Serving Minnesota and Northern Iowa.

Orchard branches into winery

By Carol Stender

Date Modified: 12/06/2012 2:32 PM

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Spicer, Minn. — Ron and Kimberly Wothe's venture into agriculture has been a fateful one that started with apples and ended up with grape wine.

The Spicer couple operates an apple orchard and Glacial Ridge Winery north of Willmar on Highway 23.

Their story starts more than nine apple seasons ago when Ron noticed a roadside sign. He was traveling to work at his Spicer grocery store, a trip re-routed due to road construction, when he saw the apple orchard's sign, "Closed for fall due to hail."

Kimberly saw an opportunity. They purchased the 17 acres of land with its five-and-a-half acres of apples. The previous owners taught the couple how to prune the orchard over winter, how to spray, usually five times, to ward off pests and disease and how to operate the business when it opened to the public from mid-August to late October.

Ron, who'd been in the grocery business for 30 years, saw the orchard as a retirement opportunity. While he wasn't managing a grocery store, his marketing knowledge proved key in the development of their operation.

"Along the way, we knew we had to do more," he said. "We had people around us encouraging us that maybe we should do a winery."

They researched the business and started Glacial Ridge five years ago.

It was, again, by chance that he met his winemaker, Brian Blow, at a wine making course. Blow, a chemistry teacher from Howard Lake, has been making wines for 30 years. He uses grapes the couple purchases from Minnesota and California growers. Rhubarb and the Wothe's apples are also used for some varieties.

There are more than 800 grape growers in the state and 46 wineries, Ron said. The development of Minnesota-hardy varieties has been key to the surge in growers and wine production.

He doesn't commit himself to a contract with growers. Instead, he purchases it individually each season based on how the grapes have performed. They do a "100 berry" test where grapes taken, from throughout a vineyard, is crushed and the sugar in the juice is tested.

There are different "tones" to the juice, he said. They look at the finished tone, one with a pineapple tone. The wine itself won't taste like pineapple, it will have that sugary quality.

When they started the winery, they made 5,000 bottles a year, he said. Now they make more than 20,000 bottles.

The year-round winery is open to the public with seasonal hours. From May to December it is open on Thursdays to Sundays form noon to 6 p.m. with soup nights from November to February starting at 5 p.m. From January to April, the winery is open on Fridays and Saturdays form noon until 6 p.m. It's also the site for special events such as weddings, anniversaries and other celebrations.

But it all started with apples.

The farm has more than 1,000 dwarf Haralson and Honeycrisp apple trees. Most of the couple's apple sales are through the orchard's u-pick option, Ron said. It becomes an event for the family. But on Oct. 31, they end the apple sales.

It's been the winery that's proven to be the moneymaker in their diverse operation, he said. While the apples have become more of a hobby, it will continue to thrive under their watchful eyes.