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Minnesota is Now Part of the Nation's Biggest Wine-Growing Region

Minnesota is Now Part of the Nation's Biggest Wine-Growing Region

Eric Roper | Star Tribune, Minneapolis

Move over, Napa and Sonoma.

Local winemakers are toasting a recent decision in Washington, D.C., to include southeastern Minnesota in the largest wine region in the country – called the Upper Mississippi River Valley. It’s 70 times the size of the Napa Valley region, and means the Upper Midwest finally has a high-visibility spot in American wine culture.

Wine is hardly Minnesota’s top attraction, but drive southeast of the Twin Cities and the vineyards start to appear – rows of grape vines amid the fertile farmland and scenic bluffs along the Mississippi River.

Known as a “viticultural area,” the new wine region follows the meandering Mississippi from southern Minnesota to northern Illinois and Iowa. Shoppers will likely notice the name on wine labels in coming months, indicating the area’s unique soil and climate.

Though experts are unsure of its exact impact on local winemakers, most agree that the designation acknowledges what is now a rapidly evolving industry in Minnesota, where scientists have spent more than 20 years developing grapes to survive a Midwestern winter. Since 1996, four varieties of grapes have been released by the University of Minnesota designed to endure the cold.

“That’s really the reason we can be in business here,” says Marvin Seppanen, co-owner of Garvin Heights Vineyards in Winona, who participated in the four-state effort to apply for the designation. Seppanen opened his winery in 2007 and said the supply of local grapes is steadily increasing.

Perhaps it is no surprise then that since 1995 the number of wineries in Minnesota has quadrupled, rising from seven to nearly 30. Moreover, a 2008 study by the U concluded that nearly two-thirds of Minnesota’s more than 600 vineyards had been planted in the last five years. University research also shows that along with the growth of vineyards has come development of a multi-million-dollar wine tourism industry, including wine trails, tastings and festivals.

“Certainly our goal is to try to make grape growing a commercially viable undertaking here in Minnesota, and it’s gratifying to me that it actually is occurring,” said Peter Hemsted, a U viticulture researcher who develops new varieties of grapes.