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Wineries sprout up in state

Richwood Winery co-owner Mike Bullock shows off one of the completed bottles of wine straight out of the machine. Richwood Winery, just north of Detroit Lakes, is selling its wine at Richwood Liquors. (Courtney Sinner/DL Newspapers)1 / 2
One of the owners' friends helped bottle the wine by placing the paper caps on top, which were shrunk airtight. (Courtney Sinner/DL Newspapers)2 / 2

If you're into locally produced goods, add one more to your list --- wine.

Richwood Winery, based just outside of Richwood about 10 miles north of Detroit Lakes, bottled its first wines on June 21 and 22, 500 bottles of five varieties being sold at the Richwood Off Sale liquor store.

The varieties include three grapes produced right here in Minnesota -- a result of decades-long research at the University of Minnesota's horticulture division, and some of the same researchers that brought us the Honeycrisp apple.

Those grapes are "cold-hardy," meaning they can withstand the fickle Minnesota climate, and are leading to a quickly growing wine market in Minnesota, according to the U of M's chief fruit researcher Jim Luby.

He said a 2007 survey showed a $36 million economic impact on the state, and grape acreage has grown from 200 acres in 2002 to more than 700 in 2007, with estimates to be over 1,000 this year.

Richwood Winery owners Penny Aguirre and Mike Bullock said they started toying around with the idea of opening their own winery a couple of years ago when Aguirre was getting her master's degree in horticulture from the University of Minnesota -- and took a viticulture class from Luby.

Aguirre has worked as a plant patent agent for the last few years, even helping write the patent on one of the new wine grapes to come out of the University -- one that's quickly gaining notoriety, the Marquette, which produces a dry red wine.

Tim Nissen, who owns a winery in Nebraska and brought his bottling machine up to help Aguirre and Bullock bottle their wine (they decided to rent rather than buy their own machine), said the Marquette "is one of the best I've ever tasted."

"Dry red is really hard to do, but this one is great," Nissen said. "I had it with dinner last night."

Richwood Winery has produced a small amount of wine from the Marquette grape, as well as the Frontenac Gris, a semi-sweet white, and the La Crescent, a dry white. All three grapes were developed and grown in Minnesota.

They've also purchased Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from California and made their own version of the wine, and have an Apple Wine made from a variety of apples, including the famed Honeycrisp.

Since their small vineyard on the property won't actually yield grapes for another year or so, they had all the varieties of fresh grapes shipped in from growers and were then able to put their own twist on the wine, which makes it unique to their label.

Luby said many wineries do this because there are many more grape growers in the state than there are wineries - about 200 or 300 growers compared to only about 30 wineries.

Although Richwood Winery's small crop will eventually end up in their wines, purchasing grapes from other growers in Minnesota will always have to happen, Bullock said.

"We'll always buy grapes. We can't make enough here, and we don't really want a huge vineyard," he said.

For licensing purposes, 51 percent of their overall product has to be Minnesota-grown, Luby said.

Aguirre said other licensing was "quite the process," with conditional use permits from Becker County, as well as permission to produce alcohol from the State of Minnesota and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, a federal office under the U.S. Department of Treasury.

"It's been a lot of paperwork, and we have to track every bottle ... and pay lots of taxes," Aguirre said.

The winery property, right on the shore of Buffalo Lake, also had a small house on it, Bullock said, which they're remodeling into a tasting center, with a bar and entertainment stage where they'll hold tastings and sell their wine (they're also building a website where wine can be purchased).

Aguirre said they hope to be finished with construction by winter, and ready to open in spring 2010.

Bullock said they hope to make twice as much wine next year, and with all the help from friends and family, some of whom drove in from Idaho, they shouldn't have trouble.

Aguirre's friend since she was 8, Michelle Wang, a graphic designer, came up with the label design, and on Monday, other friends and family were helping to box the wine and do quality control, checking the labels for wrinkles or imperfections.

Aguirre, originally from the Fargo area, has had family on Big Sugarbush Lake for around 30 years, she said, so this was a perfect area to begin the wine endeavor.

Bullock has played in rock bands for much of his life, most notably, Mike and the Monsters. He quit just a couple years ago.

The pair is counting themselves lucky -- not only in help, but also in grape quality.

"We're one of the furthest north," Bullock said.

Most Minnesota wineries are in southern Minnesota, although there are a couple in the Alexandria area, as well as one in Thief River Falls.

"But we heard they've had grape problems with the late freezes up there," he said. "So, we're pushing the edge."