Ray and Lisa Winter are owners of Indian Island Winery. (Photo by Jonathan Smith)
Winters the Vintners
How Ray Winter Took Back His Business, and the Future, For His Family
It may be hard to picture now, but at one time there was a plot of land, near Smith’s Mill, just outside Janesville, that was almost completely surrounded by water. A small island where Native Americans used to do their summer hunting. Today, it’s a plot of land full of rich soil, ideal for farming a variety of crops. Its owner, Ray Winter, has always been fascinated by the land’s history.
“I grew up right there next door. (He points out the back door of Indian Island Winery) I farmed all my life, mostly soybeans and corn,” he reflects. “Throughout the years, many artifacts have been found – keeping us intrigued by the history of these grounds.”
Winter used that rich history when naming what he hopes will be his family’s future: Indian Island Winery.
How did a lifelong farmer of soybeans and corn get into the business of winemaking? Well, that has a fascinating history of its own.
“My family has farmed for generations,” he reflects. “Traditionally always corn and soybeans. But when I grew up and wanted to make a living at it, I found out early I had no control over my business. When farming corn and soybeans, other people set the price. It was also too dependent on weather, trade issues worked out by politicians, et cetera. So much of it was out of my control and I didn’t like that feeling.”
Indeed, the life of a Minnesota farmer is not always an easy one. Neither is the life of a Minnesota grape. It’s a plant that traditionally thrives in the warm California sun, not the cold climates of Minnesota. But after researchers spent decades testing and carefully nurturing grapevines in the frigid weather, Minnesota farmer and Minnesota grape can coexist. Thrive even.
“Back in 2000, we planted our first grapes. It was a way of diversifying our farming operation. Corn and bean prices sucked then, like they do now again, and it was a way of trying to get into something that maybe was a little more steady,” says Winter. “With grapes I have more control over my own destiny. If I need to adjust the price of a bottle of wine to make up for shortages in other aspects of the business I can. Plus, there are just so many options and outlets with grapes. It’s a bit easier to spread out the risk, too.”
Winter is a pioneer; he was there at the forefront of the Minnesota vineyard movement two decades ago, when planting grapes as a viable crop in Minnesota first started emerging.
With the support of his wife, Lisa, Winterhaven Vineyard was established in the spring of 2000. The vineyard currently covers over 14 acres with over 6,000 vines and is still growing. Winterhaven has 17 different varieties at this time and is adding more every year. Once the vineyard was up and running, Winter saw another opportunity in the industry: Winterhaven Nursery was established a year later in 2001. For two years Winter grew nursery plants indoors. These plants were potted, live growing plants. Then in the spring of 2003, they started growing nursery stock outdoors in nursery beds. Winterhaven now sells many bare-root grape vines and they have a greenhouse so they can supply new varieties sooner as potted plants.
Winter, his wife, their two children and eventually their spouses built the vineyard into a thriving entity in the wine industry not just regionally but nationally as well.
A decade after they planted their first grapes, they were ready to take the next step—Indian Island Winery was born. At that time, in 2010, there were 25 wineries in Minnesota. Today, according to the Minnesota Grape Growers Association (MGGA), there are more than 70 wineries across the state that produce nearly 150,000 gallons of wine each year. The MGGA says the growth of the industry exceeds 10% per year, contributing over $40 million to Minnesota’s economy.
Winter acknowledges some years have been better than others, but still he’s happy he chose this path.
I can’t imagine what was running through your mind when you made the decision to switch from corn and soybeans to grapes. It was really a decision based on family. This is truly a family operation. There was no future for them out here farming otherwise. My son wanted to farm in the worst way and I didn’t have enough land to accommodate that and there just isn’t enough land to rent. This is a way we can compete, and it’s hopefully the future for my kids and my grandkids.
