7 Vines Vineyard in Dellwood is wine country incarnate, while UnWined Up North in Grand Rapids pours more than 30 locally produced wines.
By Bill Ward Special to the Star Tribune
A new winery and a new truly local wine bar are sure signs that Minnesota’s fermented- grape-juice scene is hopping.
Minnesota vineyard, global expertise
I spent a blissful Sunday afternoon at the 7 Vines Vineyard (101 E. Hwy. 96, Dellwood, 7vinesvineyard.com, 651-478-6300), on the north side of White Bear Lake. The vineyards and grounds are wine country incarnate, with slopes of vine-loving sandy loam. The cellar is packed with cutting-edge equipment.
So it’s little wonder that the wines are among the best I’ve tasted in Minnesota. There’s some deftly made stuff sourced from the West Coast (riesling, chardonnay, cabernet), but for me the eureka wines emanate from two cold-climate grapes, Marquette and Frontenac blanc.
The latter is actually a mutation of two University of Minnesota grapes, Frontenac and Frontenac gris, and along with the recently released Itasca, portends very good times ahead for white grapes in these parts. At 7 Vines, a terrific sparkling wine, Cuvée du Peltier, is made with 100% Frontenac blanc grapes. And the still Frontenac blanc is a knockout wine, clean, crisp and seriously delicious.
The winery also makes two versions of Marquette, the U’s most promising red grape. I was particularly enamored of the whole-cluster rendition, with a gorgeous nose and spot-on fruit/tannin/acidity harmony showcasing black fruit and black pepper. The “regular” Marquette gets 25% new French oak and also is nicely integrated.
The cozy bar serves food and wine, some made from cold-climate grapes.
Minnesota native Bryan Forbes worked at wineries on three continents and clearly gleaned some major expertise along the way, and Maureen McKenna is the recently promoted assistant winemaker.
The forces behind the operation are Ron and Arlie Peltier, who fell in love with the property, part of a James J. Hill estate, three-plus decades ago and waited patiently until it became available in 2010. The winery’s name came naturally: Ron wore number 7 as a hockey player at the U under Herb Brooks, and the Peltiers have seven grandchildren, who are commemorated on the foil atop the bottles.
Peltier has taken a “slow and steady wins the race” approach, planting a couple of acres each year and opening to the public in 2017. The warm and cozy wine bar, which serves flatbreads, sandwiches, soups and more, is augmented by an array of outdoor seating.
It’s absolutely worth the drive and would make a dandy “double dip” with another of Minnesota’s best wineries, St. Croix Vineyards (6428 Manning Av., Stillwater, scvwines.com, 651-430-3310). At the very least, pop into nearby Pine Tree Apple Orchard (450 Apple Orchard Road, White Bear Lake, pinetreeappleorchard.com, 651-429-7202) for, among other delicious delights, the kind of apple pie that Grandma used to make (if you had a blessed childhood).
Locavore wine bar
A couple hundred miles to the north, another couple with a vinous vision have seen it come to fruition. In mid-June, Lars and Tia Starks opened UnWined Up North (304 N. Pokegama Av., Grand Rapids, Minn., winebargrandrapidsmn.com, 1-218-999-9234), where the wine list (plus beer and cider) is all Minnesota, all the time.
They’re pouring more than 30 locally produced juice from four wineries — Carlos Creek, Forestedge, Millner Heritage and Cannon River — and beginning in August will add a Minnesota “Winery of the Month” to the offerings.
“We have been busier then we expected,” Lars Starks said. “I often hear ‘Thank you for doing this. We really needed a place like this.’ We feel very fortunate.”
UnWined Up North is open from 11 a.m. until 9 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. And this being Minnesota, there is patio seating throughout the summer.
Bill Ward writes at decant-this.com. Follow him on Twitter: @billward4.
Across the lake, 7 Vines Vineyard is pushing Minnesota’s wine frontier. The scenic, 188-acre estate sat unused under railroad baron James J. Hill’s descendants until 2010, when St. Paul natives and real estate professionals Ron and Arlie Peltier bought it. Near a dusty road in Dellwood, the Peltiers built a “Ritz in Colorado” wine bar and event space overlooking their vineyard’s gentle hills. They opened to the public in 2017, devising flatbreads, cheeses, soups, and other bites to pair with reds, whites, sparklings, and rosés. Their cold-hardy grapes withstand 30-below temps. Somehow, the Marquette, the Frontenac, the La Crescent still blossom with notes of candied cherry, plum, raw honeycomb.
By Debra Neutkens/Editor
A sommelier can detect the most subtle of notes — and not the musical sort. Rather, the note of pineapple or blackberry or peach; perhaps traces of dill one senses on the palate with that first sip of wine.
Hints of those flavors are described in tastings led by sommelier Maureen McKenna as she walks visitors through a tour at 7 Vines Vineyard in Dellwood. McKenna is a wine professional who has spent years honing her taste buds, sampling and studying wines of the world. 7 Vines may be the only vineyard in Minnesota to have a sommelier on staff.
