See more of the story

Tom Plocher stopped during a stroll through his tightly planted test vineyard in Hugo and pointed at a healthy cluster of blue grapes.

"This one's really interesting because it was crossed with a thick-skinned variety from Illinois, so the birds don't like it," said Plocher, who has more than 1,000 seedlings planted. "And it looks like it might taste good, too."

The enterprising work of this savvy grape breeder, who has propagated three cold-hardy grapes (Petite Pearl, Crimson Pearl and Verona), is one of many reasons that Minnesota wines are steadily on the rise in quality and quantity.

New grapes, better practices in vineyards and cellars and increased collaboration are paving a positive path for this growing industry. Challenges abound for this seemingly Sisyphean endeavor, starting of course with the climate and now including a lawsuit that likely will give wineries more incentive to use out-of-state rather than Minnesota-grown grapes. But optimism abounds, as wineries greet decidedly more visitors and offer them a markedly improved product.

"Every year we keep getting better and better," said Sam Jennings, winemaker at one of the state's largest operations, Cannon River in Cannon Falls, Minn.

Part of the enhancements comes from an evolving mind-set, including embracing the natural tendencies of cold-climate grapes to be high in acids and sugar. "I let the acid ride, man," said Jennings, who came here from Washington. "The sugar balances out the acidity. I'd rather work with the acids. You can pair food with that."

Veteran vintner Kyle Peterson, of WineHaven in Chisago City, Minn., agreed. "I went to a talk at Cal-Davis and it was all about acid, how they can get it out there," he said. "In Minnesota we always have enough acid, and we're not necessarily afraid of those acids anymore. We want to try to harness that, use it for mouthfeel. We try to enhance these features rather than suppress them like we did a decade ago.

"We want to kind of accentuate the good things from our climate."

And also from the vineyards, Peterson added. "We're starting to see different properties in our wines from different sites. The wines are starting to develop those personalities. We're starting to get some commonalities from vintage to vintage, to develop a terroir."

Yes, he said "terroir," that nebulous French term that basically means that the conditions in a given spot produce something distinctive in the wines that emanate from them. That's a stark reminder that while the French have been doing this for a millennium or two, here we have a truly nascent industry, just a few decades old.

We'll never catch up, of course, but some sharp, strong-willed souls are striving to bridge the gap.

Going great grapes

That group includes hybridizers such as Plocher, Peterson (who with his father, Kevin, has developed grapes called Chisago and Nokomis) and, most prominently, the folks at the University of Minnesota's Horticultural Research Center.

In this century, the university has released white grapes La Crescent, Frontenac Gris, Frontenac Blanc and Itasca and a red called Marquette. All of them show promise. The La Crescent from Northern Hollow Winery in Grasston, Minn., captured the Governor's Cup at last month's International Cold Climate Wine Competition, where your faithful correspondent was a judge (and loved the wine).

Still, Marquette and Itasca have spawned the most excitement, not just here but throughout the Midwest, New England and Canada. A year after its release, more than 40,000 vines of Itasca have been sold in 2017, said Matt Clark, another grape breeder and an assistant professor in the U's Department of Horticultural Science and Extension.

"We just think it's a wonderful wine," Clark said. "John Thull, our vineyard manager, keeps talking about how hardy it is and how well it grows. I really do believe it's a step up from anything we've released."

I can vouch for that, having tasted a stunning rendition, truly a world-class wine, this year. I've also sampled, at competitions around the country, dandy Marquettes and wines classified as "Minnesota reds" because of their origin. Some of the best were from not just Minnesota, but also Nebraska and Vermont.

Which is a reminder that these Minnesota-bred grapes are having a wide impact geographically. Plocher's Petite Pearl is the second most planted red grape in Wisconsin. The Cold Climate competition drew entries from nine states and Ontario.

While wines made as varietals (at least 75 percent one grape) still dominate, more producers are figuring out ways to use these Northern grapes in blends. Plocher, for one, is pleased. "I don't think any of our grapes can blow away the world as varietals, but we can do some great blending."

Horton is on board with that. "New winemakers get captivated by purity," he said. "But the master skill is blending. We're starting to see more creative blending, blending for complexity and for higher acidity."

Still, the quest for new grapes continues. "The industry is clamoring for reds with high tannins and lower acids," Clark said.

'Can we talk?'

More than just a Joan Rivers catchphrase, that has been a perennial question in Minnesota wine circles. Until very recently, for whatever reason, the state's vintners kept their practices close to the vest.

Earlier this decade, Katie Cook experienced the anomaly firsthand while working for a winery and then as the U enologist. "I was at [a Minnesota Grape Growers Association] conference," she said, "and one of the winners was talking about, 'This is what I did to make a gold-medal wine,' and when he was asked what yeast he used, he said, 'That's proprietary information.' It showed such naiveté, because yeast selection is such a small part of the process."

At a later roundtable, Cook recalled, "I was describing a wine and said I thought it had a bit of heavy-handed oak treatment, and I thought it was covering up some flaws I perceived in the background. The winemaker stood up and said, 'It's my wine, and let me tell you that this wine flies off the shelf, and I don't care what you think about it.' "

Drew Horton noticed the same phenomenon when he became winemaker at Chankaska Creek in Kasota, Minn., in 2010. He had come from the Santa Barbara region, where, he said, there was "a palpable feeling that if we all work together, someday we're going to be a great wine region. And it happened."

