Photo courtesy of Wild Mountain Winery
Before summer officially wraps up, enjoy the last bits of sunshine and outdoor time by visiting one of Minnesota’s wineries.
I think a trip to wine country is in order for everyone once this pandemic is over. Whether you’re a wine drinker or not, the coasts of Northern California and Oregon are bountiful in more than just grapes—from scenic views and hiking to its rich history and small-town charm. But until then, Minnesotans will have to settle for the treasures in their own backyard. Luckily, thanks to some local winemakers, that doesn’t look too different from California’s famous wine country.
Understandably, “wine” isn’t typically the first thing one thinks about when they think of the North Star State. Beer? Sure, everywhere you turn in the Twin Cities you’ll find a brewery loaded with guests and their pups. Spirits? Absolutely, Minnesota’s distilleries offer a warm, cozy place to gather and sip with friends during the long winter. Cider? Definitely, there’s a reason the annual Minnesota Cider Festival has an impressive collection of Minnesota-made offerings. But wine?
Well, if you ask the folks at Cannon River Winery, Wild Mountain Winery, and Millner Heritage Winery, Minnesota should also be recognized for its wines, and here’s why:
Cannon River Winery – Cannon Falls
Located in the Sogn Valley, Cannon River Winery is proof that this Midwest state can be just as beautiful as Napa’s renowned rolling hills. Cannon River Winery’s Vineyard is home to more than 9,000 vines spread across forty acres of land. And because of its soils, high elevation, and south-facing slopes, the Vineyard has all of the qualities needed for growing wine-making grapes.
“Being a winemaker from the West Coast, I can say that each Minnesota winery is a different and unique experience. Our winery is in the center of a picturesque small Minnesota town in an old Chevy dealership that had been around since the 1920s,” says winemaker Sam Jennings. “Other wineries are out in the country on a farm, some wineries are on the shores of Minnesota’s many lakes. Some Minnesota wineries cater to the more fancy winery experience, and some Minnesota wineries are more rustic and cater to the more rural, laid-back feel. It truly is a mixed bag of options in our little Minnesota industry and it gives customers lots of different options when visiting.”
Also, Jennings notes, the wines are different from the West Coast, as Minnesota can’t grow Cabernet or Chardonnay. “But we can grow some truly unique grapes that make fantastic wines. Who doesn’t like trying new things?”
As for what sets Cannon River Winery apart from other Minnesota spots, Jennings has a clear answer: “Our wine and our attitude! We are not your typical West Coast “styled” traditional winery. Our wine production area is literally in the same room as the tasting room so our customers can watch us winemakers do our thing firsthand. Our Minnesota Farm winery is in the heart of downtown Cannon Falls (the only Minnesota farm winery in a downtown setting). We are not wine snobs, we try and make wines that EVERYONE can enjoy. Whether it be first-time wine drinkers to fancy wine connoisseurs—we have a delicious, award-winning wine for EVERYONE (and beer for anyone else!). Cannon River is a laid-back, friendly, and easygoing place, you won’t find a pretentious person on our staff!”
Speaking of attitude, Jennings also says they have a sassy wine series called Feisty Bitch (because what else?). “My personal favorite Cannon River summer wine is our Feisty Bitch Red, slightly chilled. It’s a red blend, slightly sweet, and packed full of crisp blackberry and raspberry flavors. Serving it slightly chilled brings out more of the fruit flavors and aromas. Perfect on a hot summer day when you want a something cool and refreshing,” Jennings says. “Our Reserve Ice wine is a great summer dessert wine. I love pairing it with fresh fruit and a good French soft cheese like Brie or Boursault with some crackers for a fun picnic lunch.”
And the best part of Cannon River Winery is that it can be enjoyed despite COVID-19. Jennings says they have their outdoor patio open seven days a week, and they also have indoor seating, which is appropriately distanced.
Wild Mountain Winery – Taylors Falls
Outside of the breathtaking North Shore, Taylors Falls has some of Minnesota’s most beautiful hiking. Nestled on the border of Minnesota and Wisconsin, the small town has bluffs and views of the St. Croix River that can instantly make you feel like you’ve traveled to coast of Oregon. And its wines might have the same effect.
The Wild Mountain Winery has an extensive list of white wines, red wines, rosé, and specialty wines, including a Gold Medal ice wine and a sweet, light apple wine.
Assistant Manager Andy Olson says that what sets Wild Mountain Winery apart from other establishments is its unpretentious atmosphere (which, if we’re honest, is something California can’t quite claim). Plus, the wines are made with 100% Minnesota grapes, so you can be confident that what you’re drinking is locally made and delightfully refreshing.
“We are able to showcase not just our wines but our state, its people, the land, and the fruit. None of which are like those of California or Oregon,” Olson says.
In the past, Midwest-made wine had a reputation for being overly sweetened or too acidic, but Olson says that is no longer true throughout the region, especially at Wild Mountain Winery. “Midwest wine is now on a more level playing field with the Vitis vinifera grapes, which are native to the Mediterranean region, Central Europe, and southwestern Asia.
Olson says their best summer offers are the chilled rosé and their very popular red wine sangria. They also offer two hard ciders–one traditional and one apple pie moonshine cider–and local beers from Uncommon Loon Brewery. The winery has been taking necessary precautions to keep guests safe and physically distanced during COVID-19, and Olson says patrons have been great about following their protocol (including the dogs, which are welcome!).
Millner Heritage Vineyard & Winery – Kimball
Appropriately named, Millner Heritage Vineyard & Winery is themed after its own heritage, that being primarily Austrian and Hungarian. And in addition to its unique culture, this winery is also known for its welcoming, friendly atmosphere.
“Under non-COVID-19 times, it is pretty common for us to sing a song or two during a person’s wine tasting. I suppose in a sense, COVID-19 is kind of killing the culture a bit at Millner’s, but soon, hopefully, things will be right again with haus Millner and with the world and we can get back to having some fun a little more,” says Jon Millner, owner and vintner of Millner Heritage Vineyard & Winery.
COVID-19 has also meant that policies and procedures at the winery have changed, including switching to a flight system to limit human interaction. They also have an outdoor pavilion, which is usually used for weddings, but is now where all of the customers enjoy Millner’s.
Despite the challenges that COVID-19 has brought, Millner’s is continuing serving unique Minnesota wines, which, Millner says, is revolutionary.
“If I told most Minnesotans that the grapes being bred out of the University of Minnesota, largely using a species native to Minnesota, were literally revolutionizing the entire wine industry globally, I think that would strike as a very peculiar thing to most Minnesotans. But that’s exactly what is going on here!” Millner says.
Millner says some popular summer wines are the white and rosé, with the Naplemente rosé being at the top of Millner’s list this year. “It is from our 2018 vintage, I think possibly the best or one of the best Frontenac Gris wines I’ve made. It is kind of high alcohol and high acid for a rosé, so it is really only starting to come into its potential now,” Millner says.