winemakers that builds their knowledge about the chemistry of wine. Luby, Mansfield, and horticultural science faculty member Gary Gardner also teach an introductory course, Hort 1031, Vines to Wines: Introduction to Viticulture and Enology.

"Together, we serve as a feedback loop to the University, to provide information on what is working and also to identify future needs that the University can help us meet."

The growing number of successful Minnesota wineries is having a larger effect on their rural communities, too. Since the Cannon River Winery opened in 2004, for example, Maloney has seen agritourism as one of the many benefits of the collaboration between the University and the wine community.

"Rural communities like Cannon Falls benefit tremendously from the wineries," says Maloney. "Having a winery among other retail or restaurant establishments is great because it's a way to draw people in--not only from Cannon Falls, but also from the Twin Cities and Rochester. From an economic standpoint, it's a tremendous up side for the rural communities."

Luby believes the growth of the Minnesota wine industry will only continue, and he sees collaboration with the local wine community as a means of fostering the growth.

"We have always had a significant part of our efforts in applied research and outreach," says Luby. "Our products, varieties, and information are primarily developed for the public rather than other academics, and we have always been engaged with the grower community through participation in educational programs that are jointly developed."

FURTHER READING "Hooray for the red, white, and bleu"

"Seeking a cup of the cold-hardy"


Stephanie Wilkes is a senior in English and linguistics and a communications intern in the Office for Public Engagement. If you have questions or comments, please e-mail wilk0268@umn.edu.