The winery, located on the 188-acre estate once owned by Peter and Gertrude Ffolliott, was purchased in 2010 by Ron and Arlie Peltier. Their daughter, Janee Katz, head of operations, hired McKenna a year ago.
Becoming a sommelier is not easy. There are four levels of accreditation to become a Master Sommelier, aptly described in The New Yorker as “fine wine’s most sacrosanct circle.” McKenna attained the second level, or “certified” sommelier, in the European Court while living in Switzerland. There are two courts, American and European. The requirements are the same.
The Court of Master Sommeliers was established in London in 1969 to encourage improved standards of beverage knowledge and service. Since the court’s inception, only 255 candidates across the globe have passed the Master Sommelier exam, fewer than have traveled to space, one writer noted. The diploma is considered the “ultimate professional credential anyone can attain worldwide” in the wine and spirits industries.
Born in Vermont, McKenna attended college in Boston, earning a master’s degree in international education policy at Harvard. After getting the degree, she wanted to work for a non-governmental organization and landed a job with the Red Cross in Washington, D.C.
“I worked up to director of strategic partnerships, which meant I was managing corporate partnerships with Fortune 500 companies,” McKenna said. As she put together global partnerships with companies like Apple and Disney, she focused more and more on international work, eventually moving to Geneva, Switzerland in, 2015 to work for the international Red Cross to manage branding and corporate communications.
She was always interested in wine. “I dabbled in home winemaking in D.C. and I traveled around to vineyards, tasting and going on tours. I thought I would own a vineyard one day when I retired.”
McKenna’s decision to become a wine expert came when by happenstance, she watched a documentary called “Somm.” Made in 2013, it follows four guys who have passed the advanced level and are preparing to take the extremely difficult Master Sommelier exam, a three-part timed test with a 3 to 8 percent pass rate. Some test takers practice for years before making their first attempt.
“The documentary opened my eyes to realizing what else there is to the wine industry besides being a winemaker,” McKenna recalled. “It was one of those life-changing moments.”
What particularly piqued her interest was “being able to dive into cultures using wine as the vehicle. The history, politics, laws, geology and geography that it takes to make a certain style of wine in a certain region is fascinating,” McKenna said. “There is a story behind every label; where it came from, its culture. It opened my eyes. I thought, ‘I can do this.’”
When her partner was transferred from Switzerland to Minnesota, McKenna reached out to a University of Minnesota horticulturalist who connected her with Bryan Forbes, the winemaker at 7 Vines. She worked with Forbes to learn about Minnesota grapes and vineyard management. “When they learned about my background, they scooped me up,” McKenna said.
What does it take to become a sommelier? “Practice,” she replied. She belongs to two tasting groups, joining other certified sommeliers to practice blind taste tests several times a week.
Her goal is knowledge. “I want to know as much as I can to communicate about wine to any customer who asks. Being at 7 Vines is very cool because I’ve been introduced to these hybrid varietals that I never knew existed before moving to Minnesota.”
Her job is to help customers understand what they might like and what they don’t. “We ask simple questions like, ‘Do you like fruity wine or dry wine?’ The most important part of my job is educating or helping customers understand what varietals are,” McKenna said. “People don’t drink this every day.”
Among her sommelier duties are development of programs such as a Tour and Tasting and a wine group called Club 7 that has grown to more than 80 members. The 60-minute tour and tasting includes wine and food pairings curated by McKenna and an introduction into the winemaking process. Information on the tours and benefits of club membership can be found at 7vinesvineyard.com.
The owners of 7 Vines want customers to feel they are part of the winery, McKenna said. “They want professionalism in a relaxed, inviting atmosphere. And they want people who can make that happen. That’s why they have a sommelier on staff.”
She considers Minnesota an up-and-coming wine region. You never know: area wines may be on the Master Sommelier famously challenging blind taste test someday.
Things are taking root at 7 Vines Vineyard, the winery in Dellwood, near White Bear Lake and Mahtomedi. Janee Katz, vice president of operations, gave us the lowdown on her love for all things culinary, how the idea was planted for a vineyard on the former land of railroad magnate James J. Hill and what’s to come.
What’s your favorite childhood food or drink memory? Every single day when I got off the school bus, my mom would always have something baked, such as cookies or muffins, fresh out of the oven. I try to do that with my children now because it was such a profound memory for me as a child.
What did you want to be when you grew up? I wanted to be in broadcast journalism.
What was your first job in food and hospitality? Starting at age 16, I used to work at a golf course in the summers. I started out working at the snack bar then drove the beer and beverage cart. I loved interacting with people and working outside. I loved golf, too, so that helped.
How did you wind up in the food and hospitality business for good? I kind of fell into it with my parents owning 7 Vines. I went to the University of St. Thomas and received a degree in communication and marketing. I went on to do real estate. My parents, Ron and Arlie Peltier, purchased the land, formerly owned by James J. Hill, in 2010. They decided to start growing grapes on a portion of it, and the first vines were planted in 2012. My job was doing all of the administrative work and working with people who worked on the farming part of the vineyard. That position morphed into more of a business-development role.
