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Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category

Unlike in Europe, the tapestry of the American wine story is still mostly comprised of people who are the first or second generation of winemakers and vineyard owners. Getting into the winemaking business in this country is therefore more entrepreneurial and less about taking on the family business. The stories of these entrepreneurs are, to me, always inspiring since I will count myself amongst the countless that have ever had a fantasy of leaving my day job to toil amongst steel fermentation tanks and oak barrels. Yet, here we are while folks like Chad Johnson of Dusted Valley live out our day dreams.

I met Chad quite a few years back on one of his many trips to Minneapolis to market his wine and admittedly, with full editorial disclosure here, I’m a fan of what Dusted Valley does and their wine. The story of how Dusted Valley came into being though I think wonderfully exemplifies the modern American wine story. Take a few kids from the Midwest, give them a dream, and with the right tools and resources with perhaps a dash of luck, they’ll set out and get to work. It wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago on one of Chad’s latest trips to Minneapolis for the Minnesota Food and Wine Show as well as the accompanying Washington State Trade and Media tasting that I finally sat Chad down to tell me the story of Dusted Valley. Of course I recorded it, and while there was a little more background noise than I would have liked, I have posted the full interview as an episode of the Wine and Food Experience Podcast which I will of course, highly recommend you listening to at the bottom of the page.

Chad met the other founders of Dusted Valley in his second foray into college at the University of Wisconsin – Stout. This was after a few years spent wandering around the West Coast in a youthful narrative that probably embodied some combination of Kerouac’s On The Road with a touch of Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test thrown in for good measure. But it was a time when California wine culture was taking a strong hold, and Washington and Oregon were on the upswing (Fun Fact: Dusted Valley became only the 52nd winery in WA in 2003). So while that culture may have honed his interest in pursuing a food science degree, the waitlist to get into UC Davis prompted Chad to look a little closer to home and he wound up at Stout. Whether wine was involved or not when Chad met his future wife, Janet, I didn’t ask but discussions about wine were certainly had as he got to know her and eventually her brother, Corey Braunel and Corey’s future wife. A wine business though wasn’t at the forefront of their minds since Midwestern values tend to focus more on what is practical first. So upon graduation, they all got respectable jobs and started to make lives for themselves. Yet the wine bug kept nipping at Chad. Coincidentally, Janet landed a job opportunity on the west coast and Chad was able to transfer out to the area in his pharmaceutical sales position.

Part of his week Chad would spend with his day job, and the rest he would spend touring around the burgeoning wine scene of eastern Washington learning all he could about the wine industry and the desire to start something sooner rather than later kept growing. Things moved fairly quickly after that through 2003 and 2004. The Braunels soon moved out to join the Johnsons and before they knew it they had a few tons of grapes and the help of a willing winemaker to show them the ropes. While Walla Walla, WA wasn’t necessarily chosen at random by Chad and crew, they were certainly fortunate to choose a place that had a fairly collaborative winemaking culture. Winemakers can be notorious for not sharing what they do behind closed doors. Even after the tutorials in winemaking though, they soon ran into the issue of how to sell the wine they’d made.

The pursuing years have been an education in how marketing and selling wine works. Simply by making good wine or even receiving accolades for it as Dusted Valley numerously has over the years does not guarantee that anyone will buy the wine. Chad and crew have been active students of the wine marketing world. Chad served a few years on the Washington State Wine Commission where he got to rub elbows with the likes of mega-wine producer Chateau Ste. Michelle and get further insight into how the wine world works. Additionally, they have struck up contracts with entities like Whole Foods for expansion opportunities of their Boomtown and Dusted Valley labels. Of course, they also spend a whole lot of time on the road getting their wine under the noses of whomever they can which has been made slightly easier these days now that their staff is expanding.

What I find most thoughtful about the how Dusted Valley approaches what they are doing is that they are constantly benchmarking themselves against wines that they themselves love whether it be Italian, French, or even other Washington wines and they’re willing to try something new. Then they’ll take something like a Rhone style Syrah heavy blend and fold it into what they’re doing.  So in addition to having enough talent to make and sell some tasty wine, they’re also demonstrating that they have good taste as well. That combination of having good taste and enough talent to produce something that can measure up to good taste is certainly an enviable combination worth watching develop over the years to come.

