The making of a winemaker

Cody Kay proudly displays the grapes from his vineyard.

AFTON — After his dreams of going into the Air Force were crushed by a utility terrain vehicle (UTV) accident when he was 17 years old, Cody Kaye didn't know what to do with the rest of his life.

“I was a passenger in a serious rollover in an UTV, and I almost died,” Kaye said. “Children's Hospital said it was the worst concussion they'd ever seen. I missed my senior year of sports and it was devastating for me. I was on bed rest for over five months and I started thinking that I haven't accomplished anything in my life.”

Kaye, of Afton, grew up in a big yellow house and his love for that home prompted him to plant grape vines in 2014 on his parents’ land and called it Yellow House Vineyard, in honor of the home he grew up in.

Nestled away in its own microclimate between a tree farm and one of Afton's three Bissell’s Mounds, which are made of limestone, the vineyard sits on a little over 2 acres. Kaye planted two varieties of grapevines — Frontenac blanc and Marquette. “The Marquette grape is hard to grow, and my vineyard's topsoil is eroded limestone left over from the ice age, which is the the most desirable,” Kaye said.

Kaye learned a lot about how to grow the Marquette grape from Afton resident Larry Headrick. “He has a Marquette vineyard and has been producing Marquette grapes for about 12 years. He is a mentor to me, and he knows what he is doing,” Kaye said.

After graduating from St. Thomas Academy following his accident, Kaye attended the University of Minnesota and took viticulture classes (the process of growing grapes) and majored in applied economics. Currently, he is taking finance classes to learn the business side of things.

Now 26 years old, Kaye aspires to be the winemaker and vineyard manager as well as the owner of Yellow House Vineyard. “I wanted to build a building to produce the wine, but lumber prices went sky high, and I also want to purchase more land to build my business.” he said.

Kaye said when COVID-19 hit, he couldn't find people to pick the grapes, so he hired a commercial harvester, Jamieson Lindquist of Grand Cordon LLC. “It took us only six hours to harvest the grapes compared to about 500 hours if we would have hand-picked them,” he said.

The drought this summer hasn't affected Yellow House Vineyard — Kaye had already installed a 100% drip irrigation system in his vineyard.

“When I started it, people laughed at me,” Kaye said. “In terms of how it runs and operates, it acts like a sprinkler in your yard and it runs off a garden hose, so I don't have to worry about the grapes not getting enough water.”

Kaye learned quickly that making wine is not just following a recipe, but done through trial and error.

“I made so many mistakes in the beginning, but I didn't know what I was doing. I'm learning along the way that patience is the key. Otherwise, I would have been done four years ago,” he laughed.

Kaye said he's gotten compliments on his wine and has many recipes in mind for the future. Eventually, he'd like to host on-site events at his secluded vineyard. He’s anxious to start selling his wine, but has hit a few road bumps along the way.

“It's just taking a little long to get approval from the city. They don't want anything too crazy of a change,” he said. “I'm so passionate about this, and I don't consider this a job at all — and my ultimate goal is have the the first winery in Afton.”

Staff Writer Noelle Olson can be reached at 651-407-1229 or lowdownnews@presspubs.com.

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Visitors at St. Croix Vineyards tasting room.

St. Croix Vineyards

Q: What made you decide to go into the grape growing/winery business?

A: We started Saint Croix Vineyards because of a deep commitment to the fascinating world of grapes and wine. 

Q: When did you open to the public?

A: 1993. At the time we were the third winery in Minnesota and now there are about 80.

Q: What types of grapes do you grow?

A: We started with Foch and over the years have added Frontenac, Frontenac gris, Frontenac blanc, La Crescent, Marquette and Itasca. 

Q: Do you get grapes from other vineyards?

A: Yes, we buy grapes from about half a dozen other local growers. We also buy some juice from out of state, but have always made all the wine right here in Stillwater.

Q: Do you have other anything else besides wine? (like beer, cider or any specialty drink)

A: No, but Thor’s Hard Cider is also located on the same property. 

Q: What’s your most popular wine?

A: Our most popular wine is Summer Red. Close behind is our famous Raspberry Infusion — a raspberry dessert wine that is delicious with dark chocolate.

Q: Have you won any awards? If so, for which wine(s)?

A: We have won over 100 national and international awards for our wine.

Q: What are some special events you have at your winery? Upcoming events this fall?

A: We have a great event coming up Sept. 11 and 12, our annual grape stomp. This event is fun for the whole family with great food and wine, live music, free tours, and (of course) grape stomping. We also have stomps for the kids, who seem to enjoy it just as much as the adults. 

Q: What makes your winery/vineyard unique?

A: Our winery is unique because one of our owners actually developed most of the grapes grown around the state while he was a scientist at the University of Minnesota. 

Q: Anything else you’d like to add about your winery/vineyard?

A: We make some of the best wine in Minnesota and we are a great place to spend a relaxing afternoon

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Two guests at Rustic Roots Winery take in the spectacular view of the vineyard and the St. Croix Valley. Back in 1997, there were three wineries in Minnesota. Now, there are approximately 100 wineries throughout the state.

Rustic Roots Winery

Q: What made you decide to go into the grape-growing/winery business?

A: My husband, Greg, and his family have lived in Scandia for three generations, so we have a deep connection with the area. We also have a history of growing through our work at Abrahamson Nurseries. We wanted to find a way to create a destination within Scandia to bring more people to our area through agritourism. By doing a lot of research, learning from other established wineries around Minnesota and Wisconsin and getting some assistance from the team at the University of Minnesota, we grew more confident that we could turn our dream into a reality.   

