Wines made from cold-hardy U of M grapes are winning awards and gaining fans, thanks to winemakers like Steve Zeller and the U’s breeding and outreach programs.
STEVE ZELLER IS HUNTING for a thief. Circling the interior of a small farm shed turned chemistry lab, the 60-year-old winemaker (B.S. ’82, M.B.A. ’92) rummages through several boxes and drawers, kicks a plastic jug, trips over a rubber hose, and nearly bowls over a set of drying glass beakers before he finally closes in on his prey.
He nabs a glass pipette the size of a small turkey baster from its hiding place. Grinning broadly, he explains: “They call it a thief because it allows you to steal a little bit of wine from the barrel.”
Zeller removes the stopper from the top of an oak wine cask and slips the nose of the thief into the opening. He transfers a few sips to a wine glass, swirls and sniffs the contents, then takes a taste. “It’s still not quite there,” he says. “There’s a little harshness yet. But it’s getting close.”
The same might be said of Minnesota’s winemaking industry, which has begun to produce some noteworthy bottles in recent years. Once dismissed as too acidic or overly sweet, Minnesota wines have recently won awards in regional and even national competitions. In 2018, Parley Lake Winery in Waconia, where Zeller serves as head winemaker, won two silver medals and a bronze for its red native/hybrid varietals in the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, the largest competition worldwide for American wines.
Zeller is quick to credit the University as the source of the local wine industry’s success. In addition to developing cold-hardy grapes that can survive hard winters and ripen in the region’s short growing season, the U’s Horticultural Research Center, located in Victoria, just five miles from Waconia, has developed a number of outreach programs that educate grape-growers and winemakers. “I wouldn’t be a winemaker in Minnesota if it wasn’t for the amazing grapes from the U of M,” Zeller says.
ZELLER NEVER INTENDED to become a winemaker. But after graduating from the Carlson School in 1992, he landed a position in facilities management with Emerson Electric that would lead him to Germany, where wine-making has a long history. Zeller and his wife, Deb (B.S. ’82) had developed a taste for fine wine on a trip to California a few years earlier. Now in Europe, they were impressed by the bottles they sampled as well as the relaxed attitudes around drinking. “It was part of the culture,” Zeller recalls. “You’d have wine at a meal, or wine with family. Wine was part of your everyday life.”
The couple eventually returned to Minnesota and in 2005, they joined friends Lin and Bonnie Deardorff, owners of an apple orchard in Waconia, in a new business venture—planting grape vines. Eventually, they thought, they could hire a winemaker and produce their own bottles. “But I spent some time looking for a winemaker and couldn’t find anyone. At the time, nobody from California wanted to move to Minnesota to make wines,” Zeller recalls. Eventually, he was persuaded by a former enologist from the U, Nick Smith, to tackle the task himself. “I read books, went to conferences, and took classes at the U,” Zeller says.
Wine-making is complicated, however. (“I’d say it’s 20 percent science and 80 percent art,” he says.) And producing bottles from local grapes can be particularly tricky. Growers must contend with long winters, short summers, unexpected frosts, and a host of fungi and pests—from powdery mildew to Japanese beetles.
According to the Minnesota Farm Winery Association, in 1870 a German homesteader named Louis Suelter first tried to grow more than a dozen varieties of wine grapes in Minnesota. But it took more than a century for the first commercially viable vine to take root in the state: In 1996, the U’s breeding program developed Frontenac, a disease-resistant fruit with flavors of cherry and plum. Since then, it has released several other cold-hardy grape varieties, including Frontenac Gris, Frontenac Blanc, Marquette, La Crescent, and Itasca and more potential grapes remain under trial for future release.
It can take decades to develop a successful grape, says Matthew Clark (M.S. ’10, Ph.D. ’14), an assistant professor of grape breeding and enology at the U’s Department of Horticultural Science. More than 12,000 experimental vines are planted on the 12 acres owned by U’s Horticultural Research Center, but only a handful will prove successful. “I sometimes joke that plant breeding is mostly about killing plants,” says Clark, who oversees the U’s grape-growing efforts. “But we have plants that we’ve been looking at for 25 years that we’re still interested in. This work takes time.”
IN 2009, THE ZELLERS and Deardorffs opened Parley Lake Winery on 125 acres planted with apple trees and trellised grapes. “The first weekend we sold out of three of our five wines. We thought it was easy!” Zeller recalls with a laugh. “You just make wine and sell it, right?”
In fact, it took nearly a decade for the winery to break even financially, and even today only a sliver of the revenue it generates comes from bottle sales. Most of the winery’s income comes from agritourism and from hosting events, like weddings, in a reconstructed barn on the property.
Zeller also hasn’t given up his day job, serving as director of global real estate at Donaldson, a filtration services company headquartered in Bloomington. But he’s increasingly bullish on the future of Minnesota wines— and in fact, early criticism of wines made from cold-hardy hybrid grapes may be fading: A writer for Bon Appetit in December 2018 proclaimed such vintages as “some of the most exciting wines in America, if not the world,” adding, “I’m talking bottles of La Crescent that crackled with the acidity of a dozen grapefruits … Frontenac Noirs that gave me goose bumps … and Marquettes that left my insides as fuzzy as my favorite sweater.”
Some Minnesotans might regard that as hyperbole, but Zeller believes the time has finally come when locals can crow big about regional wines. “The public is now beginning to understand what we can do with these grapes and they’re discerning,” he says. “The grapes are maturing. The skill set is maturing. And the demand for better wines from Minnesota is growing.”