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WineByTap

A couple of years ago I sat at a wine bar in SW Illinois.  The unique thing about this place was that behind the curved bar, around 50 taps were installed with the sole purpose of spouting out wine.  However, in an ironic similarity to ever other bar in America, they weren’t actually serving wine by tap.  They had yet to receive a single keg of wine to tap.

The concept isn’t new; it’s been bouncing around in the industry for the past 20 years or so, but the implementation is far from being mainstream.  The appeal of this system makes sense: There is less packaging waste, wine can be sold in more of a bulk form and thus is more efficient (profitable) to move, and shelf life is extended.  Beer has fully embraced the concept for a number of years so I have been wondering for awhile now why wine has been slow to adopt this format.

I posed this question to my friend, Jeremy who will be in charge of expanding the Old Chicago restaurant chain into the SE over the next couple of years.  “Wine sales are so low compared to our other alcohol sales that there’s little incentive to invest in something like that.”  The keyword there being “invest”.  In order to have wine by tap in a restaurant, new taps would have to be put in or existing and profitable beer taps would have to be taken over.  This is additionally hampered by the low number of wines that are actually sold in a tap-able form.  While restaurants like Old Chicago cannot be considered bastions for the wine drinking public, those that primarily serve wine by the glass still face the same Chicken and the Egg situation.

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The folks at Vinocopia Barrel may have part of the solution.  Their flagship product is a fully contained, wine dispensing system that delivers wine through a spout in their display-worthy barrels.  Therefore, after the barrels are bought, all the restaurant or consumer need to provide is space.  When I stopped in at their headquarters in Minneapolis to see their product it appeared they were attempting to bypass the lack of wine by tap infrastructure.  The barrel itself is more of a housing for the removable container inside which is changed out when empty. However, the only wine you can get in their barrels right now is from Piattelli Vineyards.  Not so coincidentally, the vineyard and the barrel system have the same owner.  Perhaps their recyclable barrel system is more an attempt at coming up with alternative packaging while avoiding the stigma of boxed wine.  Regardless, they do have a slowly growing customer base.

There are those who anticipate restaurants to invest in the wine by tap infrastructure as well.  Richer Pour is a company out of Boston that not only packages wine into a format that can be tapped, but also seeks out a variety of wines to put into their containers.  However, like Vinocopia their system does not involve the traditional metal keg that we are familiar with.  Their containers are disposable once they have run dry.

The metal kegs that seem to be a central focus point of any teenage party movie are wonderfully efficient for not only keeping oxygen out of the contained alcohol, but also keeping the carbonation in.  Perhaps sparkling wines by tap would make more sense to start off with then?  Cocktail houses and their patrons would no doubt appreciate a freshly carbonated pour of sparkling wine that could be reproduced every time.  Until then, we will continue drinking to the soft pops of wine corks being expelled in the background.

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Vermont!

For the past few months I have been traveling for my other career to Vermont on a regular basis.   As far as my usual destinations for work go, Vermont is a breath of fresh air.  That breath of fresh air is occasionally tinged with the various scents of manure depending on the wind direction, but Vermont is after all a mecca for the Local and Sustainability movements.  It is home to various farms praised in the Omnivore’s Dilemma fame, and author Bill McKibben who argues against the notion that growth is an essential ingredient to a healthy economy in his book Deep Economy.  Addison County, VT is also home to the largest agricultural fairs in the nation.   Naturally, I wanted to see how the local wine scene was progressing.

By chance, or perhaps more likely because she is always there, I happened to walk into the Lincoln Peak Vineyard tasting room when Sara Granstrom was pouring.  Although she’d never admit it, Sara is something of a rising star in the Vermont wine scene.  She has been working in the fields since she was a kid and her father, Chris Granstrom, was known for producing strawberries.  Since, 2001 however, the mostly-family team has been growing grapes and then making wine and the strawberry fields are part of their past.  The switch happened at an opportune time as well as they have been able to adopt the cold hardy hybrid grapes that are coming out of the University of Minnesota and elsewhere.

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In addition to the time-consuming demands a vineyard entails, Sara is also the recently elected President of the Vermont Grape and Wine Council which coordinates efforts to advance grape growing and wine making in the state of Vermont.  Lincoln Peak is just one of about 25 vineyards and wineries that make up the council with a handful of meaderies, apiaries, and orchards added in.  The actual state of Vermont is putting some serious investment into the wine industry and for good reason: they have some good quality wines already coming out.  For the past 3 years, Shelburne Vineyard has been nabbing the Top Red Wine award at the International Cold Climate Wine Competition (ICCWC) with their Marquette Reserve.

