CLARA CITY — Developing a vineyard and winery in the midst of a working farm in Chippewa County has made Aric and Aftan Koenen of Hinterland Wines very much like their farmer neighbors.
After all, this is farming. It requires a lot of hard work, ingenuity and blind faith.
It was snowing on the April day that the first acre of the vineyard was planted. “You don’t forget that,” said Aric Koenen.
That was in 2005, when his parents, Karin and Ron Koenen, decided to develop a two-acre vineyard on their farm to raise cold-hardy grapes developed by the University of Minnesota. Their intent was to sell the grapes to new, emerging wineries in the state.
Today, the Hinterland Vineyard covers 10 acres of former corn and soybean land just outside of Clara City. University-developed hybrids including Frontenac, Frontenac Gris, La Crescent and Marquette, along with commercial varieties Petite Amie and Brianna, fill the trellis.
Some of the harvest still finds its way to other Minnesota wineries, but most stays at home. For 10 years now, the Hinterland Winery has been producing its own award-winning wines under seven of its own labels.
Aric and Aftan said they had no way to know when they opened the winery whether they would find a customer base for their wines in farm country. They’ve been pleasantly surprised. Customers come from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to Minneapolis and all points between, and represent a broad spectrum of people, said the Koenens.
At first, customers came strictly for the opportunity to enjoy their Minnesota-made wines. The “honeymoon phase” soon wore off, said Aric.
In response, the couple developed the location into a hospitality destination. They purchased a food truck and now offer a varied menu that features locally raised meats and bison. They offer craft beers along with their wines.
They expanded the wine tasting room to accommodate diners. They developed a large, outdoor courtyard with tables and chairs where guests can enjoy the scenery of the vineyard and live entertainment.
The result: Today’s customers know the Hinterland brand. “It is 90 percent a destination,” said Aric Koenen. They rarely see the random visitors who once slammed on their brakes when they saw a sign for a winery in corn and soybean country, according to Aric.
Their rural customers still largely favor sweet wines, they said. Yet overall, Aftan and Aric said that they have noticed a gradual maturation in people’s tastes and appreciation for wines.
They have proven that the University’s cold-hardy grapes can be cultivated on the open, western Minnesota prairie. “You can,” said Aric, “but there are tricks that are different from the rest of the world.”
The two have also demonstrated that grapes from the prairie can produce quality wines of complexity and character. But again, it’s not easy. “You have to be willing to wreck a lot of wine,” said Aric, who is the winemaker. He said it requires being willing to experiment to develop wines worthy of the Hinterland label.
By all measures, this year has been the most challenging for this couple. On the date of their ninth wedding anniversary, June 5, lightning struck their home during a thunderstorm. It was after midnight. Aric was awake, watching the weather, worried about hail damaging the vineyard. He smelled smoke.
“I woke up to doors slamming,” said Aftan. She handed her husband a fire extinguisher but it was already too late. “Grab the cat and run,” he said. They lost all of their belongings.
Aftan works full time as a dental technician in Willmar along with helping in the vineyard and winery. She said the couple had no choice but to rely more on their employees as they dealt with all of the issues resulting from the fire. The winery employees, all part-time workers, handled things very well, she said.
They are hoping to build a new home next summer. Until then, they’ve made Aftan’s parents’ lake cabin their temporary home.
Last winter was the most severe since they planted the vineyard, and it took a toll. They didn’t lose any vines, but the crop is about 60 percent of former years, they said.
Despite the challenges, the Koenens said they believe it remains “doable” for other entrepreneurs to start their own vineyard or winery in western Minnesota.
They offer this advice: Be ready to work long hours and make the most of everything.
Is it better to grow corn and soybeans or make a go of it in this emerging industry? “Depends,” said Aric. “There are nights when it is a lot easier to shut the tractor off and go home.”
But then, he added quickly, there are those summer evenings when they join their customers in the courtyard and take in the scenery and enjoy the fruit of this land, and appreciate all that they’ve done.
Their goal is to continue Hinterland’s growth, but carefully so. They want to work on the wholesale side to expand the number of locations where Hinterland wines are available. They also hope to replace the food truck with a full-sized kitchen.
And when things settle down a little bit, they plan to host a benefit for the Clara City and Prinsburg volunteer fire departments. They want to thank them for how hard they fought their house fire.