Let's face it. Minnesota isn't France or California. We just don't have ideal conditions for cultivating grapes. The growing season is short and prone to early and late frosts -- the cold temperatures make wine more acidic. And in the summers, when grapes need arid weather, heavy rains can swamp vines. But it turns out that a lot of those problems can be mitigated, and wine grapes can thrive, when you employ a simple device -- tweezers.
"We try to find the best tweezers we can possibly find. There's quite a lot of variation in tweezers, as it turns out," says Peter Hemstad, a grape breeder at the University of Minnesota.
Tweezers in hand, he's stooped over a grapevine in the U's 11-acre vineyard just west of Chanhassen. His face hovers a few inches away from a bunch of little yellow flowers, each the size of a peppercorn. These flowers will eventually turn into grapes.
Hemstad's using the tweezers to remove the anthers, or pollen-making parts, from inside the flowers. This painstaking surgery allows him to combine the characteristics of European and wild Minnesota vines.
"I'll come back two days later with some pollen, and I'll add that pollen to that tiny, tiny flower, and we'll cover up the cluster again with a paper bag," he explains. "And in the fall we'll harvest this cluster, and we'll gather the seeds, and plant them in the greenhouse next spring."
Those plants will produce a wine grape that can survive Minnesota's weather, and retain some of the flavor of a European grape.
If this sounds like a lot of work, Hemstad says it's even worse to try to grow European varieties in Minnesota. They require lots of pampering, and have to be buried underground in the winter so they don't freeze. And there's no guarantee they'll produce something drinkable.
Hemstad knows some people might scoff at his efforts, and wonder why he bothers trying to get wine grapes to grow in a place like Minnesota. He's had his own doubts as well.
"When I started working on this project 21 years ago, I really questioned it myself. I didn't know if this was a feasible concept," he says. "But at this point, having worked on it as long as I have, and spent all this time with these vines, and seeing them through good years and bad, wet years and dry, and extreme winters -- I mean, I know for a fact that you can grow beautiful grapes here."
Hemstad says the hybrids have made it possible for a wine industry to emerge in Minnesota. The state now has 18 wineries.
The biggest local wine producers are small by industry standards; they sell only about 75,000 bottles a year. That's equivalent to a "boutique" wine maker in California.
But now there are enough wineries concentrated in the eastern part of the state for six of them to link up in a wine trail, which runs through parts of the St. Croix, Mississippi, and Cannon River valleys.
Not all the wine flowing in the state is purely from Minnesota -- some producers import wine from other states and bottle it under their own labels.
But Hemstad says the hybrid grape varieties developed by the U of M are now in use at most of Minnesota's wineries, including St. Croix Vineyards, which he co-owns with a friend.
The question is, are the wines from hybrid grapes any good?
"You can make absolutely decent, drinkable wine with hybrid grapes, but in general, they do have a little bit of a hard time competing, if you're going to throw them into blind tastings," says Tim Teichgraeber, a wine critic with the San Francisco Chronicle and former wine critic for the Star Tribune.
Teichgraeber judges at a number of major wine competitions, where, he says, hybrids are often put into their own category since they're just not of the same caliber as wines from California, Oregon, Washington, or of course, Europe.
But, Teichgraeber says, that doesn't mean Minnesota winemakers should throw in the towel. Even if their wine doesn't taste like it came from California, they can offer a taste of California wine country, minus the cost of a plane ticket.
"With these local wineries, the great thing is that people are able to go out and experience wines and where they come from first hand, maybe meet the vintner, see the winery, see the vineyards, even pick the grape," Teichgraeber says.
In Stillwater, Northern Vineyards hopes that will be their draw. The winery, which is a stop along the new wine trail, occupies a storefront on the main drag in downtown Stillwater.
The biggest local wine producers are small by industry standards; they sell only about 75,000 bottles a year. That's equivalent to a “boutique” wine maker in California.
The building used to be a dairy. Now wine barrels stacked head-high sit where the dairy's machinery used to be. The owners crush grapes and make the wine in the back of the building. In the front, visitors can buy and sample wines.
On a Wednesday afternoon, Donna and Allen Wilson of Appleton, Wisconsin are tasting a semi-sweet white wine.
"It has a nice smell to it. It just seems like a nice fresh wine," says Allen Wilson.
Donna Wilson says they first got turned on to the idea of local wineries after a trip to Iowa.
"We stopped at a place on the river in Iowa where they make homemade wines, and that kind of hooked us on it. We've tried a little bit of making wines, homemade wines, and that has brought our interest into drinking wine," Donna Wilson says with a laugh.
The winemaker here, Robin Partch, got his start dabbling with making his own wines, too.
"I got used to the idea that wine is an everyday thing, and I couldn't afford to buy it every day at that time, so I decided I'd better grow some grapes and learn how to make it," he says.
Partch always knew it was possible to make a living as a winemaker. Both his grandfathers were winemakers in Missouri before Prohibition.
But it's a much different kind of business now. Wine is as popular as beer in the U.S., the competition is global, and rich celebrities dabble in winemaking.
As he leans against the bar, watching customers buy a few bottles, Partch explains that unlike some, he needs his grapes to pay for themselves.
"Opening a winery is what a lot of people dream of doing when they retire. So if they cash out of business or retire from being a doctor, opening a winery is a wonderful thing to do as a hobby. But this isn't a hobby. This winery has to make money every year," he says.
Partch hopes the new wine trail will help his business and others continue to stay afloat, by making more people aware of Minnesota's wine industry.
The word does seem to be getting around to some extent about the local wine offerings. At the upscale restaurant Fhima's in downtown St. Paul, manager Dennis Spencer points to a bottle of dessert wine made from Minnesota hybrid grapes.
"This is one that I just realized we had, and I tried it for the first time, and I was remarkably impressed with the flavor and the consistency," he says.
Spencer says the restaurant's bar customers do buy the Minnesota wines on the list.
"Minnesotans do tend to do Minnesota things. Minnesota products -- we go out of them fast," Spencer says.
Whatever budding enthusiasm there is for Minnesota's wines, wine critic Tim Teichgraeber says the market depends on a certain amount of local pride, and therefore is likely to be confined within the state's borders.
"Minnesota is like a lot of states around the country, where there's a certain amount of consumption of wines from that state within that state, but they don't get exported a whole lot," Teichgraeber says.
Grape breeder Peter Hemstad acknowledges that Minnesota's still a minor player in the wine industry. But he thinks it will keep growing, with help from the U of M's hybrid grapes.
"This puts us on an even playing field with other states like Michigan and Ohio and Pennsylvania, and this should really be a shot in the arm for the local industry," Hemsted says.
For the vintners toiling in Minnesota's unlikely vineyards, that's an outcome that would leave a nice aftertaste.