CROW RIVER WINERY
It started with
a love for grapes
My fraternal grandmother was named “Rose Ann” but we knew her as “Grandma Graceville” as she lived in Graceville Minnesota where my father was raised on a family farm. She was a very industrious Irish woman with big hands and a patient heart. She liked grapes, she kept Beta grapevines on the farm. Beta grapes are the original hardy grape with deep purple fruit that is ideal for jams, jellies, and juice as well as for eating. It was widely planted in Minnesota in the early 20th century. It ripens in late September it bears dark, blue-black fruit. Grandma made a little wine for the holidays, we canned grape juice which we would relish for breakfast when we were young. She made and gave away grape jelly filled with all the sugar that drove her grandchildren to adventures galore.
Her love of grapes and grapevines grown in neat tidy trellis and spalling up the silo walls inspired me to plant a grapevine in the backyard to every house I ever lived in. It inspired me make wine and grapes part of my life.
I continue her tradition to this day with my grandchildren who think drinking “kid wine” or grape juice from a glass at the diner table is as cool as it gets. Grandkids who slather their toast with last year’s grapes made into jelly and are sticky and purple after a good breakfast on the farm. The jelly is made from the vine in the orchard that my father planted when I was a small lad.
Before the Winery
I was born 70 years ago and grew up on a farm outside of Hutchinson Minnesota. My father married Alice Whalen a local Hutchinson girl. He was a World War II veteran who saw lots of combat in the Pacific Theatre where he served as a medic. He had grown up on a family farm near Graceville and had a vision of a post-war “back to the land” lifestyle. Farm life was simple, we had no electricity and no running water for several years. There was a two-hole outhouse out behind the 1880s log house on the farm. In the fall of 1959, we installed electricity and a black and white TV just in time to watch the Wizard of Oz. Our farming approach was diverse. We raised sheep for the wool and for slaughter. For the dinner table, there was a few steers, pigs, and fowl of all types. What we did not eat we sold to family and friends. For income we raised cucumbers for Gedney pickles, we picked and sold strawberries door to door in town. One hundred sheep kept the pasture a nice lawn, so we cut and sold sod from our pasture. As a young man, I set my sights on getting off the farm, embracing a technical and intellectual future and a less rural lifestyle off the farm. So, I was off to college, and marriage and raising a family. My degree from the University of Minnesota Minneapolis was in Studio Art.
As I saw the first microcomputer back in the days of the VIC,
Commodore and Apple computer I decided that was the ultimate art form and I pursued a career as a software developer. That career ultimately led me to start my own software company as well as several other small businesses.
In all the years the one constant was the family farm I grew up on. As my father aged, he was dedicated to life on the farm and as he began to decline, I became dedicated to helping him and his needs every weekend. When he finally passed, I purchased the farm from my siblings and started to chart my own path for the farm. Included in that path was the restoration of the orchard and grapevines on the farm. That very quickly turned into a fascination with the University of Minnesota cold climate grapes. A few vines quickly turned into a few thousand vines and I had a pretty good-sized vineyard operation on my hands.
As the recession of December 2007 set in a group of small businesses located in a 17 thousand square foot building on Highway 7 just south of the farm was foreclosed on by the local bank. I had never set foot inside the place, and I took no notice at all. But as my vineyard matured and the building sat empty and idle, locally people would say “What a great winery the place would make,” “Why aren’t you looking at that,” “bet you could buy it for a song.”
In the Spring of 2012, I did take-a-look at the empty building and whimsically decided there was a winery hiding in there somewhere. So, on April Fool’s Day humming a song to myself, I signed a rather large promissory note and purchased the building and surrounding land 120 acres of farmland creating the Crow River Winery. We called it the Crow River Winery after the Crow River that lazily winds it way through one of our family farms. We named it remembering a pet crow we had in the house when my children were small and who could be the center of whatever was happening.
Derelict bank foreclosures are not for the faint of heart, there is trash, the debris and piles of junk and concrete to clean up. The once thriving auto repair business had left 290+ bald tires in its wake.
But clean up and landscaping did give way to remodeling and outfitting of a winery. A winery with a production wing, offices, a tasting room, bistro kitchen and event halls large enough to seat over 500 people, a spacious patio with a fountain.
Working with local workers and cousin John McKee made it all fun. Ordering 192 windows from the local lumber yard made the light pour into the once dark and depressing interiors. Moving in stainless steel tanks into the production area was trilling. The building came alive again.
Some of the challenges were things you never concern yourself with, a licensed and inspected winery, a licensed and inspected kitchen, a liquor license. Making the place ADA compliant, installing fire suppression after the fact, and add 60 tons of air conditioning. Our seating capacity needed 21 toilet fixtures and a septic system to support it. No small feat. Each item was an adventure and a learning journey.
Slowly as things came together, we began making wine. I have made wine and beer as a hobby since my college days but scaling up to 4,000 cases a year came with a learning curve. The next spring, we opened the tasting room to the public and people stopped by to try our wine. The next spring, we opened our event halls, and a Minnesota wedding venue was born.
In March of 2020 we closed the winery due to the pandemic and decided to keep the full-time staff on and went a paint and remodel program. We were glad to do our part and to support the fight against COVID 19. It was thrilling to see all of to-go pizza orders that came in when of local customers decided to support us. It is good to see the business coming back slowly from the pandemic.