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Published August 08, 2011, 11:03 AM

Small Minnesota Winery Highlights Homegrown Grapes

Bottling Days occur once a year at the Richwood Winery, where a half-dozen people who work for wine gather in a garage-turned-laboratory to help fill, cork, cap, box and store 6,000 bottles of the red, white and blue.

By: Dave Kolpack, Associated Press

RICHWOOD, Minn. (AP) — Bottling Days occur once a year at the Richwood Winery, where a half-dozen people who work for wine gather in a garage-turned-laboratory to help fill, cork, cap, box and store 6,000 bottles of the red, white and blue.

This year they celebrated the coming-out party of the Minnesota grape.

Co-owner Penny Aquirre, who has a master's degree in horticulture and writes patents for grape varieties, said an increased interest in wine-making has led to an abundance of Minnesota-grown fruit. It had previously been a struggle to find homegrown grapes.

"Now the farmers are coming to us," Aquirre said.

One of about 40 wineries in the state, Richwood is located about 10 miles north of Detroit Lakes, a northwestern Minnesota summer hotspot, and 50 miles east of Moorhead and Fargo, N.D., a metropolitan area of about 200,000 people. The town of Richwood has only a dozen structures, one of which is a liquor store that sells hundreds of bottles of the namesake wine a year.

"It's kind of neat having their wine in the store," said Joe Westerholm, the Richwood Liquor Store owner who needs to go only a quarter of a mile to restock his shelves with his neighbor's wine. "A lot of people buy it out of curiosity. If they like it, they buy some more."

Winery owners Aquirre, Mike Bullock and Vicky Johnson bought the property in 2007 when they saw the ideal setting for wine-making: a quaint log home for a tasting room, an airplane hangar for storing wine, a garage for a wine laboratory, and nine acres of gently sloping land with a southern exposure for growing grapes.

Richwood has about an acre and a half of grapes, which can be seen at bird's-eye level from the tasting room. The more than 700 vines can produce about 500 gallons of wine, not nearly enough to fill the orders but pleasing to customers who want to know they're drinking homegrown wine.

"It's sort of a vineyard for aesthetic value," Bullock said, walking among the vines. "But this is what it's really all about — the grapes."

The University of Minnesota developed the state's first grape variety, Frontenac, in 1996. That was followed by La Crescent in 2002, Frontenac gris in 2003 and Marquette in 2006. All except for La Crescent are used in red wines. Researchers are putting the finishing touches on another white-fruited grape, Frontenac blanc.

Minnesota grapes are starting to get respect outside of the state, University of Minnesota researcher Katie Cook said. "They're the closest you can get to European varieties as far as the flavor profile and wine style sort of thing," she said.

Since it takes about three to four years for vines to mature, the Marquette wine has only recently hit store shelves. Cook said it is perhaps the most critically acclaimed of the homegrown wines and is nicknamed "Minnesota's Hope." The grape is a cousin of the Frontenac and grandson of pinot noir. The wine is described as having notes of cherry, berry, black pepper and spice.

Tim Nissen, who brings his Bow Valley, Neb., portable wine bottling business to Richwood every year, believes the Marquette can hold its own with the best of red wines.

"Richwood's Marquette is fabulous. It's one of the best Marquettes I've ever had," Nissen said. "As we travel, we get to try a lot of different things."

Most of Richwood's wines sell for $14.99 at the Richwood Liquor Store. The Marquette is $24.99. "That's a spendy one," Westerholm said, chuckling. "It better be good."

Richwood has nine wines, all but two that contain Minnesota fruit. The wine has a rare — and some may say healthier — touch in that it's sweetened with blue agave nectar, not sugar.

The house favorite and best-seller is the semi-sweet Rosie's Red, named for Bullock's 85-year-old mother. She went through several taste tests before settling on the recipe made up of Frontenac and pinot noir. Rosie's wedding picture, at age 15, is featured on the bottle. She makes regular appearances in the tasting room.

"She will come and sit right here on Saturday, all primped up, ready for people to come in so they can talk about her wine," Mike Bullock said, smiling.

Bottling Days, Bullock said, is like putting the wine to bed. The 7-foot-long portable machine produces about 500 bottles an hour and needs at least four people on the assembly line at any time. Sometimes there are mistakes workers have to drink, Nissan said.

"I guess that's one of the perks of the job," he said.

Nissen said he's one of 56 mobile bottlers in the United States and one of the few equipped to work in temperatures below 40 degrees. His coldest day of bottling was 34-below at Schadé Vineyard & Winery in Volga, S.D. It was 85 degrees and humid during Richwood's bottling, which Bullock joked about while he was carrying cases of wine around the yard.

"When I got into this business, nobody told me about schlepping the wine around," he said, laughing.

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