When we started we were growing grapes for another winery. The kids were always around to help; they were quite young at that time, early teens. So they grew up helping in the vineyard. A couple of years into the vineyard, we ended up getting into the nursery end of the grapes where we were growing grape vines for other vineyards. We basically sell them any place east of the Rocky Mountains and we ship all over. We have even shipped to Alaska, believe it or not. As we got into this farther, we kept expanding the vineyard, then after college my son was interested in coming back to the farm. And I knew the only way we could do that was to expand the vineyard and the nursery end of it. So we decided to start using our grapes to make our own wine!
I understand your daughter is the winemaker.
As my daughter, Angie, got a little older, she got interested in being a winemaker. It kind of came about as a joke because we were working in the vineyard together one day, when she was a junior in high school, and she said, ‘Dad, I’m really wondering what I should go to college for?’ As a joke, I said, ‘Well you know, we got all these grapes. If you learn to be a winemaker, we’d build a winery.’ She didn’t say a lot but a few weeks later, she came back and said that she had looked into it, done some research and said that sounded like something she would be interested in doing. She’s very good at chemistry, very good at math and those are two fields you need to be very good at.
I said, ‘Well, you need to go to school some more yet, first. But when you’re ready to commit the rest of your life to being a winemaker here, we’ll build the winery.’
How did she learn the craft?
Being a nursery, we had a great connection with the University of Minnesota because we propagate and sell our vines and collect royalties on all the plants that we sell with them. Their grape varieties are really what have driven the wine industry in the Midwest because they’ve developed good, cold-hardy grapes that make good wine. In fact, they make great wine.
So I was talking with Peter Hemstad, who was the head of that breeding program up there, and he mentioned they like to have interns come in and help make all their little batches of wine, and work with their winemaker. I asked him, ‘Is there any chance that Angie could get that when she got there?’ ‘Oh gosh,’ he said, ‘We’d love to have somebody local.’ Because they usually get somebody from Argentina, Brazil or somebody out of the country because nobody here wants to come and do that kind of stuff.’
So she went up there for a season, which was August to December, lived right there on the site. He had all kinds of connections out East to the wineries in the Finger Lakes area of New York, so after her internship, to get more experience, she went to work for Swedish Hill Winery out of the Finger Lakes in New York and they even had a house she could rent. She researched a little bit online and decided to take that one without even having visited or met them. She loaded up her car and went to New York, and met these people. They were wonderful, family owned, but a big winery. They were one of the bigger ones in New York. The owner of it was elderly. He was in his 70s and he treated her like she was his daughter.
That makes you feel good, doesn’t it?
They took real good care of her, and they very, very much wanted her to stay out there and stay with them, because they really liked what she did and she learned very well. She worked with a world-class winemaker out there and really learned how to make wine. But thankfully, she came back and started making great wine here. She and my son, Tom, do all the grape processing in the fall, and all that goes with it. I just run the harvester, because we harvest with a machine. We have a good harvester.
I do that and when the fruit’s in the tank, then it’s up to them to do the processing, but otherwise, his focus is with the vineyard and the nursery end of it. He works out there nonstop with us all the time. Me and him do, and he does all our nursery end of it, all our shipping and stuff…he does all that. They really have their focus. She does all the wine, and now when we bottle, we all come up here and bottle. It takes five of us to run our bottling line. We all do it. Pruning, me and my son prune all 14.5 acres.
My daughter-in-law, Angela, takes care of the withholdings, the cash register, the tills, all our sales items—anything with the cash registers she does. I still do payroll. My wife, Lisa, runs the tasting room, does all the gift shop buying. During the summer, we’re open Tuesday to Sunday. She runs the tasting room Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday during the day, as well as the gift shop.
Everyone has a role to play.
Absolutely, and I wouldn’t want any one of them to be gone because there’s a tremendous amount of work that goes into this. We all take our turns working up here in the evenings, on the weekends and Sunday afternoons. We try always to have one of the family on at night and close.
So your daughter got her training, when did you start making your own wine?
We opened in 2010, so the 2009 crop was our first vintage, and we opened in the spring of 2010. This is our 10th anniversary here this year.
You had always harvested corn and soybeans, so when you decided to do grapes, how did you know how to grow them?
