Farm Horizons, November 2011

From the vine to the bottle – business at Crow River Winery is well underway

By Kristen Miller, Enterprise Dispatch Editor

“Once you get the bug to plant, you keep going, I guess,” said Mike McBrady, owner of Crow River Winery, who started with five acres of vineyard six years ago and has now expanded to 27 acres of grapes in four local vineyards.

Both he and his wife, Valerie, grew up on farms in the Hutchinson area and decided to go back to their roots.

“It wasn’t called sustainable farming then, but it would be now,” Mike said, adding that among the things raised on his childhood farm were five acres of cucumbers for Gedney, strawberries, sheep, and sod. They also had an orchard and grapes.

In 2004, the McBradys saw a real opportunity in the cold-hardy, University of Minnesota hybrid grapes and decided to plant five acres to start. University of Minnesota hybrid grapes are a cross between the state’s wild grape vines and French grape vines, making the plants robust and able to survive in the winter, Mike explained.

Varieties include Frontenac, Frontenac Gris, Marquette, Prairie Star, and LaCrescent. The McBradys also use an assortment of fruit, such as apples, in their wine-making.

The vines require tender loving care (TLC), with a lot of pruning, weeding, and discipline, Mike explained.

“Like children, they have lots of enthusiasm, but are easily discouraged,” he said.

For the McBradys, providing the proper TLC meant installing an above-ground irrigation system known as drip irrigation. This drips a half-gallon of water on the vines each hour.

Keeping birds off the berries is also very important. First, they will use a cannon to scare them away.

If that still doesn’t work, they sound the speakers, which the vineyards are equiped with, that project the recorded sound of birds in distress.

If those techniques fail, the McBradys resort to nets.

On one of their vineyards, Box Elder Farm, there are 10 miles of trellis where nets are placed onto the berries.

On another vineyard, they created a pond in the center to allow water to continuously flow in the fall, keeping the frost off the vines, Mike explained.

Much of grape-growing is a science.

A lot of the techniques the couple uses they have learned from other growers through the Minnesota Grape Growers Association, and consultations with the University. Some of it is also trial and error, Mike said.

The grapes are harvested, typically by mid- to late-September. This fall, 46,000 pounds of grapes were harvested, requiring 24 people.

In addition to the Minnesota-grown grapes, the McBradys truck in 16,000 pounds of California grapes for high-demand wine such as Chardonnay, Merlot, and Riesling.

Grapes are then run through the destemmer-crusher, where the stems are removed and the grapes are crushed. Next, the grapes are put into what is called a bladder press, where the grapes are pressed without rupturing the seed. The seeds add a flavor that isn’t “desirable,” Mike said.

For red wine, the grapes are allowed to ferment in stainless steel tanks – or fermenters – for roughly 10 days before being pressed. A secondary fermentation process is typically needed to control acidity in the wine. Then, the wine is placed in oak barrels providing additional flavor. The inside of the barrels are charred at different levels, light, medium, or heavy, filtrating the wine and neutralizing the acidity giving the wine a chocolate note. The wine is left in the barrels for 90 days to a year, depending on the strategy, Mike said.

The color of the wine is only skin deep, according to Mike. The inside of grapes in both green and red, is white. Red wine is given its color from the skin that is left on in the fermenting process.

The entire process, from harvest to bottle could take up to a year, six months for certain, Mike said.

Crow River Winery’s 2010 crop provided enough wine to fill 50,000 bottles, with another 20,000 bottles yet to fill, Mike said, adding that they aren’t in a hurry. “Aging doesn’t hurt the wine,” he said.

“It will probably be at its peak two years after it’s bottled,” he said, adding that depends a bit on the type of wine you’re bottling.

Along with grapes, Crow River Winery uses 35,000 pounds of Honeycrisp apples, 4,000 pounds of pumpkins, and 2,500 pounds of cranberry juice to make its fruit wines, which are their best-selling wines. They also make rhubarb, dandelion, and strawberry wines, typically through Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) or local farmers.

This year, they also raised 50,000 garlic plants for their garlic cooking wine, which they found to be quite popular during the Minnesota Garlic Festival this past August.

One acre of grapes is worth $6,000 to $7,000, and an acre of garlic is worth $8,000, making both very valuable crops, Mike noted. In addition, it costs $12 to plant a vine of grapes, and takes four years before it will produce its first crop.

Crow River Winery facilities unofficially open

The McBradys purchased a foreclosed commercial property, located on Highway 7, two miles east of Hutchinson, where they have been working to create a complete winery with an event center.

“It found us, and we’re so lucky,” Valerie said about the property.

Though not officially open until June 2012, they are now open to walk-ins and by appointment for tastings and tours.

The winery includes a tasting area, where visitors can taste any, or all, of their 13 wines. They will eventually have bulk olive oils and vinegars to taste and buy, as well as a deli serving prepared food, including cheese trays, for purchase.

There are also five individual tasting rooms on the second level for private tastings, which are “all the rage on the west coast,” Mike said.

For larger parties, construction is underway for a 100-person room, and another that will seat 400.

Crow River Winery is located at 14848 Highway 7 East, Hutchinson. It is currently open noon to 6 p.m. seven days a week for tastings. For more information, visit the website at or call (320) 587-2922.

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