Port is the Answer?

In which Dara seeks great Minnesota wine in all the wrong places, and finds it anyway

Speaking of impossible climates—here we are! So I got to wondering whether the way to make great wine north of Iowa would be by borrowing a page from the Portuguese, and exerting mind over matter—or, as they demonstrated, pummeling matter into something worth minding. I spent the last year collecting all of the ports and dessert wines I could find in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and when I finally amassed an even dozen I conducted a tasting. I had fear in my heart when I began, but knew I had at least one ringer—Alexis Bailly's Ice Wine is fantastic stuff, and if worse came to worse I'd just write about that. However, the tasting went very well, and I found half a dozen local ports and dessert wines to recommend; I was beside myself with glee. The path to Midwestern glory was indeed through Portugal! I prepared myself and my heirs for a golden future in which Minnesota and Wisconsin would join the first rank of happy, wine-producing lands.

Then, I came crashing back to reality. Only after doing the tasting and organizing my notes did I start calling wineries to find out more about the wines, whereupon I learned that all the Wisconsin ones were made with coastal fruit: Wollersheim Winery's round and supple 2004 American port is made with grapes trucked in from New York; Chateau St. Croix's honeyed American Golden Port, Jaune d'Or, is made with fruit brought in from California. Wisconsin's Cedar Creek Winery, now part of Wollersheim, makes their Cedarburg Spice wine with grapes from the land of Schwarzenegger. Even Carlos Creek Winery, in Alexandria, which makes an American port that's expensive ($36), exceedingly difficult to find (your best bet is to drive up to the winery, as I think I got the last bottle in town), and not that great, makes that particular wine with California grapes. In sum: I spent a year hunting down ports and dessert wines from Minnesota and Wisconsin, found a dozen, narrowed it down to seven wines I could honestly recommend, and discovered that only four of them were made even partially with local fruit: WineHaven's Deer Garden White ($14.95 for a 375 ml bottle), and Alexis Bailly's Ratafia ($18 for a 500 ml bottle), Hastings Reserve Port ($18), and Isis Ice Wine ($28 for a 375 ml bottle). Who knew it could be so dismaying to have a ringer in the fight?

So I called up Nan Bailly, the owner and winemaker at Alexis Bailly, and we ended up neck-deep in a spirited discussion I never expected to have, to wit: What's wrong with importing grapes?

"You cannot grow grapes in the Midwest—you can't," Bailly told me. "Fortunately, there are sane people in Wisconsin who recognize this, and make allowances for small businesses." That is, Wisconsin law allows winemakers to import as many grapes as they wish, but in Minnesota, state law requires any winemaker to use at least 51 percent local fruit in their output. "You would not believe what I'm doing today," said Bailly. "I'm pruning dead grape vines. Or, almost dead. I'll find out. I've got at least three acres of grape vines that didn't make it through the winter. Last year we had that terrible drought, followed by fairly low temperatures with no snow cover, so I knew it would be bad, but it's bad. I'm in Minnesota, and this is what happens: Every year I have to expect to have devastating losses in 25 percent of my fields. But I can't have a winery if I can't grow grapes. What do you think the people at 3M would do if the state told them they had to grow 51 percent of the ingredients they needed to make Post-Its? If Summit Brewery gets barley from North Dakota, does that make them any less of a Minnesota company?"

I explained that my hope would be that a Minnesota wine would be like morels from Afton, apples from Lake Pepin, something that tasted like here. She told me this was as silly as discounting the work of a Minneapolis painter because she used French paint. I told her that if a particular wine doesn't have the selling point of having a terroir—a taste of place—that I'm interested in, namely a terroir of here, then it has to compete on taste and value alone, and in that case there are an awful lot of good, $20 Portuguese ports that blow many pricier local offerings out of the water.

"You can't put the cart before the horse," said Bailly. "Wineries come first, then vineyards. Why would grape growers plant grapes if there's no market for them?" I conceded that this is a very good point: Most wine regions have a few hundred or at least a few dozen grape growers for every winery, and winemaking is certainly an art, and a different art than grape growing. Do we make bakers raise their own wheat? Furthermore, said Bailly, what if a winery just wants to be a tourist destination, a place where city daytrippers head to enjoy a nice day in the country, and deposit some dollars in rural coffers? Is that so wrong? Did I insist that people who drive to Stillwater or Lake Pepin for a nice lunch on the river consume no Spanish olive oil or French Champagne once they got there? Well, truthfully I would prefer that local restaurants cooked with fresh, local, pasture-raised butter, and served local wine that was as good as French Champagne. She pointed out that I live in a fantasy world.

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