Waconia and wine. It sounds like an unlikely pairing. Yet there are three successful wineries within ten miles of each other, just 40 miles west of downtown Minneapolis.
The oldest is Parley Lake Winery, started in 2004. When Lin Deardorff planted grapes in his apple orchard near Parley Lake, he wasn’t really thinking about being a pioneer. He and winemaker Steve Zeller were just excited by the possibilities opened up by the University of Minnesota’s introduction of winter-hardy grapes.
By happy coincidence, the Waconia area has just what grapes need: rolling topography; sunny, south-facing slopes; good soil; and lakes that actually help reduce the effects of cold Canadian winds. Waconia is also at the right latitude, sitting squarely on the same parallel as the vineyards of France and the California/Oregon border. The climates are similar, although Minnesota is somewhat drier.
“California and Europe have a 180-day growing season,” says Deardorff. “Here we have just 120 days from bloom to harvest. Anything you put in the ground here has to be able to handle minus-30-degree temperatures to survive.” Wine-making has helped him extend his 10-week apple season to a nine-month business.
Next came Sovereign Estate Winery on the north shore of Lake Waconia. The blended Savaryn family began planting grapes around their home in 2008. One son, Ben Banks, is the vintner. Another, Isaac Savaryn, tends the grapes. By 2014, the vineyard had scored several awards.
Schram Vineyards & Brewery is the youngest, opened to the public in 2013. Aaron and Ashley Schram have the distinction of operating the first winery/brewery combination in the state. In addition to tending eight or nine varieties of grapes and producing wine from them, Aaron brews up batches of blonde ales, porters and IPAs.
The wineries all have their own ambiance. For example, Schram Vineyards has a young vibe to it, with bocce ball courts installed just below a wine-tasting pavilion that overlooks Reitz Lake. Sovereign’s bistro is elegantly styled, with an enormous patio that overlooks the vineyard and Lake Waconia. It’s not hard to imagine a wedding reception there. Parley Lake Winery’s tasting room is housed in Deardorff’s apple barn, imparting a rustic atmosphere that Deardorff says often leaves older “farm kids” feeling nostalgic. Guests can follow a “sculpture trail” that leads throughout the property.
All of the wineries have garnered awards from fellow winemakers, quite an accomplishment for a business that’s so young. They compete against vintners from Vermont, Connecticut, New York and Canada in the International Cold Climate Wine Competition (ICCWC), a partnership of the Minnesota Wine Growers Association and the U of M. Parley Lake has won several awards, taking home a double gold in the 2013 competition, the same year Schram brought home its first silver medal for its Marquette. Sovereign Estate captured the Governor’s Cup in 2014, a “Best of Show” award for its La Crescent.
The owners of the Waconia wineries are aware that they’re not just making wines, they’re transforming Waconia into a tourist destination. Limo-driven “wine tours” are common occurrences. Their grounds and tasting rooms have become places for special events and weddings. They collaborate on a progressive dinner that sells out every year. The winemakers feel as though they’re sitting in the right place at the right time.
SIDEBAR: The Waconia wineries are a short trip west on Hwy. 5, just past the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. Check their websites for hours. Call for group tours.
Parley Lake Winery
8280 Parley Lake Road
Schram Winery & Brewery
8785 Airport Rd.
9550 North Shore Road
By Cynthia Sowden