You might be surprised to find out the above picture was taken in Minnesota.
Minnesota? you ask. How can a climate that cold support wineries?
Well, let's face it - some spectacular ice wines come from Canada, after all. And Minnesota's wine industry has been around since 1973, when David Bailly started his vineyard outside of Minneapolis. There are now some eighteen vineyards across Minnesota, but the half dozen around Minneapolis make for a wonderful day of exploring, tasting, and enjoyment.
I was surprised to discover that Minneapolis had a thriving wine scene - but as I did a little research, preparing to spend a long weekend in the area, I stumbled across the Three Rivers Wine Trail website. (The three rivers in question are the Saint Croix, Cannon, and Mississippi.)
Some of the locals aren't even aware of their state's hidden treasure - after returning home to Chicago, I mentioned to a friend in Minneapolis that I had taken the Three Rivers Wine Trail last weekend, and she said, "We have wineries in Minnesota?" Oh, yes, indeed!
If it weren't for the harsh winters, it would not be so unusual to think of Minnesota as a wine-growing region. It shares the same latitude as the Bordeaux and Burgundy winegrowing regions of France, and during the summer growing season, actually gets more than an hour extra sunlight per day than the majority of California wineries. If the vines can survive the brutal winter cold, then the summer conditions are quite good for wine - bright, sunny days with cooler evenings. The long days allow plenty of flavor to develop in the grapes.
The University of Minnesota's horticultural department has worked directly with local wineries and on their own to develop grape varietals that can survive - and thrive - through Minnesota's harshest weather conditions. WineHaven, for example, worked with UoM to develop the 'Chisago' grape. UoM has also developed the LaCrescent and Frontenac grapes popular throughout the Midwest; as well as many popular varieties of fruits such as Honeycrisp and Honeygold apples, the Summercrisp pear, the Redwing raspberry, and the Northcountry blueberry.
My interest was piqued, so I pulled up google.com/maps, looked at the location for all the wineries, and saw they made a nice loop around the eastern side of Minneapolis. The local wineries kick off the spring growing season with a barrel tasting; what better excuse to take in the wine trail?
My first stop was the northernmost of the wineries - WineHaven Winery and Vineyard (9757 292nd St., Chisago City, MN). The Peterson family has three generations of farmers in the family - they are known locally for their fruit and honey (thus, the bee on their label). The winery was started fifteen years ago and has since then earned over 160 awards. The vineyard has a new proprietary grape varietal, the Chisago, which was bred to withstand the local weather demands and which produces a lovely red wine.
I was particularly enamored of their Riesling, and another specialty of theirs - their Honey Wine (Mead), which had a wonderful light, crisp flavor. The staff here is incredibly friendly, and it was a great place to start off my regional wine tour.
Next up was Northern Vineyards, located at 223 Main Street North in the charming town of Stillwater. NV has some of the longest hours (open til 8 or 9pm during the summer; 6-7pm in the winter, depending on what day of the week it is), and since they are located in the heart of town, was the busiest of all the wineries I visited. Northern Vineyards uses grapes from Minnesota and western Wisconsin vineyards, and carry varietals with charming names like Edelweiss, Prairie Smoke, Yellow Moccasin, Prairie Rose, and Lady Slipper. You can buy food from the co-op grocer next door, then come over to NV and buy a glass of wine and enjoy your meal on their open-air deck, which overlooks the St. Croix River.
Stillwater is a great place to enjoy lunch, and a monster-sized ice cream cone at local favorite Nelson's Drive Inn Dairy Store, where $4.50 will get you a cone so huge that it begs - needs! - to be shared.
Also located in Stillwater but across town is Saint Croix Vineyards (6428 Manning Ave., Stillwater, MN). Saint Croix's tasting room made me momentarily forget that I was in Minneapolis, not California, with its bustling tasting room.
Established in 1992, they have a selection of whites and reds, but are perhaps best known for their knockout Raspberry Infusion, a yummy dessert wine.
Alexis Bailly Vineyard (18200 Kirby Ave., Hastings, MN) - the granddaddy of Minnesota wineries - is a perfect halfway point on the wine tour. Surrounded by lush farmland, the 'winery' sign points you down the vineyard's road between neat vines to the barn-style tasting room.
ABV's founder, David Bailly - originally an attorney - adopted the motto "Where the grapes can suffer" for his vineyard, based on the French winemaker idea that in order to make great wine, the grapes must go through hardship - wind, sleet, snow and draught. The winery has won awards proving that yes, indeed, Minnesota wines have suffered enough to be great wines.
Falconer Vineyards (3572 Old Tyler Rd, Red Wing, MN) can be a bit of a challenge to find, but is apparently quite popular, as they were very crowded. So crowded and busy, in fact, that I had to wait to get a tasting. (It made me feel like I was on 128 in Napa on a Saturday!) Opened in 2004, they are also one of the youngest wineries.
If WineHaven was a great way to kick off the day, then Cannon River Winery (421 Mill Street West, Cannon Falls, MN) was the perfect way to end it. Located in picturesque Cannon Falls, the winery is open late on Fridays and Saturdays. Located in a gorgeous old renovated building, it is a great way to end your tour. Like WineHaven, they also have a Honey Wine, as well as an Apple Wine, and a palette of whites, reds, and blushes, including a tasty port. I particularly enjoyed their St. Pepin (white) and their 'Sogn Blanc', made from local Edelweiss grapes. The staff here was really nice and they had live music as well.
You can do all six of these wineries in about 6-7 hours; or any of them are an easy trip from Minneapolis. Doing them all in one loop is 175 miles (going mainly off-highway/direct routes; I relied on my NeverLost/GPS), driving through beautiful farm land and pretty towns on the eastern side of Minneapolis. It was a surprising discovery, well worth the time to explore, and I look forward to adding more Minnesotan wines to my collection!