Winemaking grows in popularity
By Janet Kubat Willette
Date Modified: 09/09/2010 9:26 AM
FALCON HEIGHTS, Minn. — The popularity of making wine is growing, judging by the number of entries in this year's amateur wine show at the Minnesota State Fair.
There were 412 entries, easily topping the previous high of 350, said Louis Quast, superintendent of the Fruits and Wine Division at the fair. This is the 31st year of the state fair wine competition.
There are 22 wine classes, from red grape table wine using 100 percent Minnesota grown grapes to rhubarb wine, chokecherry wine and any other wine. The any other category usually draws a couple unusual entries and this year was no exception. Entered this year were tomato, carrot and mountain ash wine. None of the three advanced to the finals, Quast said.
The winemakers must be from Minnesota, but the fruit doesn't have to be Minnesota Grown, Quast said.
Thirty-one judges narrowed the 412 wines down to first through fifth place in each category. About 20 judges narrowed the wines down in the preliminary round. By early afternoon Aug. 26, fewer than a dozen judges remained sitting at tables swishing, sniffing and tasting wine. Bottles with ribbons sat on one table.
Until judged, all the bottles were wrapped in sheets of yellow legal paper, giving them a uniform appearance.
Earlier in the week, on Aug. 24, the second annual International Cold Climate Wine Competition was held on the University of Minnesota St. Paul campus. The event is sponsored by the Minnesota State Fair, University of Minnesota College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences and the Minnesota Grape Growers Association.
There were 331 entries from 17 states in the commercial competition, up 10 percent from last year, Quast said. The entries were judged by 21 expert judges.
St. Croix Vineyards won the Minnesota Governor's Cup with their 2009 LaCrescent Dessert Wine. The Governor's Cup recognizes the best of all Minnesota winning wins.
Winning the Governor's Cup is a big deal and creates a lot of interest for a winery.
St. Croix Vineyards reported an immediate bump in sales and they anticipated an extra busy weekend after winning the Governor's Cup, said Paul Quast, co-owner of St. Croix Vineyards.
For winners in the amateur division, it's all about personal pride.
"It's like having the best quilt," Paul Quast said.
Interest in wine making is growing in Minnesota, Louis Quast said. There is also increased wine consumption in the state and Minnesota wines benefit from what he calls the "local-vore" movement.
"There's more interest in wine in general," he said.
And that interest has been matched by some high profile grape releases from the University of Minnesota that make good wines, Paul Quast said.
Peter Hemstad is one of the people who bred those new grapes. Hemstad is a University of Minnesota grape breeder and a co-owner of St. Croix Vineyards. He also judged the amateur wine division Aug. 26.
The University of Minnesota released well-known grape varieties that are grown in several states: Frontenac, Frontenac Gris, La Crescent and in 2006, Marquette.
In the 1980s, the Minnesota Grape Growers Association realized the number of wineries in the state would stay small if the vines had to be buried over the winter. The new releases from the U of M are winter hardy and don't have to be buried, Hemstad said. With the new winter hardy grape varieties, the number of wineries in the state of Minnesota has grown from three to 36, he said.
Developing new grapes is a painstaking process and can take 15 years or more, Hemstad said. Once developed, that grape can last for a century or more.
The U of M released its last new variety in 2006 and hopes to release a new variety soon, but there's no date.
The point of the grape breeding program is to make grape growing a commercially viable industry in Minnesota. Grape growing and the wine industry diversify rural economies.
"It's a nice little addition to the state," he said.
Site selection is important to raising grapes. River valleys are good for grape growing. They also offer quaint little towns that are attractive to tourists.
Raising grapes is labor intense, with a 20 acre farm being huge, Hemstad said. It also requires a substantial upfront investment of time and money. The wines don't bear fruit for three years.
But, raising grapes can be profitable.
Hemstad encourages people interested in finding out more about growing grapes to visit wineries and talk to owners and go online to the Minnesota Grape Growers Association web page and also the U of M web page.