Just over eight years ago, Karin and Ron Koenen and their sons decided to grow their traditional corn and soybean farm in a way entirely new to the Chippewa County prairie.
They planted cold-hardy grape hybrids developed by the University of Minnesota in a vineyard on their working farm just outside of Clara City. They built a modern winery to turn these grapes into quality wines, and an attractive tasting room where visitors can join to discover them.
Like a small, refreshing pond of water found amidst open prairie, the vineyard is surrounded by corn, soybeans and sugar beets extending to the horizon. The University hybrids, Frontenac, Frontenac Gris, La Crescent and Marquette, and two commercial varieties -- Petite Amie and Brianna -- fill the vineyard's trellis.
"It's kind of a huge experiment to push these varieties and see what they can do,'' said Karin. She and her son Aric are primarily responsible for what we know as the wines of Hinterland Vineyards and Winery.
As to what they can do, Hinterland's wines have already won a host of awards at International Cold Climate Wine competitions.
Hinterland has built a growing base of loyal customers who seek out the wines, and are genuinely excited to discover each year's new vintages.
Perhaps the most important measure of how they're doing comes in an unexpected way. At events that bring together the owners of established wineries from throughout the state and beyond, mother and son often are asked: who is your winemaker?
And that has much to do with why their wines have a distinctive character that is now defining the prairie country. From start to finish, they drive every aspect of the viticulture and viniculture.
No different than the modern farms around them, science and hard work characterize the approach.
They chose a trellising system for their grapes that maximizes the sunlight and heat the grapes receive, to make the most of the growing season in this region of short summers and often harsh winters.
Theirs is a labor-intensive system. They must trim foliage through the growing season and prune and tend to vines through much of the winter, all by hand.
They apply the same energy and devote the same attention to detail in converting the grapes to wine. They've created their distinctive, attention-getting wines as they experiment and push, to see what their prairie-raised grapes can produce.
They are discovering far more versatility in the Frontenac hybrids than anyone seems to have imagined, said Karin. They've been surprised to discover how Marquette seems especially well-suited to their locale.
Like the farms that comprise the region, they rely on both hard work and science. Harvest time is dictated by precise measurements of the sugar and acid content in the grapes, said Aric.
The only exception is the Petite Amie. An almost intoxicating aroma of roses fills the vineyard when this variety announces on its own that it is ready for the picking.
The Hinterland winemakers love their reds, and have been experimenting with oak barrels for aging.
They aim for wines that are fruit forward in flavor, said Aric. Not by any means what would be considered fruity or too sweet, he added.
Palates in west central Minnesota favor semi-sweet wines, and their best match this preference.
Hinterland hosts wine-tasting and other events to introduce people to its wines. They've recently reached an agreement with Bernick's to distribute their wines to new markets throughout the state.
They are developing the winery and their business in what Karin calls "baby steps.'' After all, they are breaking new ground.
Corn, soybeans and sugar beets have dominated this landscape for a long time, and there is all manner of history and technical assistance to help producers make the right choices. When it comes to raising grapes and producing wine in this environment, mother and son are often on their own.
Yet, being among the first, and being able to drive it and be creative, is part of what makes this so appealing to them, said Karin.