I had a few grapes in my garden. That’s kind of how we decided to dive in. I had a few grapevines in the garden and wanted to make wine with them. My cousin knew about George Marti at Morgan Creek and said I should reach out to him. So I did and the first thing he told me was that the grapes we had were table grapes and they probably weren’t going to be much for making wine! But in the process of talking to him about making wine, I found out he was looking for grape growers.
We didn’t know people were growing acres of grapes. He hooked me up or informed me about the Minnesota Grape Growers Association, the MGGA. I started going to meetings and to some of their programs, and talking to anybody I could talk to about it. I did that for about a year and a half. That actually started back in ‘98, because in the year 2000 I told Lisa, ‘We’re either going to do something with this and get on with it, or we’re going to quit thinking about it.’
I’d been going to meetings and really hadn’t decided one way, and finally I said, ‘Well what do you think we should do?’ She thought we should do it, so there we went.
At that time, there weren’t many other wineries around. You were a pioneer of sorts in our region.
Morgan Creek was the only one in this area. There were a few on the edge of our region, but there were very, very few around the state at that time.
Do you still farm corn and soybeans or are you pretty much all grapes?
The year that we were going to make our first wine, I decided, ‘Why am I screwing around trying to farm two?’ Because really, I needed to focus on building the winery.
Yes, let’s talk about the winery. You are proud of this space.
This was a two-year building project. We borrowed a lot of money to build this because we didn’t want to do what we saw others doing. We’d gone around to a lot of wineries before we decided to build, and the biggest thing we found and saw was they didn’t have room for people. They opened up a winery and they were more successful than they thought they would be and they had a lot bigger crowds than they thought they would get and came to a point where they had to add on or build more. So we knew we wanted to go big from the start. We borrowed as much as we could and then drained our retirements to make this all happen.
The facility is over 11,000sf total, which includes a 3,780sf production facility, another 3,780sf room with tables and chairs, a 3,600sf tasting room and gift shop, then we also have outdoor space that seats well over 200 people.
It has paid off.
Yes! The first year and a half we were packed all the time. That first year especially, all year, we had to have two registers going up, and it was lined up back to the production room door. And that was a very big night. It was just crazy.
You know, we were something new for people to do and when word got out about us people would come check us out. So we were full and busy the first couple of years. Then Chankaska opened and took some business away because then they were the new thing and people were curious. So it slowed down a bit at that time. But we have our solid customer base. Hard working people from the region all the way from Albert Lea to Faribault and Owatonna to New Ulm. They work hard all week then come here for something fun and relaxing on the weekend.
What is considered a full house?
Two hundred and fifty people a weekend is full, that’s a good weekend for us.
How has the winery grown in terms of production?
At first we produced over 20,000 bottles, or 4,000 gallons of wine. Now as we hit our 10-year anniversary, we are producing more than 50,000 bottles, or 9,000 gallons a year.
It is a point of pride to us that we use only Minnesota grapes in our wines. We are the largest winery in the state that does that. That has been important for us since the beginning, when we first decided to open Indian Island Winery. We are a farm winery. About half of our wine is made with our own grapes grown here.
As I said, we have 14 acres, but I also contract with other growers. That’s partly to get more grapes, but also to spread out risk. So if hail or something were to come through and wipe out my crop, it hopefully wouldn’t hit them and we’d still have enough grapes to produce our wine. Our growers are great and do a very good job for us.
Is this considered a seasonal business?
Yes, I think so. We are closed January through March and that has actually been good for the business to take a break. For the family and for our employees, it gives them a chance to recharge because April through December we put in a lot of long days.
I think also the break is good for our visitors. People are excited when we open again.
How about marketing it. Do you do anything special since, as you said, you’re not really in an area of thinking to go to a winery?