Q: When did you open to the public?

A: We opened for business last Labor Day weekend, on Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020, so we’re approaching our one-year anniversary.

Q: What types of grapes do you grow?

A: Right now, we’re growing approximately 15 acres (11,000 vines) of cold-hardy grapes with plans to plant an additional 8 acres next spring. The varieties we currently have planted include — Marquette, Itasca, Frontenac blanc, Frontenac, Frontenac gris, La Crescent, Brianna and petite pearl. We planted our vines in May 2020 and should have some fruit to harvest by the end of next season.

Q: Do you get grapes from other vineyards?

A: While we’re waiting for our vines to mature, we are buying grapes in from other Minnesota vineyards across the state. Beyond that, we also do get some grapes from Washington State and New York.  

Q: Do you offer anything else besides wine?

A: In addition to our wines, we do make a hard cider with apples from Pine Tree Apple Orchard in White Bear Lake.  

Q: What’s your most popular wine?

A: Our most popular white wine is our La Crescent, and our most popular red is our Roots Red. Both have been clear leaders since the day we opened, and continue to be the most popular with our guests. 

Q: Have you won any awards? If so, for which wine(s)?

A: Since opening last fall, we have entered two international wine competitions and are happy to have earned awards at each. We won three awards from the 2020 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. Our riesling won a double gold, La Crescent a gold and our Marquette won a silver. In the 2020 Finger Lakes International Wine & Spirits Competition, we won five awards. Our La Crescent was awarded a gold; our riesling, Roots Red and Roots Rosé were all awarded silver, and our Marquette was awarded a bronze.  

Q: Do you have any special events at your winery?

A: We have live music every Sunday afternoon from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., which has been very popular with our guests. It’s a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Additionally, we have a Farmers & Artisans market on the third Thursday of every month from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. We have also had comedy nights, charcuterie-building classes, paint and sip classes and yoga in the vineyard. In September, we’ll be hosting a 5K run/walk through the vineyards.  

We try to organize events that appeal to different audiences so there’s something for everyone to come out and enjoy.

In addition to our scheduled events, we also have hiking trails on the property that we invite our guests to explore. They are open year-round, and can be hiked whenever we are open for business.  

Q: What makes your winery/vineyard unique?

A: Our goal with the winery was to create a place where we would want to hang out, and we hope our guests feel the same way. We wanted to create a casual and comfortable environment for the wine experts and novices. We have amazing views of the valley and invite our guests to explore our grounds — whether it’s walking through the vineyard, the hiking trails or just relaxing on one of our patios. When you’re here, we hope you’re able to unwind and escape the rush of everyday life.

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The Winehaven Winery building lights up in Chisago City.

Winehaven Winery

Q: What made you decide to go into the grape-growing/winery business?

A: My family was one of the largest beekeepers in Minnesota throughout the 1970s and ’80s.  Winehaven was founded in 1995 as a way to create a value-added product for our prized honey.

Q: When did you open to the public?

A: In 1995. Winehaven is one of the oldest wineries in Minnesota.

Q: What types of grapes do you grow?

A: Winehaven offers an extremely unique selection of wines from grapes that were developed at Winehaven and recognized by the U.S. Patent Office for their unique combination of winter hardiness, vigor, disease resistance and wine quality. Here's a list of these very special grapevines: Chisago grapevine, Nokomis grapevine, Nicollet grapevine, and Franconia grapevine.

Q: Do you get grapes from other vineyards?

A: We get some grapes from a small number of local growers. However, more than 90% of the grapes used in Winehaven wines are grown in Winehaven’s estate vineyard in Chisago City.

Q: Tell me about your honey wine.

A: Winehaven’s popular honey wine (also known as mead) originated from the Peterson family reading stories about Queen Elizabeth and her royal recipe for mead. Since we always had access to the very best honey, we would try to replicate the mead using modern winemaking techniques. Our mead is one-of-a-kind, because our bees make it. As such, we are able to select only the best honey from the most desirable flower sources. Winehaven’s “Stinger Mead” has won more than 30 medals in international competitions, including its sixth gold medal in California this spring.  

Q: What’s your most popular wine?

A: The Stinger Mead.

Q: Have you won any awards? If so, for which wine(s)?

A: Winehaven is one of the most award-winning wineries in the upper Midwest. Winehaven has won more than 200 medals at international wine competitions over the past 10 years.

Q: What are some special events at your winery?

A: We have two special events coming up. The first is the Federweisser Festival at Winehaven from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 23, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 24. The grape harvest is now over, and the new wines are quietly maturing in our stainless steel tanks. During this special weekend, Winehaven will be embracing the German tradition of allowing guests to sample the new wine — directly from the cask. It's not juice anymore, but it's not finished wine either. Whatever it is, it's delicious!

The second event is our 23rd annual Cheese and Chocolate weekend from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 20, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 21. Guests experience our unique wines paired with local cheeses and artisanal chocolates. While at the winery, don’t forget to pick up your Thanksgiving wines, including the new cranberry wine and our first-ever frontenac gris.

Q: What makes your winery/vineyard unique?

A: Winehaven’s vineyards are located on sloping hillsides located between three lakes — Lake Ellen, Green Lake and Lake Martha. The lakes, combined with the area's gentle southerly sloping hillside, provide natural protection for the most delicate grapevine varieties. As a result, the fruit is able to ripen later in the season and the vines are protected from the north winds during winter storms.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add about your winery/vineyard?

A: To create the best experience possible for all our guests, we are currently welcoming visitors to Winehaven by reservation only.  Reservations can be booked online at Winehaven.com.

 

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