Upon being hired last year as enology specialist at the U's Grape Breeding and Enology Project, Horton set out to create that kind of culture as the self-proclaimed "state outreach winemaker."

He sent out a missive to Minnesota wineries about getting together to taste and talk Marquette, "and we quickly had 22 responses." He split the sessions into two days.

"Getting 12 winemakers in a room, it does demand that you leave your ego at the door," Horton said, "because we'll talk about a wine having high VA [volatile acidity] or being oxidized. I'd never talk about that kind of thing without talking about a solution, like, 'You have VA; let's talk about your sanitation.'

"Even people who aren't doing the best job thanked me for hosting these and to a man and woman said, 'I can't wait to make this next year with better sanitation, or even to do new blending.' "

Since then, Horton has conducted winemaker tastings of Frontenac Gris, rosé, nongrape wines, La Crescent and non-Marquette red blends with positive results.

Besides pointing out that "people have been making wine for 8,000 years, and there's nothing new under the sun" at these gatherings, Horton has touched on an important marketing matter: "Wine is one of those funny businesses where your local competitors aren't really your competition. In Minnesota, [massive wine conglomerates] Gallo and Diageo and Constellation are your competition, not other small Midwest wineries."

Growth patterns

All this cooperation and improved techniques can accomplish only so much, however. That's because of the tried-and-absolutely-true aphorism that "wine is made in the vineyard," that it's impossible to craft really good wine without really good grapes.

For years, many of the state's growers were hobbyists, including people who thought a small vineyard was a nice retirement endeavor. Today, not so much, as more serious farmers and vineyard managers with larger blocs in more grape-friendly terrains are ascendant. Fewer of them are planting in frost-magnet "bowls" between hills or on too-rich back soil. Still, Clark said, many growers are "still trying to find their way, and that's a bit of a challenge."

So is the climate. "Twenty, 30 years ago, we never worried about late spring frost," Plocher said. "Now we worry about it every year." Not to mention polar vortexes that bring extremely low yields (2014) or super-rainy late summers that wreak havoc on harvests (2016).

A bigger complication is looming. Last spring, two wineries and the Institute for Justice sued to challenge a state law that requires farm wineries to source at least 51 percent of their grapes from the Gopher State. (Interestingly, one of the litigants is Alexis Bailly Vineyard, which planted Minnesota's first vineyard in 1973 and on its website cites "this proud heritage of making wines in the world's most difficult climate.")

Clark said it's "pretty likely" that the law will be overturned, and that this is "creating a lot of anxiety among growers. How does this change the industry?"

For many vintners, it does not. Selling chardonnay from Washington — which, it's worth noting, is where a lot of the hops used in Minnesota beers come from — holds little appeal for people such as Isaac Savaryn, viticulturist at Sovereign Estate in Waconia, Minn.

"The whites are so phenomenal here it doesn't make sense to go out of state," said Savaryn, whose family is growing about 10 acres of grapes. "Our 2016 harvest was 100 percent Minnesota-grown. We don't have anything in the tank from elsewhere.

"The perception of Minnesota wine is gradually starting to change. We've had a lot more foot traffic this year than any previous year."

The bottom line

WineHaven's Peterson also said tasting-room visits are "up by leaps and bounds. People are bringing visitors from other states and even other countries. It's become almost a trendy thing, people wanting to show off Minnesota wines."

Indeed, a Northern Grapes Project survey of 11 state wineries found that they welcomed twice as many visitors in 2015 (an average of 13,600) as they had just four years earlier (6,800).

That's especially important because most wineries derive the vast majority of their income from people buying bottles on-site — and especially from events. Many of them hold concerts regularly, and some average at least one wedding per weekend.

That income is essential because restaurant and retail sales remain sluggish. Except for spurts, such as a summerlong local-wine sale at Surdyk's last year, most stores generally don't carry much, if any more, Minnesota wines than in years past.

A major issue, said Haskell's wine buyer Mitch Spencer, is pricing. It's still tough for state wines priced in the standard $12 to $18 range to compete, as that is considered the "sweet spot" for quality and value with wines from throughout the world.

Ironically, the biggest retail boost has come from national chains entering the market. Total Wines & More and grocer Fresh Thyme have devoted a not-inconsiderable chunk of shelf space to Minnesota wines.

"They arrive and go, 'OK, what's the local scene?' whereas sometimes more established stores don't," said Annette Peters of local wholesaler Bourget, which distributes wines from St. Croix Vineyards. "It's often relegated to the standard shelf [with bulk and boxed wines] and needs to make its way to the 'real wine' section."

That stands a chance to happen with so much increased acumen and teamwork. And with West Coast experts finding their way to the frozen tundra.

"We're pioneering, and that's why I'm out here," Jennings said. "I could get another job in California or Washington, but I'd rather challenge myself as a winemaker here. Anybody can make cabernet and merlot. It takes more skill to make American hybrids."

Bill Ward writes at Follow him on Twitter: @billward4.