As a thunderstorm rolls across the prairie, Ben Banks rests a finished bottle flat and deftly hand-labels his new vintage release. Disturbing the zen of the moment, he looks up to give me a warm handshake. Banks leads the winemaking at Sovereign Estate, his family’s winery established in 2008 on the north shore of Lake Waconia, situated 45 minutes west of Minneapolis. Sovereign Estate comes highly recommended by friends in and outside the wine industry, as do neighboring wineries Parley Lake (2008) and Schram Vineyards (2013). It’s enough to pique my interest in the region, which is lauded for its soil, academic knowledge, and viticultural pioneers.
Soil and Successes
The existence of a thriving wine scene just a grape’s throw from the University of Minnesota Horticultural Research Center is no coincidence. “Our vineyard is five miles from the center,” says Steve Zeller, winemaker and co-owner of Parley Lake Winery. The grape varieties he grows, he notes, “were bred in our backyard. And it’s not just the terroir; it’s being able to access the people [at the center] and learning about how to grow these grapes properly.”
That proximity, suggests Banks, means that Waconia will likely hold a special place in viticultural history as the Upper Midwestern wine industry develops. “We are the agricultural area that is closest to the birthplace of many of the Minnesota grape varieties,” he notes. “Just as Bordeaux is the benchmark for cabernet sauvignon, we think Waconia can be the benchmark for La Crescent, Marquette, and Frontenac.”
Zeller notes that the principal soil in Waconia—Lester loam—is an important part of the story. “It’s got this loamy, calcium-based underpinning, which is the same exact kind of soil that Burgundy, Chablis, and Champagne regions have. It’s really good for water retention, root penetration—it even helps with some disease resistance. We didn’t know this when we started planting our vines!”
The Aromatic La Crescent
Of the cold-climate grapes created by the University of Minnesota, La Crescent has most captured Banks’ imagination. La Crescent has a profound bouquet of potpourri and pit fruits. It shares qualities with other aromatic varieties such as riesling and gewürztraminer. The 2015 Sovereign Estate La Crescent has an immensely fragrant profile followed by a crisp, dry palate with nice composure and balance.
Despite an expectation (or assumption) of sweetness in cold-climate wines, Minnesota can and does make clean and interesting dry wines. Zeller wants nothing more than to bust the myth of Minnesota as the land of only sweet wines. And the making of a great dry wine must start in the vineyard.
Minnesota has two big challenges viticulturally: vine vigor and humidity. The best wines of the world grow in infertile soils, often on hillsides, where erosion carries away fertile top soil and vines must struggle. It’s through this struggle—when grape vines are forced to put energy into ripening the fruit and lowering puckering acidity—that great wine is made.
Like Parley Lake’s Lester loam, the soil in many Minnesota vineyards is deep and fertile. Therefore, vineyard managers here must force vines to focus on developing fruit instead of growing shoots and leaves. They do this through hedging and pulling. Leaf thinning also allows the sunlight to do its job of ripening the clusters, while minimizing disease and mildew pressure.
Ripeness is the key to crafting exceptional dry wines. Without it, winemakers must produce off-dry, semi-sweet or sweet wines, as the sugar serves to balance the puckering acidity—think lemonade. Only when fruit achieves full ripeness can winemakers begin to craft dry wines that show balance and full flavor.
The Promising Marquette
For most wine regions to come into their own, they need at least one red wine grape to hang their hat on. The University of Minnesota and many cold-climate regions had hoped theirs would be Frontenac, which was released in 1996. However, the grape has shown some limitations, largely because of its tendency to hold acid during the end of the growing season, creating austere wines without complete flavor development.
“A lot of California wines have to add acid in, but we try to bring the acid out,” says Aaron Schram of Schram Vineyards. “We try to take California practices and implement them here, but our vines grow differently; it’s a different climate.”
The Marquette grape entered the scene in 2006 and brought with it a renewed hope for a cold-climate superstar. After tasting examples crafted by the U of M Horticultural Research Center, cold-climate wineries from Vermont to Minnesota planted Marquette abundantly. The grape takes three to five years to reach full fruit production, so Marquette wines are still in early stages. Even so, the grape has already shown promise.
Genetically, the variety is the grandchild of pinot noir and several cold-climate vine varieties to ensure it survives even the coldest of winters. In wine, Marquette produces aromas and flavors of red and mixed berry fruits and baking spice. On the palate, the wine is medium-bodied with low tannins and nicely tuned acidity.
When crafting wines from Marquette, Banks of Sovereign Estate adds, “Marquette loves oxidative aging but not new oak. Because Marquette already has so much sweetness and spice, I like to age it in used barrels.”
The half-dozen Marquette wines produced between the three Waconia wineries clearly show off the grape’s early potential. The nose draws you in. The palate is soft and inviting and has some structure, thanks to the moderate acidity. The best examples, such as the 2015 Sovereign Estate Marquette Reserve and the 2015 Parley Lake Marquette, show harmony.
The Marquette, La Crescent, and Frontenac grapes have all entered our world recently thanks to the breeding program at the University of Minnesota, and currently have little to no name recognition. This, coupled with Minnesota’s challenging climate, leaves many wine drinkers skeptical of the grapes’ potential to produce widely accepted wines that can compete with existing European favorites.
Then there’s the price tag. Boutique wineries can rarely offer $5 to $15 wines. The only reason we ever enjoy these prices is thanks to the large producers, many corporate, that produce 100,000 or even two million cases of a single wine each vintage. At this volume, they can sell a wine for $8 a bottle. Exceptions exist, but mostly in Old World countries like Portugal and Spain, where land has been owned for hundreds of years and labor costs are low. Most Minnesota wineries craft a few thousand cases during production—total.
These two realities—consumer perception and cost—create a clear barrier for the state’s wineries. However, the chisels and mallets are out and working hard in Waconia as vintners dial in their grapes, expand production, and increase marketing efforts. With each visitor and event, a small piece of that wall of skepticism falls.
Waconia’s wineries seem naturally poised to battle for existence, but they don’t, actually. Even as they compete for medals and sales, they co-exist and boost one another’s profiles in a relationship that Steve Zeller of Parley Lake terms “coop-ertition.” That interconnection extends even beyond the world of winemaking.
“ENKI Brewing is in Victoria and we provide them with barrels and they make barrel-aged porters with them,” Zeller says. “We partner with J. Carver Distillery and they make a grappa from all three of the wineries’ pomace, which is the leftover part of the grape-pressing process. They make a Marquette grappa, which is fantastic. There are all these interwoven distillery/brewery/winery [projects].”
Would-be visitors to Waconia have a year-round smorgasbord to consider. “We have three events every year,” Zeller says. “There’s Waconia Wine Fest where we sell tickets for all three wineries, there’s a progressive dinner in the spring, and a winter wassail event where you buy tickets and visit all three wineries.”
Every one of the world’s great culinary and viticultural regions got its start somewhere, and it’s not hard to see the immense potential of Waconia’s terroir and tightly knit sense of community. None of the region’s promise, of course, matters without boots on the Lester loam—it takes dedicated vintners to turn the land’s potential into happiness in a glass. After talking to the winemakers of Waconia, it seems that an important chapter in Upper Midwestern winemaking history is being written in real time.