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Our Neighbors.... Todd Defoe

Most vintners, when asked about the success of their wine, will say, "It's in the grapes." But in the case of Cloquet's Todd Defoe, the success of his wine is in the bees (and trees).

Most vintners, when asked about the success of their wine, will say, "It's in the grapes." But in the case of Cloquet's Todd Defoe, the success of his wine is in the bees (and trees).

That's because as proprietor of the Northland's newest winery, Defoe recently began producing two varieties of wine made from honey, and he soon hopes to add wine made from maple syrup to his inventory as well.

Defoe's business venture represents the latest step on a personal journey that has not only helped him come to terms with who he is, but what he believes in as well.

Defoe was born and grew up on the Fond du Lac Reservation, a time he referred to as "a pretty traumatic childhood."

"We grew up poor and had a lot of the same social problems that a lot of people in this area did," he stated.

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After he graduated from Cloquet High School and worked for a number of years at Shooting Star Casino in Mahnomen, he ultimately began to question the direction in which he was heading.

"I decided at some point that's not really what I wanted to be doing with my life," he admitted.

At the age of 28, pretty much out of the blue, he decided to go to art school in New Mexico.

"I had been to Santa Fe on vacation one time," he related. "I stopped at the Institute of American Indian Arts Museum and I remembered it for many years. One day when I didn't have a job any more and not much to do, I decided to go to school there."

Though he had very little art experience outside of occasionally carving pipes as he was growing up, he thought it might be the means of self expression he was seeking, and much to his own surprise, he went on to become a straight A student.

"I was good at my classwork because it was more of a discovery of what was going on inside me," he reflected. "It turned out to be a very important part of my life because it allowed me the time to sort of recover from all the stuff that had taken place as I was growing up and during my early adulthood. It allowed me to go from not knowing what I wanted out of life to being able to start making my decisions based on where I wanted to go in my life."

Along the way, Defoe's considerable talents began to emerge, particularly in the field of sculpture, and his work began to turn heads with galleries and collectors from coast to coast.

"I didn't really intend for it to turn out as it did, where all of a sudden I was this 'artist,'" he confessed. "All my art is actually an expression of my own questions about my mixed heritage, because I'm part Swedish and part Indian. On one side of the fence I'm looked at as an Indian, and other side I'm not considered Indian enough. But instead of saying I'm either/or, I wondered why can't I just be what I am?"

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A series of musical instruments Defoe sculpted out of the unorthodox material pipestone became the metaphorical embodiment of these sentiments.

"I took the violin, perceived as iconic and elite in the world of music, and made it out of pipestone, which is considered an important identity marker in Indian country," he explained. "I wondered if I tried to put those two things together, could it also be something functional?"

That's just what he did, and his pipestone violin, now on display at the Fond du Lac Tribal Center, accomplishes just what he set out to do. And once he made that statement in the way he wanted to say it, he didn't feel he needed to say it again, though his art was increasingly in demand.

"Now, that's not me anymore," he admitted. "That's in my past."

Though Defoe had been doing well as an artist in Sante Fe, his "identity shift" began after he met and married his wife, Keiko, a Japanese student studying at the art institute. Wanting to establish the type of regular income not normally associated with an artist's life, he returned to the Fond du Lac Reservation in 2003, worked at various jobs, bought a house and began to head in a number of new directions. He recently completed his degree in art and business at the University of Minnesota Duluth and is currently pursuing his MBA. And for the past two years, he's begun a new business venture of his own - starting a winery.

"It actually started when I was in art school," he related, "where I had an interest in mead [an ancient beverage made with honey and water and fermented with yeast]. I'm always engaged by anything that's kind of uncommon or 'lost.'"

At the time, he thought he'd like to try making his own wine out of honey, so he started doing some research on how to do it.

"I made a batch of it and it was awful!" he admitted.

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Then he went to a small meadery in Boulder, Colo., bought a bottle of mead, asked a few questions and looked at what they were doing. His second effort was far more successful, but the experiment soon took a back seat to everything else that was going on in his life.

After his move back to Minnesota, Defoe decided it would be interesting to try making honey wine once again, just as a hobby.

"I've discovered, though, that when I try things, they don't always remain hobbies!" he chuckled.

That was in 2006, and the same time he was making mead out of honey, his stepdad and brother happened to be making maple syrup.

"I kind of sarcastically said, 'Maybe I ought to make wine out of maple syrup!'" Defoe said. "We kind of laughed about it, but the next day I started thinking that might actually be pretty interesting."

He bought a carboy, some additional equipment and a batch of maple syrup, mixed it all together and gave it a try.

"The first batch was brilliant!" he admitted. "It was like magic - really beautiful stuff. Some other people tasted it and they thought it was really good, too, so I thought it might be a really interesting opportunity."

