Hinterland Vineyards Opens in Minnesota

Family farm uses university-bred cold-tolerant varieties on VSP trellis

by Linda Jones McKee
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Aric Koenen processes winegrapes during harvest.
Clara City, Minn.--Outside the prairie town of Clara City, 150 miles west of Minneapolis, sits Minnesota's newest winery. The first winery in Chippewa County, Hinterland Vineyards is a family project for Karin Koenen and her son Aric. The pair officially opened their new tasting room and winery facility May 1 with about 1,800 gallons of wine for sale. A grand opening will take place in late June, when the weather is warmer.

Why would anyone want to grow grapes and open a winery when winter temperatures hit -37°F and summer temperatures peak in the high 90s? Karin Koenen told Wines & Vines that one impetus for starting the winery was to diversify the production of their farm from corn, soybeans and sugar beets; but the major reason was to provide an incentive to her sons, Aric and Ethan, to return to the area after they finished school. Aric now works full-time on the farm, helping with the vineyard, winery and other farm projects, while Ethan is still in college.

The Koenens are part of a growing wine community in Minnesota. Before they planted grapes, the Koenens sought advice from the owners of Fieldstone Vineyards 50 miles away in Morgan, Minn., and from others already growing grapes in the area. In 2004 the Koenens began planting cold-climate grape varieties, all developed to be cold tolerant by the breeding program at the University of Minnesota or other growers. The Koenens now have nine acres of Frontenac, Marquette, La Crescent, Frontenac Gris, Brianna and Petite Amie. With a 2,000 acre farm, the Koenens are more constrained by finding the right soil conditions, including an appropriate pH level, than by a lack of land on which to plant grapes.

Karin Koenen noted, "We don't have an issue with the cold temperatures. There's more of a problem with swings in winter temperatures, when it can be -10°F one day and up to 40°F the next." The vines at Hinterland are all on VSP trellising in order to maximize the grapes' exposure to sun -- but also to get the vines up and tucked in tight. The prairie is very windy, and VSP keeps the vines from breaking better than other trellis systems. "I'm glad to be inside today," Karin said, "The wind has been blowing about 40 mph all day."

Ron and Karin Koenen both grew up in western Minnesota, and they purchased their farm about 25 years ago. It is a mile from Ron's parents' farm and close to farms settled by their grandparents and great-grandparents. Their sense of place and family heritage is reflected on their wine labels, which feature family snapshots taken in the late 1930s and early 1940s in rural Minnesota. "We want to stress the prairie heritage theme," Karin stated, "and we also are benefiting from the fact that local foods is a big movement in this area."

The Koenens also plan to join several other wineries to start a wine trail. "I don't know how many people we can attract from the Twin Cities, but we'd like to see what we can do," Karin said.
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