Sara, and it seems the rest of cold hardy grape producers and wine makers, are taking note that Marquette and La Crescent are the two darlings when it comes to wine production in the northern climates.  She’ll also tell you that Vermont wines are on the cusp of really developing a regional character and as I mentioned in my overview of judging the ICCWC this year, I certainly agree.

As a bonus for this post, and in the style of my previous interview, check out the audio of our conversation below.  Admittedly, I had to chop it up a bit, because Sara is apparently very popular at the restaurant we chatted at, but don’t worry, we still figure out what wine to pair with a maple milkshake.

For those interested in the Northern Wineworks book Sara mentioned. Follow the link!

Listen to the interview!

Download the interview!(right click and save)

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A new events company has just burst on to the local scene here in Minnesota called GetKnit.  They are pulling together winery and brewery tours, cooking classes, and volunteering opportunities, which all ride on the back of the Local movement.  On Sunday, April 7 at 10:30am, the new company kicked off their maiden voyage with the St. Croix River Valley Winery Tour.

Even though the day started out cloudy, the staff were nothing but sunny.  Just shy of 40 people met at the Roseville Park N’ Ride to board a luxury charter bus to the sounds of Frank Sinatra playing over the air.  I personally would have gone with Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage, but I’m not sure how many would have gotten the joke, so Old Blue Eyes was probably a better choice.  The GetKnit staff, called the GetKnit Gurus, which were nearly all in the first half of their 20s, expertly set the atmosphere establishing the suggestion that above all else, this day would be fun and social.  The company’s name itself hints at their broader goal of “Knitting the community together” and without silly games or icebreakers, they organically facilitate the co-mingling of fellow travelers.  Of course, the added suggestion that bottles of wine purchased at the wineries may be consumed on the bus certainly aided this process.  Later in the tour this set the groundwork for a sing-a-long of Bon Jovi’s Livin’ On A Prayer, which was well participated.

GetKnit Gurus Justin and Sarah

GetKnit Gurus Justin and Sarah

Stop 1 was a quick ride over to St. Croix Vineyards for a tasting of 5 locally grown and made wines including a port-style dessert wine with a bit of chocolate to finish it off.  While the group certainly enjoyed the tasting housed in a beautifully restored rustic barn, the excitement for the vineyard came at the end when a large number of visitors lined up to make purchases.  Stop 2 was in the more urban styled Northern Vineyards, a co-op winery found in the heart of Stillwater.  This tasting followed the format of the first involving Minnesota grown and produced wines, finishing with the port-style dessert wine and chocolate, but in a more urban atmosphere.  The second floor patio of the winery overlooks the scenic St. Croix River and will no doubt only enhance the experience when the chill finally leaves the air.  Much discussion was had in comparing the first winery to the second, but regardless of which side people stood on, purchases were again made.

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Around 1pm a well-deserved lunch was had just down the street at Luna Rossa.  Wine was not included in the lunch, but was available for purchase.  However, only the most adventurous chose to partake; most appreciating the brief respite piling up on the pasta and salad.  Yet, before the coma-inducing powers of digestion could set in, the GetKnit Gurus corralled everyone back on the bus for the 45 minute drive over to the last stop across the border into Wisconsin at Chateau St. Croix Winery and Vineyard.

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This stop was perhaps the least Midwestern feeling of the wineries visited as it was inspired by various aspects of France showing off regal statues and a fountain out front, a French hunting lodge inspired tasting room, candelabras, chandeliers, and even full sets of armor standing at guard.  The wines themselves were mostly made from grapes imported from California, but to reassure people they were in fact still in the Midwest (Specifically Wisconsin), the winery does have two wines labeled Buckhunter Red and Cheesehead White.  For good measure, they also have produced a wine from the University of Minnesota hybrid Marquette grape as the previous two wineries had which appeared to be their grape of choice planted in their burgeoning vineyard mixed in with some Prairie Star.  After a quick tour of their facility, another port-style wine and chocolate pairing was had.  The women again swooned.  Purchases were again made and even bottles of beer were bought (When in Rome…) for the ride back across the state line to the tours completion.

