Industry Watch

A real crush: Peter Hemstad demonstrates the use of a grape crusher at the University of Minnesota’s research facility in Excelsior 

The cup runneth over

How cold-hardy grapes transformed Minnesota’s wine industry — with help from Peter Hemstad

By Hannah Jones

When the New York Times released its “United States of Thanksgiving” piece last November, many Minnesotans were outraged over their entry: a grape salad recipe. The Twitter hashtag #grapegate summed up the indignation of the wild-rice-hotdish state at being represented with — of all things — grapes.

On that note, meet Peter Hemstad: a Minnesota vineyard owner and self-proclaimed grape enthusiast.

Hemstad has co-owned St. Croix Vineyards in Stillwater since 1992. At that time, he says, there were only about three wineries in the state. It’s true — grapes have never been Minnesota’s main dish, Thanksgiving or otherwise.

The growing season here is actually not bad at all; the weather stays hot enough, and the lack of oceans nearby means less moisture and more sunshine. What kills Minnesota grapes is the harsh winter. Back when Hemstad started St. Croix Vineyards, the vines had to be buried to survive the cold months, which took an enormous amount of work on top of the day-to-day crush of winemaking.

“We had to put a lot of effort into it,” he says. “You had to be pretty …”

He pauses.

“... What’s a nicer word for ‘crazy’?”

That was then. Now, Minnesota has more than 75 licensed wine producers, and it’s due in part to Hemstad’s “crazy” fixation on grapes. While he’s an active partner at the vineyard, on most days, you’ll find Hemstad at his other job at the U of M’s Horticultural Research Center near Excelsior. His work with the university has him developing and growing grapes tough enough to survive Minnesota winters.

There are about 10,000 experimental vines at the university, which can be cross-bred in countless combinations. Once two varieties are selected for a cross, Hemstad and his team must sterilize the vine so it won’t fertilize itself. Completely “emasculating” an entire grape blossom without damaging their countless, tiny buds takes even an experienced worker about 20 minutes, denuding every single bud with a pair of tweezers.

The buds are later brushed with pollen to create the desired match, and bagged. If they survive the season, their seeds will be harvested in the fall and planted in the greenhouse until May, when they’re transferred to the nursery. Only the very best saplings will be given a “thumbs up” to continue, and the rest will be tossed. That selection process will continue for three years. The few superior vines — about six out of a thousand every year — will be numbered.

Then comes the true test. When the vines start to bear fruit, the grapes are made into tiny batches of wine and sampled by the staff. Good samples will be propagated, and, if they continue to grow well, sent to surrounding states for further testing.

Then, finally, after years of development and round after round of judgment, that new grape might get a name.

The university has already created a small handful of cold-hardy grape varieties. The first, Frontenac, was created in 1996: a workhorse variety that makes good port. Hemstad saw an opportunity and started growing it at St. Croix Vineyards. Their old-fashioned, barrel-aged port did well, all of it without the added labor of burying in the winter.

As more and more grapes came out of the research — the sweet and aromatic La Crescent in 2002 and the current star of the program, Marquette, in 2006 — Hemstad and his partners at St. Croix Vineyards ripped up their award-winning Chardonnay and started planting Marquette and La Crescent.

Today, the university is getting close to announcing another grape on the horizon — this time a dry white variety. While it’s gone through 95 percent of the development process, Hemstad says, it won’t be ready until 2016 at the earliest.

With every breakthrough, Minnesota’s homegrown wine portfolio has diversified. In the wider arena of the state, 13 more wineries popped up between 1995 and 2005, and an additional 14 in the following five years. The wine workforce went from 20 jobs in 2001 to about 270 in 2013. Suddenly, the presence of quality grapes that could weather the winter made a crazy undertaking into something manageable — even attractive.

Just ask Ray Winter, who until about 15 years ago, grew Minnesota corn and beans. In 2000, when the price of the crops was down, he got an offer to grow a fellow farmer’s cold-hardy grapes. In 2010, Winter’s farm became the Winterhaven Vineyard and Nursery. A year later, the winery, run by Winter’s daughter, sold just under 1,800 cases of wine. Now, it puts out 4,000 to 5,000 cases on average and employs about 25 part-time laborers alongside the Winter family. None of it would have been possible without the university’s research.

More than that, sticking to Minnesota’s cultivars is a matter of principle for Winter. He would only put a California bottle on the shelves in the event of a “disaster” that left him no other choice. “Why would I want to make California wine in Minnesota?” he says.

The abundance of wineries has affected other areas of Minnesota’s economy, too, from restaurants and tourism (including an estimated $140 million spent on local cold-hardy winery visits in 2011) to suppliers of all the trappings a winemaker needs: stakes, chemicals, even Minnesota oak, which Hemstad says makes remarkable wine barrels.

Other places, including Quebec and Vermont, have started planting Marquette and La Crescent as well, and splashes from the wine wave have even crossed oceans. Hemstad believes that China, which for all of its thousands of acres of grapes has no Mediterranean climate equivalent, will soon want to transition from burial to cold-hardy grapes. He now travels to China occasionally as a consultant, and sees an almost exponential increase in the demand for wine: an untapped market waiting to burst.

But before we start getting ahead of ourselves: “We’re never going to be Napa Valley,” Hemstad says. Minnesota wines may be getting better all the time, but making them isn’t easy. Last winter’s polar vortex plunge wiped out what Hemstad estimates as close to 50 percent of the state’s grape yield. There’s no reason, he says, to believe there will be winters as brutal every year, but it’s part of why it would be a stretch to compete with one of the best grape regions in the world.

Best, rather, not to. “These varieties that we’re talking about were all developed in Minnesota, and that’s the advantage that we’re talking about, because they’re all optimized to grow in Minnesota,” he says.

Hemstad sees a future with a “Minnesota wine region” where nearly every vineyard in the state plants cold-hardy grapes and becomes experienced in growing them and making them into wine. He believes the local vineyards will become known for a product that is not the next Napa, but something new — something totally and uniquely Minnesotan.

And who’s to say hotdish doesn’t go with a nice, dry red?