Terry Heggemeier spent the afternoon of Tuesday, April 2, like he has many spring afternoons over the past 10 years - he was pruning grapevines in his vineyard in Blackhoof Township.
Terry and his wife, Cheryl, own an 80-acre vineyard in Carlton County and are one of the only vineyards in Minnesota north of the Twin Cities. They bought the land in 2004, and after retiring, they planted grapes in 2009 and began selling wine from Blackhoof Estate Vineyards and Winery in 2015.
"There's no one growing grapes this far north," Terry boasts.
In reality, Terry said there are others trying to raise grapes in Grand Rapids and Virginia, but those growers are using greenhouses to shoulder the colder months in Minnesota. The 10 versions of grapes grown in his vineyard are left outside during the winter and trimmed back to promote new growth each spring.
Terry spent his career in the U.S. Air Force and Air National Guard - including 20 years in Duluth with the 148th Fighter Wing. As he began looking at retirement, he wanted to do something that allowed him to use his college degree in biology and got him outdoors most days. He said he and Cheryl had never thought about a vineyard or winemaking until a visit to the doctor opened his eyes to the possibility.
"I was in a doctor's office, and I read an article about people growing grapes in North Dakota," Terry said.
Growing grapes in the upper Midwest has always been a challenge, but there is a history in Minnesota. In 1900, Minnesota farms produced almost 600,000 pounds of grapes, according to Terry. Most of those were the Concord or Catawba varieties, which are good for juices, jellies and jams, but not wine.
Typically, those grapes were grown on the side of south facing buildings which allowed them to get more sun and pick up additional reflected heat. They also adapted to growing in cold climates and researchers at the University of Minnesota and Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., began trying to create a hybrid with pinot noir grapes.
Most wine grapes grow in milder climates with longer growing seasons and a more consistent amount of light each day. With the varying amounts of daylight and a window of approximately four months for grapes to ripen, northern Minnesota is among the more challenging places to grow grapes commercially. The pinot noir hybrids developed by researchers at the University of Minnesota and Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., have proven to grow well in colder climates.
The Heggemeiers are even growing a few varieties for commercial buyers to see how they respond to the cold and have even used some table grapes grown in their vineyard for wine.
A few years ago, the couple planted table grapes for their grandkids to have during regular visits. Those grandkids moved farther away, so they used the table grapes as a base and added peach and mango to the mix. Terry was skeptical about the end product, but admits he may have been wrong about the market for that type of wine.
"We're almost sold out," he said.
It hasn't been all success stories, though. Typically, the Heggemeier's 80 acres produces about 250 cases - or about 3,000 bottles - of wine each year. The couple has seen some tough winters, though, that limit the amount the vineyard produces. In 2017, October began much warmer than normal, but turned cold for the last half of the month, causing problems for grapes harvested in 2018 and the amount of wine produced for 2019. Terry said Blackhoof will probably get only about 1,000 bottles in 2019, but it's all part of trying to grow grapes just a few miles from Lake Superior.
"It's fun to see them grow - it's such a unique experiment," Cheryl said. "It's been fun to respond to the challenge of what does it take to grow grapes in northern Minnesota."
Blackhoof doesn't have a tasting room, but the couple have a pop-up tasting station they take to liquor stores and bottle shops from Barnum to Duluth. A full list of stores where Blackhoof Estate wines are sold is available at www.blackhoofestatewinery.com.