He couldn't market his new wine without a license, however, so he decided to start his own winery. He went through the process of getting a Minnesota farm winery license and a basic winery permit from the federal government, which took about two years, requiring lots of paperwork, applications, and a state inspection to make sure his operation conformed to code as a commercial food production facility. He was also required to register with Homeland Security and the USDA.

In the meantime, Defoe had the chance to try a Canadian wine made of grapes with maple syrup added to it.

"It was pretty good but it wasn't quite what I had in mind," he said. "When I make a honey wine, I want it to be about honey. When I make a maple wine, I don't want it to be full of tannins and acid. I want it to be about maple syrup. I don't try to make a pinot noir where I try to substitute maple syrup for the pinot noir grapes. That's not the way it should be - nothing fancy, just about the honey or the maple syrup."

He got through the whole process of making application for his new winery and the final step was to have the formula and label for his maple syrup wine approved. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau sent him a letter saying it was denied because there was no such thing as maple syrup wine.

"It turned out because they don't really have a category for such a thing, they don't have a way to regulate it," he explained. "After two years of work, I was really discouraged and disappointed."

He was told he could file a petition to have the ruling changed, so he's hopeful things will turn around very soon.

"They've been pretty encouraging, saying it's just a matter of time," said Defoe, "so hopefully within the next year we'll be able to go to market with the maple syrup wine, because I really do think it's unique, interesting and really beautiful stuff."

In the meantime, he decided since he had the winery license and had made a significant investment in equipment, he'd go back to the beginning and market his honey wine, which has since been doing very well. Since last summer, he's been making 50 gallons at a time, bulk aging it first, bottling it and then aging it some more. A couple of weeks ago, Defoe staged wine tastings at Super One Liquor in Cloquet and The Wine Shop at Fitger's in Duluth, and it was very well received.

"Making it is a creative process in more ways than one," said Defoe, " - in our case being able to think of the different types of honey, what they do and how they taste, because every honey tastes different. There's always a surprise when we open up a bottle at the end of the process, taste it and see what sort of magic happened inside the bottle. It's also interesting to consider just where we fit into the whole process, because for every pound of honey that goes into my bottles of wine, the bees had to travel a million miles to make it."

He is currently using two different kinds of honey in his wine, both of them from Minnesota - a wildflower honey from a producer in Solway, and another from a supplier in Hermantown.

"We always use Minnesota-grown products," Defoe said. "I'm always looking for different honeys and supporting different farmers and producers, because that's also an important part of the process."

The labels on his semi-sweet and semi-dry honey wines bear an original image of a cook shack converted from an old garage on Defoe's family homestead.

"It became a place where we would all get together. It was our gathering place," Defoe explained. "We played cribbage, cooked, ate together, had birthday parties, and so many good times. Our little kids spent their growing up years crawling around the floor and there was always a nice comfy chair for them to sit in. We still use it, though it's been kind of a quiet place since my stepfather died. I did a drawing of it for him after he was diagnosed with lung cancer."

He said he decided to use the sketch of the cook shack on the label of the honey wine in honor of the family's time together.

"It goes back to what I said about the wine being what it is," said Defoe. "That cook shack is a place where we all got together and could just be ourselves."

He and Keiko chose the name Wind Tree for their winery, since the words "wind" and "tree" are actually a direct translation from the Japanese word for "maple tree." They've incorporated the Japanese characters into the maple leaf that will appear on the label of the maple syrup wine once it is approved for marketing.

Just as the character of Defoe's honey wine varies with the honey he uses to make it, he said there are bound to be different vintages of maple syrup wine as well.

"The maple syrup comes from different places," said Defoe, "and every stand of trees produces something different, which changes every year depending on the weather. When you're speaking of grapes, I believe they call that 'terwa' or 'the earth it came from.' It's a sense of place."

Defoe said his goals for the coming year are to increase production of the honey wines, get the maple syrup wine approved, and for the next holiday season, be ready to market his newly developed maple syrup champagne.

"It's really good!" he declared. "It's not what you would expect - it's maple syrup champagne, and I just can't believe how right that is!"

Defoe said he really hopes that he can convert this latest venture into a business that brings people to their winery. With that in mind, he has ordered four 132-gallon fermenters from a supplier in Italy, which are expected to arrive sometime next summer.

In the meantime, he's content to produce it one batch at a time.

"Making wine is a nice process, a really peaceful process," he reflected. "Every time I start a batch, there's something to look forward to on the other end."

Defoe's newest endeavor reinforces his decision to come full circle and return home once again to his roots.

"When I was young, I couldn't wait to get away from here and I was always looking away," he reflected. "I've gone out and done different things and traveled around, and now I'm bringing something back and finding my place here. I really love being back."

(For more information about Wind Tree Winery in Cloquet, go to www.windtreewinery.com .)

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