Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Field Trip!

A new Jordan winery -- Scott County's first -- reflects a growing Minnesota industry, as well as owner Don Crofut's desire to reconnect with a family tradition.

By Sarah Lemagie, Star Tribune
Last update: May 22, 2007 – 10:45 AM

Crofut Family Winery & Vineyard opens this weekend at 21646 Langford Av. S. (Hwy. 13) in Jordan. The winery will be open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturdays and from noon to 6 p.m. on Sundays through Oct. 1. The winery boasts nine kinds of wine that range from $12 to $15 a bottle. Grapes grown include such varieties as Frontenac, St. Croix, Marechal Foch and LaCrescent. For more information, call 952-492-3227 or go to www.crofutwinery.com.

One perk of helping Don Crofut bottle wine is that you get to drink your mistakes.
Or at least that's what his friends said one night last week as they worked on the last 50 cases of the 800 or so that Crofut has stockpiled in anticipation of his winery's grand opening this weekend.

With a few minor but colorful spills, half a dozen friends and neighbors guided red wine from barrel to bottle on an assembly line set up inside the Quonset hut on his 53-acre Jordan farm. Crofut, edgy as a racehorse, wandered among them as they filled, corked and labelled, intervening to mop up when someone knocked over a bucket holding wine that had dripped from a filter.

A whirlwind of bottling and renovation has enveloped the farm for the past six weeks as Crofut has transformed the high-ceilinged hut, formerly a machine shed, into a warmly lit wine-tasting bar and prepared to release his first vintages for the opening of the Crofut Family Winery and Vineyard, the first commercial winery in Scott County.

County and state fair ribbons hung behind the wood-topped bar in the winery reflect the praise Crofut's efforts have already garnered, and family photographs on the wall speak to three generations of winemaking.

Half of Crofut's family left Oklahoma for California during the Great Depression, and the half that stayed became "ingenious in what they could do to save money," he said. Drinking homemade wine in the winter and home-brewed beer in the summer were cost-cutting measures that became family tradition, but one that Crofut, 48, had mostly left by the wayside for decades.

Then, in 1998, his father died, and Crofut started thinking hard about what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. "It was a big revelation of legacy," he said. He bought the Jordan dairy farm, whose main house dates back to 1872, and began attending meetings of Minnesota vintners to learn more about starting his own vineyard.

Growing industry

Yes, it is possible to grow wine grapes in Minnesota. Though it hasn't been that long since there were just four or five wineries in the state, the industry has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years. Today, there are 23 commercial wineries in the state and about 180 vineyards, most concentrated along the valleys of the Mississippi, Minnesota and St. Croix rivers.
The growing interest in winemaking has sprung largely from the work of University of Minnesota researchers charged with developing vines hardy enough to make it through northern winters. The university has released four varieties since 1996, all of which can survive temperatures as low as 36 below, "So we've got the corner on that," said Anna Katharine Mansfield, an oenologist (read: wine expert) at the university.

Minnesota grapes tend to be high in both sugar and acid, said Mansfield and Peter Hemstad, a university researcher who cultivates grape vines. "They're more sprightly than they would be in some areas, but they also have a nice, concentrated flavor," Hemstad said.
Seventy percent of Crofut's vines are U of M varieties, and he keeps tabs on a half-acre test plot for the university in addition to the six acres he's planted since 2003.

A winery and a day job

Running a vineyard requires careful planning and attention, but it's not quite as labor intensive as you might think. Crofut juggles the work with his day job as president of the South Metro Credit Union in Prior Lake and does much of it with the help of his sons, Sam and Jake.
The boys, ages 13 and 12, earn allowance money in the summer mowing the vineyard and making sure the grapes hang properly from the vines. In February, the trio spent several days pruning in the snow-crusted vineyard and came away with sunburns. And during the harvest last fall, the boys threw grapes at each other and drank grape juice after helping Crofut press the fruit.

For Crofut, his sons' enjoyment of the vineyard is the best part of winemaking. "I'm at the age where you kind of start looking forward and backward," he said. If all goes according to his vision, the vineyard may someday boast its own grape variety, but at the least, it's a place he hopes his family will take pleasure in for decades.

For now, there are the moments like the one last week, when Crofut finished laying stones on the winery patio. A light rain was falling, and he was already tired from a long day at work. He sat down in the sand to enjoy the view. He looked up. And he saw a rainbow, stretched just over the farm and the freshly budded vineyard.

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