We self distribute. We do have a salesman that covers an area basically from north of Highway 99. The one way that wineries market their wine is to go do tastings at places and events. For instance, the Minnesota Monthly Food and Wine Show takes place every year. It’s been held at Target Field for the last couple of years. So we’re always in that. It’s a big event that you pay to go pour wine at. But it gets your name out there. There is also GrillFest. It is held at CHS Field where the St. Paul Saints play. There are many chances to do wine tastings, also at benefits and fundraisers. You spend a lot of time pouring your wine giving people tastes.
You and your wife went on a winery tour to Oregon and Northern California. What did you learn from visiting other wineries and what do you bring back to Minnesota?
The one thing was that everybody here planted the grapes too far apart. [laughs] We should have planted them closer together. Once we started moving them closer, like in California, we found we like it a lot better. Grapes, or wine, coming through Napa has a whole different persona about it. If you just put Napa on a label, you can add 25 bucks to the price of the bottle. That does not mean it’s any better than what we have here, it’s just the persona; wine from Napa has a certain prestige.
I think Minnesota wines are getting more respect, though, in the industry.
They are getting a lot more respect. We enter our wines in competitions in California, Florida, New York, Iowa, Indy, Illinois. All the competitions around, we bring gold medals home from all of them. The cold-hardy grapes are getting to be very recognizable names now, like Marquette and Frontenac, things like that, La Crescent. Itasca is just beginning, that’s the latest one. That’s going to be a huge name for itself as time goes on.
Growing up, did you think you’d be talking about your Itasca and your Marquette?
Never. Being a grape grower was the last thing from my mind. But God has blessed us with it.
What’s your favorite wine, can I ask that?
We have so many good wines. I absolutely love La Crescent wine, but there isn’t any of them that I don’t like out here. We don’t bottle wines we don’t like. If it’s not a good wine we refuse to put it in a bottle, we’ll find something else to do with it. If you put one bad vintage out there of any variety it can do you more harm than what you might make by selling it.
Away from the vineyard
When he is not on the farm, he’s on the lake. As Indian Island matures and he gets older, he tries to find more time to pursue other hobbies he likes.
“We have our own little lake about 5 miles away, and I’ve got a little cabin out there, and I spend every evening out there on the weekends that I can.
“In the wintertime, I spend it in my fish house, sit back watching TV, hoping and not really caring if a walleye or something bites, but if it does, great.”
Behind the Scenes
In the mid-’70s, the University of Minnesota developed a wine grape research program with the goal of developing high-quality, cold-hardy wine grape varieties. Today, the University of Minnesota is recognized as one of the top wine grape research programs in the country.
Today more than 12,000 experimental vines are cultivated on 12 acres. The work done at the U of M facilities set the state up for growing success in the grape growing and wine producing industry. The most popular cold-hardy wine varieties developed in Minnesota include Frontenac, Frontenac Gris, La Crescent, Marquette, Marechal Foch, Seyval Blanc, St. Croix and St. Pepin.
University of Minnesota researchers have identified the best parts of Minnesota for growing grapes. They say grapes can be grown as a hobby throughout the state, but in terms of commercial viticulture, the most promising areas are in the southern third of the state along the Mississippi, Minnesota, and St. Croix river valleys. Because the river valleys have large hills surrounding them, as well as gravelly or sandy soils, the areas are well suited for grapes.
Researchers say the single biggest factor to consider in deciding where to plant a vineyard is elevation. They say you should plant your vines on high ground with good air drainage to avoid late frosts in the spring and early frosts in the fall. They say while south slopes are ideal,k you should avoid north slopes because the reduced sunlight and heat will slow ripening and the crop will have reduced sugar and increased acidity levels.
A frequently asked question from the U of M (mnhardy.umn.edu):
Is it legal for me to propagate my own vines from cuttings?
Since Frontenac Gris, La Crescent, and Marquette are patented varieties they can’t be legally propagated without a license from the U of M. Currently, only licensed nurseries can legally propagate these vines.
Indian Island Winery
18018 631st Avenue
Janesville, MN 56048
Phone: (507) 234-6222
Winterhaven Vineyard and Nursery
18103 628th Avenue
Janesville, MN 56048
Phone: (507) 317-7914