Imagine this: It’s a beautiful, sunny autumn day in Minnesota, temperature in the 60s, just enough chill in the air that you pulled on your jeans this morning and tied a sweatshirt around your waist.
You meet high on a bluff in the rolling hills of Southeast Minnesota with 30 other people, and maybe you know them, maybe you don’t. They might be avid gardeners, they might be wine aficionados, they might be on a first date. It doesn’t matter. You’ve all gathered for one reason: Wine grape harvesting.
Just 10 years ago, an activity like this would have been quite rare in this USDA hardiness zone, but viniculture (the cultivation of grapes for winemaking) has grown into a burgeoning business in Minnesota, thanks to increasing varieties of cold-hardy grapes being developed at the University of Minnesota and elsewhere. An increase in wine appreciation and a bumper crop of creative Midwest winemakers hasn’t hurt, either.
Pretty soon, a visit to a local vineyard to harvest grapes might be as common as the ubiquitous apple orchard visit each fall.
“You’d be surprised at how many people are interested in learning about growing grapes in Minnesota,” says John Maloney, co-owner of Cannon River Vineyard and Winery. “Last year, we had between 800 and 1,000 volunteers here over the harvest.”
Cannon River is the largest vineyard in Minnesota, with 20 acres of vineyards holding over 9,000 vines. They’ve opened up grape harvesting to the public for about six years.
Since their first grape harvest three years ago, Four Daughters Vineyard and Winery in Spring Valley has seen the harvest as a community event.
“It’s a cool experience you can’t get many places,” says Justin Osborne, Four Daughters’ winemaker. “You also get an opportunity to get face time with the professionals to ask questions and get tips on growing your own grapes or making your own wine.”
At most wineries, you sign up for a three- to four-hour shift, then show up at the vineyard, get a little lesson in viniculture from the vineyard manager, get your assignment and set to work picking grapes (and tasting a few, naturally). After your shift, you’re treated to a meal and a glass of wine — and sometimes more — to thank you for your efforts.
At some vineyards, like Cannon River, you can follow your grapes back to the winery and watch them get de-stemmed and crushed — the first step in this year’s vintages.
“We’re selling the experience of the winery as much as the wine itself,” says Maloney. “It’s why we keep our production area wide open. Our customers are really interested to see the process.”
The harvest season is busy and festive at vineyards, so after your harvesting shift you can usually stay at the winery and make a day of it — enjoying more time walking the vineyard rows, enjoying more food or additional wine tastings, breathing in the last warm weather of the season with live music in the air, and taking home a case of your favorite Minnesota-grown wine at the end of the night.
Hmm … I think I’ll take my kids to the apple orchard next weekend. This weekend, we’ll get a sitter so my husband and I can go to the vineyard by ourselves.
Grape harvesting at area vineyards
Cannon River Vineyards – Cannon Falls
Harvest begins this weekend, Sept. 13
Catered lunch and glass of wine after each three-hour shift
Can follow your grapes to the vineyard for crushing
Discount on wine through spring
Following March: Invited back for a “tank tasting” of their wine
Cost: $20 per person covers cost of lunch; $10 for returning harvesters
Sign up at www.cannonriverwinery.com/events
Falconer Vineyards and Winery – Red Wing, Minn.
Harvest begins this weekend, Sept. 13
Shift starts with coffee, hot chocolate, and pastries from local bakery
Complimentary vineyard bistro wood-fired pizza lunch after shift
Live music in the evenings
Family friendly – kids can come and harvest as well
Sign up by calling the vineyard at 651-388-8849
Flower Valley Vineyard and Winery – Red Wing, Minn.
Harvest begins weekend of Sept. 20
Volunteers are provided with lunch after shifts
12 acres of grapes to pick
Sign up by calling the vineyard at 651-388-1770
Four Daughters Vineyard and Winery – Spring Valley, Minn.
Harvest is ongoing; no harvest this weekend due to Grape Stomp Festival (see sidebar)
Three-hour shift followed by lunch and a complimentary glass of wine
Can request to see processing area where grapes are being crushed and prepared
Sign up on www.fourdaughtersvineyard.com/at-the-winery
Salem Glen Vineyard and Winery – Rochester, Minn.
No harvest/fall events in 2014 due to low production on vines
Check back next year for grape harvest opportunities
St. Croix Vineyards – Stillwater, Minn.
Volunteer shifts available on first-come, first-served basis; fills quickly.
Light lunch and wine provided to volunteers, as well as two bottles to take home
To register, contact the winery (651-430-3310) to get on the email list. Two days before a harvest date, the call for volunteers is sent out via email, and the first 25 people to respond get a shift.