Weedy Lake Winery suffers huge winter losses, family remains optimistic
It was a dream that started when his grandpa died.
“I was really close with him,” said John Schafer of rural Audubon. “He was really big into farming and he made wine in his basement…among other things,” he laughed.
After Schafer’s grandfather passed away, his dream became more vivid.
“I kept having dreams about building wine racks,” he said. “And then I thought I should maybe start to learn about what goes into a wine rack, so I started making wine.”
Schafer then began thinking about growing his own grapes for the wine.
In 2007, Schafer was only a handful of years away from retiring from his job as a U.S. Marshal and it also happens to take four years for a newly planted grape vine to begin producing grapes. The timing seemed perfect.
That year, Schafer and his family, including wife Kim and three daughters, all rallied around John and his dream to help make it come true.
36 vines planted quickly became 900 vines with four different types of hearty grapes developed at the University of Minnesota. And so was born Weedy Lake Vineyard & Winery.
“Weedy Lake is actually a fictitious name my daughters came up with because we had been pulling some weeds from the lake to use as compost up here,” said Schafer from amongst his rows of grape vines.
Schafer soaked in everything he could about the wine-making business from the grape growers association.
Aside from a lot of bureaucracy within alcohol sales, Schafer knew he was entering into a very labor intensive field.
“A lot of training the vines and weeding,” he said, adding that he also built an outbuilding that would be used for his wine-making venture.
“It’s kind of his man-cave,” laughed his wife, who helped turn the space into a store where the family would sell their wine.
Last year, the fruits of their labor began to grow in two different shades of red and two different shades of white.
Marquette, La Crescent, Frontenac and Frontenac Gris grapes would dot the two-acre landscape on the family’s land three miles south of Audubon.
The Schafer women were all helping with photos, I.T. and vineyard maintenance, as other friends and family joined them for a harvest party.
“Some were up handpicking the grapes from bunches; we had a de-stemming crew, a crushing crew a pressing crew, and then the juice would all go into the tanks and we’d do it all again,” said Schafer, who says everybody had a blast harvesting in the rain last year.
After approximately nine months of fermenting, John Schafer and his crew bottled up 1,500 bottles of wine, ranging from very dry to sweet.
“I helped sweeten it up to chick level,” smiled Kim Schafer, whose palate preferred a sweeter wine than the dry variety her husband liked.
Six different wines began lining the shelves of their new little store and the Weedy Lake Vineyard & Winery was up and running full force.
But this past year, the cruel, icy fingers of a cold Minnesota winter came curling around those vines.
“We had so many consecutive days of below zero weather,” said Schafer, who spent the spring checking for signs of life from his vineyard.
The news wasn’t good.
“We lost about 90 percent,” he said.
When a grape vine is lost, it isn’t just lost for that year — it has to be dug up and replaced by a new vine that would take another four years to bear fruit.
The best case scenario is that the mostly-dead plant will start to re-grow from the root, which means it will only take two years.
Either way, it was a big blow to the young winery and its small family of founders.
“Right now we just have to decide if we’re going to re-plant or if we’re just going to get out of the industry,” said Schafer, who remains optimistic. “We just have to decide what’s best for us as a family.”
One option for Schafer is to purchase grapes from other grape growers, which is what he did last year for a particular kind of grape that didn’t do as well in his vineyard.
It’s an option, but a slim one around this area.
“A lot of grape growers are suffering from the same kind of losses I am and the ones that did OK are already contracted out,” said Schafer, who has another option of purchasing grapes from California or other southern states just to keep the winery open for the next few years until his newly planted ones begin producing again.
Until they decide for sure, Schafer will be busy assessing his loss and selling the wine from last year.
“We still have around 1,300 bottles, so we’re having free wine tastings on the weekends,” said Schafer with a smile he is determined to maintain.
“We don’t sweat the doom and gloom; it is what it is, and we’re hearty people,” he said, as Kim added, “It’s an adventure in life; something is gained from it,” she said. “It’s brought us closer together as family.”
Weedy Lake Winery is open Fridays and Saturdays from noon to 7 p.m. and Sundays from 1 to 5 pm.