Dustin Ebert has been making wines at Rochester’s Salem Glen Winery since 2007. It’s a family business. His parents and brother are also involved with the winery. Dustin studied economics at school and then started work in the Twin Cities in information systems. “I got tired of pavement, and the systems work drove me to drink,” he says—which is one career path to becoming a vintner.
The Eberts could simply have bought a commodity farm and sown corn and beans. “I was interested in alternative crops,” Dustin says. “When we started out we were the 25th winery in Minnesota. I think there are 60 or 70 now.” The winery’s five acres had previously been a cornfield; before that it had been a “catch-all farm, like they had in the 1920s.”
Salem Glen has five acres of their own vines, growing a number of grape varieties. They also source some of their juice from other regional growers. The winery is about 10 miles southwest of Rochester, surrounded by cornfields.
As small dairy farms close down all over the upper Midwest, microfarms, such as vineyards, offer an alternative to the industrial farm model. Operations such as Salem Glen are becoming more common in Minnesota agriculture, but they are still tiny islands in a sea of corn and soybeans.
Having conventional farms plowing and spraying right up to the fence line poses the risk of herbicide overspray. “Every year it’s better,” Dustin says. “Oversight isn’t as good as it should be. It’s up to the people who are affected to chase down the responsible parties. We had an issue in 2013 and it took a while for us to recover.”
Dustin opens a bottle of their Cygnus blend, a delicious dry white wine made with a blend of Prairie Star and Louis Swenson grapes. We also taste a St. Pepin white wine that is slightly sweeter and full of rich tropical and citrus flavors. Salem Glen works only with regional varieties of grapes. The three wine grapes used in the St. Pepin and Cygnus are all rated ‘hardy’ to ‘very hardy’ by the University of Minnesota’s guidelines: able to withstand temperatures down to –20º and –25º F, respectively. Dustin reports his current favorite local variety is Petit Pearl, a new grape that he finds very versatile. It’s also cold hardy down to –30º.
The vineyard is effectively a pioneer of new wine varieties developed for the upper Midwest. “It’s exciting to work with some of these new styles,” Dustin says. “I’ll be the first person to commercially release a particular style of a grape.”
Salem Glen started out small and has been steadily growing. Dustin found that local, small town banks were much more accommodating than large banks when he approached them for loans. “They’re excited to work with something other than the usual. The corporate banks will be: ‘Oh, it doesn’t match our formula.’”
For training in wine-making, he took short courses through the Minnesota Grape Growers’ Association and the University of Minnesota. “And I’ve used lots of trial and error,” Dustin says.
To some extent, Salem Glen has been the beneficiary of climate change. Fine wines are now being made in many parts of the world that have never produced wines before. Large French champagne companies like Taittinger and Vranken-Pommery Monopole are buying land in once chilly England as French vineyards become less productive in the warming south. With new, cold-hardy grape varieties—many developed by the University of Minnesota—the upper Midwest climate is not as marginal as it once was for vineyards.
This is not to say that Minnesota is going to be producing cabernets and pinot noirs to rival those of France and California. “The soil acid levels are different [here],” Dustin says. “We struggle with making the heavy reds. But new varieties come out every few years, which offers hope for new styles of wine.”
Dustin reports the biggest challenge remains cold weather. “We had 40º below last year. Ten below what we usually see.” He notes that a microvariant of one or two degrees will determine whether a vine survives or not. Snow cover and high winds can help or hinder the plantings. “This year was more wet than normal—we had extreme cold and heavy rain. We roll with what we’re given.”
Salem Glen is not an organic winery. “In the grape world, it’s very challenging to go organic,” Dustin says. “And then there’s the sulfite aspect.” Regarding pest management, he says that mold and mildew are the biggest challenges. “We use lime sulfur in the spring and we watch for pressure on the vines and spray accordingly. We do have the phyllox; it’s cosmetically ugly. We may spray every three years. We take a minimalist approach. It doesn’t affect the grapes.”
The phylloxera is an aphid-like critter that feeds on grape-vine sap. It’s native to the Americas. New World grapes have developed resistance to the insect, which means the new cultivars developed in Minnesota have a better chance here than imported, European varieties.
Salem Glen has plans to put in a cider press to make hard cider from heirloom apples. In addition to apple ciders they will also have cranberry, organic rhubarb, and organic aronia ciders.
|Dustin Ebert of Salem Glen Winery.|
They’re a small company, with one full-time employee, one half-time, and a number of part-timers (less than half-time). “Just cutting the grass around here is eight hours of work. My parents still help out occasionally. It’s a stressful business. You have to understand, it’s not a 9-to-5 job. I get Christmas and Easter off. If there’s a big snowstorm, I’m thinking ‘great, I’ll get to read a book’ and folks will pull into the drive for the tasting room! What are people thinking?’” [Note to readers: visit Salem Glen when it snows. Dustin loves company.]
Salem Glen may expand the tasting room. “A big chunk of the business is drawing people out here to learn about winemaking. It’s a truly vertically integrated business, from pressing to bottling,” Dustin says.
The tasting room is a warm, sunny space in a converted barn, open year-round. The Eberts offer wood-fired pizza on Fridays through the summer and just over the hill they are working on building an observatory. The astronomical theme is carried over into the winery: all the blends are named for celestial features.
When Dustin set out on this adventure, did he have a particular style of wine he wanted to make, and has he achieved that goal? “I didn’t have a particular ideal wine in mind,” he says. “I was more psyched about working with the new varieties of grapes and experimentation. I wanted to make world class wines with what’s available here and share that.”
People’s Food Co-op—Rochester carries a number of Salem Glen’s wines. Prices range from $15 to $19. These are excellent wines grown and processed here in Minnesota. Their tasting room and vineyard may be visited at 5211 60th Ave. SW, Rochester, MN. http://salemglenvineyard.com/