What’s the story behind the name 7 Vines? My father, Ron Peltier, played hockey growing up. After he graduated from Johnson High School on St. Paul’s East Side, he played on the University of Minnesota Gophers team under legends Glen Sonmor, Lou Nanne and coach Herb Brooks. His jersey number was 7. He has seven grandchildren, whose names are etched on every bottle that we make. That number is really special to him.
How has the business grown? We planted the first vines in 2012, and today there are over 5,500 vines growing in the vineyard on 10 acres. The entire winery side encompasses a total of 27 acres. When the winery opened Oct. 8, 2017, we started with a tasting room but that has morphed into more of a wine bar feel. The idea is for people to come in and sit by the fire, try our wines, eat and relax. We offer 10 different wines in our wine bar right now. We’ve added a wine sommelier and have a taste experience, which includes tours of the vineyard, production side and tasting room.
We always knew we wanted to be a place for celebrations and it’s been fun to see that transition of holding private parties and events such as weddings and anniversaries. We have over 60 weddings on most Fridays and Saturdays this summer and fall. Since we are closed for weddings, we’re trying to create opportunities for the public to enjoy our facility during the weeknights. We’re hosting more events during the weekday such as snowshoeing and yoga. This summer, we’re going to start a bocce ball league.
What’s your favorite wine on your menu? My favorite is our cuvee, which is our sparkling white wine. I love that it combines two of our grape varieties — Frontenac Gris and Frontenac Blanc. It has beautiful notes of mango and citrus. For our weddings here we give the couple a cuvee for their engagement — it’s so celebratory.
If you had to eat or drink only five things for the rest of your life, what would they be? I’ve definitely grown a major affection for wine. I love homemade lasagna. I love caprese salad fresh in the summer. I love a good hamburger — not fancy at all. My absolute favorite thing to eat is a doughnut fresh from the bakery.
What’s next? We continue to add new and fun ideas. We’re still in the midst of developing our wine club. We’d like to partner with local restaurants and get our wine out there in other venues.
7 VINES VINEYARD
Where: 101 Highway 96 E., Dellwood
For more information: 651-478-6300; https://www.7vinesvineyard.com
Winery visits typically evoke warm-weather visions—especially in Minnesota. Greenery, airy clothing, and patio seating all pair exquisitely with a glass of wine. But 7 Vines Vineyard and Winery is building up an experience as cold-hardy as the grapes. (And we were hip to them back in August—read our feature on local wineries here.)
Located amid lake homes and forest in Dellwood on the northeast side of White Bear Lake, the winery is a 20- to 30-minute drive from the Twin Cities. Its wine bar opens at 3 p.m. Wednesday- Sunday unless there’s a special event planned.
Opened to the public in October of 2017, 7 Vines’ tastefully designed event space is well- equipped for summer weddings and warm, sunny afternoons. In fact, from April through the end of the year, expect weddings to book the entire estate most (if not all) weekends. While everything’s under inches of snow, the spacious dining room and wine bar area take on a different character. An enormous gas-powered fireplace has a magnetic pull, and the window- filled building offers plenty of vantage spots ideal for taking in a vibrant late-afternoon sunset. With a mug of mulled 7 Vines Marquette in your hand, the possibilities fully take hold.
The 5,500-plus vines on the 30-acre grounds are brown and hibernating but remain a beautiful backdrop for indoor contemplation—or a peaceful showshoe hike. If we get more snow, as predicted, the winery might add another outing to their March calendar. A vigorous walk in the chilly air proves perfect for burning off some of the menu of cheeses, flatbreads, soups, and desserts that have been carefully curated to pair with different wines. (Try the pear-and- prosciutto flatbread with the cuvée to taste what we’re talking about.) One more mug of mulled wine? Okay, twist our arm.
The winery is part of what was once a 188-acre estate passed down through the descendants of James J. Hill. It was purchased by Ron and Arlie Peltier in 2010. The Peltiers have invested more than $8 million in the winery, which they plan to pass down to their seven grandchildren, who inspired the 7 Vines name.
Currently, 7 Vines’ wines—red, white, rosé, and sparkling—include Minnesota-made, cold-hardy Marquette, Frontenac, and La Crescent grapes. They also locally produce Cabernet, Riesling, and others with grapes from other regions. Minnesota is a challenging new frontier for wines. But these bottles are legit. The 60-minute tour takes you down to the production facilities
(industrial-chic and replete with photo ops), where the winery’s sommelier, Maureen McKenna, walks you through the complex flavor adventures you crave. Most of their oak barrels for aging come from the state—redolent of dill and coconut—with some from France that smack more of vanilla and cloves. Unexpected notes blossom on your palate: pineapple, banana, smokiness, and subtle bitterness that melts with the right cheese.
No matter the season, this $30 tour of the facilities, led by McKenna along with winemaker Bryan Forbes, provides an entertaining balance of the craft and science behind the production line. In between McKenna’s studied explanations of each wine’s pairings, Forbes jovially explains the grapes, the fermentation process, the equipment, and his philosophy. All the while, you’re sipping and tasting, of course.