WJON In Depth: Uncorking and Discovering Minnesota Wineries [VIDEO]
ST. CLOUD -- When most people think of wine country they think Napa Valley, California but right here in Minnesota we have our own version of wine country.
Minnesota stepped into the wine scene in the 1970s when the Minnesota Grape Growers Association (MGGA) was formed. After its formation members went to the legislature to get funding for the University of Minnesota to do grape growing research.
Assistant professor of grape breeding at the University of Minnesota Matt Clark says the formation of the MGGA created a whole new industry for Minnesota.
"It really sparked a whole new industry, in Minnesota alone it's a 51 million dollar a year industry," says Clark.
From Elmer Swenson, the godfather of cold-hardy grape breeding to today's University of Minnesota grape breeder Peter Hemestad the program continues to release new varieties.
Clark says many common Minnesota grapes have been developed by the University including Frontenac, Frontenac Gris, Marquette, le crescent and Itasca.
It takes about 15-20 years to develop a new grape breed, as soon as a new breed is developed the University begins to negotiate with area vineyards.
"We work with our colleagues, who help to promote, get the licensing and patents in place so we can start promoting these varieties and get them growing on a large scale," says Clark.
Minnesota has no shortage of wineries, we have 70 with more popping up every day and plenty throughout the St. Cloud area.
I stopped at three wineries, Whispering Oaks, Carlos Creek and Millner Heritage, to learn what it takes to make a bottle of Minnesota wine.
Once the grapes are harvested they'll go into the de-stemmer and crusher to be de-stemmed and crushed.
After being crushed they'll go through a press. Jon Millner co-owner of Millner Heritage Winery says the press helps gently squeeze the grapes.
"It's like a big balloon [the bladder of the press] so when I turn on the press what happens is this [the bladder] inflates with air and presses the grapes," says Millner.
After going through the press the juice is pumped into a stainless steel tank, yeast is added and the fermentation process begins.
"It's going to convert the sugar in the juice to alcohol, when you convert 100 percent of the sugar in a juice to alcohol you have a dry wine, if you stop that process and leave some residual sugar in there you'll have a sweet wine, says Tami Bredeson, owner of Carlos Creek Winery in Alexandria.
When the fermentation process ends the aging process begins. Millner says fruity wines may only take 5-9 months while bolder wines may age in a barrel for 30 months or more depending on the flavor the winemaker is trying to achieve.
When the aging process is complete the wine is then ready to be bottled, corked and labeled.
While the winemaking process is similar from winery to winery it's the atmosphere and theme that makes each winery unique. Carlos Creek Winery is one of the largest wineries in the state they have taken the term Minnesota Nice to the next level.
Carlos Creek has introduced an entire selection of wine titled Minnesota Nice, it features all Minnesota grown fruit, clever Minnesota themed names and packaging. Bredeson says she created the brand to help introduce people to Minnesota wines.
"Through the name Minnesota Nice and the packaging we tried to make them attractive enough for people that they would actually try a frontenac or frontenac gris instead of merot or cabernet or chardonnay, says Bredeson.
All three Minnesota Nice brand wines, Hot Dish Red, Wobegone White and You Betcha Blush are favorites among winery visitors.
Not all wineries need to be large to be successful, Whispering Oaks Winery in Melrose is a small winery that strives to give everyone that one on one intimate experience.
"We have a lot of people when they leave here say wow that was a great experience, I didn't know what to expect," says Terri Ellering owner of Whispering Oaks.
If you really like not knowing what to expect head out to Kimball you'll find entertainment to go with your wine at Millner Heritage Winery. Millner Heritage offers tours that both entertain and educate their guests. The winery incorporates many Austrian-Hungarian traditions while entertaining guests including songs, dances and skits.
All jokes aside though the Millner's have won many awards for their wine and entertainment skills.
Co-owner, Don Millner is proud to say the winery has taken home a very prestigious award.
"Four out of the last five years at the MGGA convention we have won the best booth award at the wine festival night, we don't have a fancy booth we just go out and have fun with people," says Millner.
I even got to experience the fun as I learned how to properly taste wine.
When tasting wine the first step is to look at it, see it's clarity. The next step is to swirl the wine, this aerates it, after swirling you'll smell the wine and finally you taste the wine.
Don Millner says the best way to taste is to take a little sip and taste it on the tip of your tongue and then take another sip and taste it on the back of your tongue.
"The le cordon bleu chiefs say you know your whole lifetime you've been eating this hot food and its burnt the taste buds off the tip of your tongue but the ones in the back of your tongue they still work, now they are different taste buds but at least they are functioning," says Don Millner.
We all have our favorite wines, thanks to Minnesota winemakers we have a variety to choose from and soon we'll have another. The University of Minnesota is releasing its newest grape, Itasca next year and winemakers are already gearing up for its release.
Jon Millner says he's excited to try to make a new white wine with Itasca.
"Having a really solid grape for making a really good dry white style sometimes has been a little harder category for us to fill but the acids in Itasca are a little bit lower so we are encouraged that we got something for the market now."
Whether you like reds or whites, sweet or dry or just want something tasty to sip on, Minnesota has no shortages of delicious wines.
Videographers Alex Svejkovsky and Rebecca David contributed to this story.