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Gopher Grapes
By Shirley Idelson
November 16, 1999
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Minnesota's grape growers are experiencing a boom. Producers say this season has resulted in a record harvest. While grapes are still a tiny portion of the state's agricultural economy, high prices and a strong market for wine means expansion for this cottage industry.

Wine-making in the U.S.
Much American wine is mass-produced generic wine, often given such European-derived names as chablis, burgundy, and port. These brands must include an appellation of origin, such as California chablis, on the label.

Varietal wines may be labeled after a V. vinifera grape if the designated variety makes up at least 75 percent of the product. It must then claim an appellation of origin. If the appellation is a county, state, or even the country, then no less than 75 percent of the wine's grapes must come from that area. If the appellation is one of the growing number of approved viticultural areas, then that area must account for 85 percent or more of the grapes. Wines may bear a vintage date if at least 95 percent of their grapes are harvested in that year.

California produces about 90 percent of American wines. The Napa Valley, Sonoma County, and other cooler areas of the north coast region produce the best wines. Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay are the most prestigious, followed by Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. The Zinfandel, grown almost exclusively in California, produces a wine equal to those of the classic European grapes. California wines tend to be of higher alcoholic content and more pronounced varietal aroma and flavour than their European counterparts.
Source: Century Wine
THAT'S MINNESOTA WINE, made from locally-grown grapes. When most people think about good wine, they think Tuscany, Southern France, the Napa Valley. This Marichal Foche, fermented by wine-makers outside Hastings, is about to be put to the taste test. Peter Herlofsky, wine buyer at Serdyks, has paired up two Minnesota wines: Alexis Bailey's Marichal Foche and Northern Vineyards' Rams Head, with a California favorite.
Herlofsky: I think we're looking at three wines that are going to be pretty comparable. And we'll see how they stand up to the Marietta Old Vine.
The Marieta Old Vine is grown from Napa Valley grapes.
Herlofsky: For the money and for the flavor, it's one of the best values, I think, just about anywhere in the world. And the nice thing is, we're all right at that $10 price range.
Of the rows and rows of wines at Serdyks, wines from Minnesota grapes occupy only a few feet on one shelf. But for Minnesota grape growers and wine-makers, the fact their wines are there at all is no small accomplishment. Peter Hemsted is viticulturalist at the University of Minnesota and an owner of St. Croix Vineyards in Stillwater.
Hemstad: The varieties grown in other parts of the world, chardonnay, etc., those grapes can handle about five-below-zero and, of course, that's our high temperature in January and February. So as a result, people in this area either have to cover up the grapes in winter to get them to survive, or develop new kinds of grapes that actually like growing here and can tolerate that kind of extreme cold.
Researchers have hybridized several grapes cold-hardy enough to survive Minnesota winters, and Hemsted says the university will be releasing several more varieties over the next five years. Robin Partch, winemaker at Northern Vineyards in Stillwater, says people have two reactions when they learn wine can actually be produced here.
Partch: One is surprise, "Oh I didn't know you could do this in Minnesota," and then the other is, "Oh I'm so glad you're doing this in Minnesota, just proud to know this kind of thing is possible."
Recently, a Stockton, Minnesota grape grower brought a load of 3,100 pounds of grapes to Northern Vineyards, where Partch will turn them into wine. Together, the men throw bin after bin of grapes into a machine called a crusher-stemmer. Rollers crush the grapes, which then fall into a chamber where they're spun around so rapidly the stems separate from the skins and pulp.

A few feet from the crusher-stemmer, a press forces juice out of the crushed grapes. An assistant winemaker rigs up a pump that will send the juice through tubing up to fermentation tanks on the winery's second floor.

With the harvest completed, and the grapes stemmed, crushed and pressed, Vintage '99 will now spend the winter fermenting in oak barrels and polyurethane tanks.

Meanwhile, the recently-bottled Vintage '98 is ready for drinking. That takes us back to Surdyks Liquors, and wine-buyer Peter Herlofsky.
Herlofsky: This is the Ram's Head from Northern Vineyards. Move it around a little bit to get the bouquet to come out, smells nice. It's got the earth, and then the dark fruit, about what I expected. It's going to be that medium to light body, good solid fruit but the acidity dries it up nice on the finish where it's going to go. It'll pair fantastic with food.

Now I'll dig into this Alexis Bailey here. Now see that has less finish. It starts out more, the fruit's a little bigger at the front end but the finish, the fruit tends to fall off towards the end.

Now we're working on the Marietta. Now see, that's a much bigger wine; bigger, massive fruit on the front edge of the palate. But then the finish, it stays even and big all the way through and then the finish -- there's still a lingering fruit on the finish. It's almost like underripe currant and raspberry.
Herlofsky renders his verdict: of the three competitors, he picks the California wine.
Herlofsky: I think the wines are excellent values, and there's no reason why they couldn't hold their own in any market, up against any other wine.
It's not going to be easy for local producers to compete with regions world-reknown for their wine. Minnesota wine-makers will always have the weather against them. And skeptics say there's only a certain market for homegrown. But local wine-makers have already defied the odds; they're hopeful about what they can accomplish.