Chateau St. Croix being guarded by a lion.

Chateau St. Croix being guarded by a lion.

Most surprisingly was how smoothly everything operated for GetKnit’s premier outing.  The GetKnit Gurus seemed particularly adept at herding cats and there was not a single blip in the schedule, or if there was, no one noticed.  At $65, the tour was an absolute value (15 wines, 3 wineries, lunch, transportation, wine glass memento) and not only the participants, but the wineries and the staff all appeared to be having a wonderful time.  The company has already lined up a number of events, including the wine tour through May with more events likely to follow.

Happy tourists.

Happy tourists.

For more information about GetKnit events follow the link.

Compensation disclosure: Tour fee comped for an event write-up for the Midwest Wine Press

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FourDaughters

Despite the blustery snow of the Tuesday before the extended New Year’s holiday weekend, people still steadily streamed in to the Four Daughter’s Winery in Spring Valley, MN.  A mother and her son, diverted from reaching Rochester to do their holiday shopping appeared to be successfully accomplishing their mission between the wine-related trinkets in the gift shop and the quickly disappearing bottles of wine lining the western wall.  An elderly couple seemed slightly overwhelmed but curious about the menu items from the chef and a delivery driver deliberated whether to hold tight or press on as he acquired a bottle of wine for his wife.  Yet, it was noticeable each time the staff patiently went through the wine offerings; no one was there specifically for the wine.  Perhaps that crowd would roll in after noon.

The wine from Four Daughters, however, is what has recently been making a name for itself.   At the International Cold Climate Wine Competition this past August, five of the winery’s seven entries received a medal.  Their La Crescent took home the top honor of best wine at the competition.  Not bad for an operation that recently celebrated their first anniversary.  Much of this success is owed to their winemaker, Justin Osborne, whose winemaking history spans only as long as the winery’s.    Justin, a Twin Cities native, was asked by his wife, Kristin’s family to be the wine maker of their future dream and fortunately for the Minnesota wine community, he accepted.

The question is: How did someone with little experience end up besting some with 10+ years of hard work and dedication?    “I’m not the smartest winemaker in the world,”  Justin modestly declares as he struggles to illuminate his process. “You do these four things well, and stay within the lines…you’ll have a good end product.”  His goal is not to reinvent the wine making world, but to entrust solid wine making practices that have been proven to work.  Yet, instead of taking large leaps and just hoping things work out, he takes small, measured steps at each point along the way. The content sigh of someone fully dedicated to their craft comes out as he points back to a little room off of the production that he has no doubt spent countless hours in. “I do a lot of testing.”  The lab room at Four Daughters may be his second home or first depending on whom you ask.

So what are those four things needed to make good wine?

  1. Grow good grapes
  2. Get good juice out of those grapes
  3. Have a healthy fermentation
  4. Have a deft hand when refining (finishing the wine)

Simple, right?  OK, there may be a few other factors going into the success.  Being able to start off with some good equipment certainly helped.  Additionally, Justin’s wife, Kristen is part of how the winery got their namesake.  She’s one of the eponymous four daughters and her family’s agricultural background has certainly served them well in pursuing their dream to have a winery and vineyard not to mention the aid of Kristen’s marketing skills.  The family and their expert staff didn’t walk into this venture unprepared.  It also helps that the vast majority of the grapes they are purchasing are grown within 50 miles of their location.  Their location also just happens to be within the largest wine region in the world: The Upper Mississippi Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA).  See Justin’s number 1 rule.

Those visiting the winery may spot a life-sized cardboard cutout of Marilyn Monroe in a glimmering pink ball gown leaning on a wall of oak barrels.  Is it inspiration for his Frontenac Rose? He shakes his head and begins, “My mother-in-law collects them…”.  And really, that’s the only explanation a married man needs to give sometimes.  He then relates the story of how the local police department, responding to a security alarm breach on the premises almost shot the cardboard version of John Wayne hanging out near the bathrooms.  Clearly, it’s not just the customers who are pleasantly surprised by what they find what the find at this winery.

For the full audio interview check out the podcast below.  Justin spills all of his secrets…well, almost.  Regardless, if you make wine in the Midwest or just like drinking it you’ll enjoy the whole thing.

Download the podcast from iTunes

Links:

Four Daughters Vineyard & Winery

Minnesota Grape Growers Association

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