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Researchers Don't 'Wine' About The Cold, Their Grapes Thrive


Minnesota. Vermont. South Dakota. OK. These are not states people normally associate with fantastic wine - or wine at all, for that matter. Grapes didn't always ripen in the state's short growing season. And even when they did, the grapes were better suited for jelly and juice. Their musty taste left little to really desire in a glass of wine.

But all of that might be changing. Researchers are breeding grapes that can survive frigid, cold temperatures and make delicious wine. They're hoping names like Frontenac and Marquette will role off wine enthusiast's tongues just the way Cabernet and Merlot do today.

Reporting from upstate New York, North Country Public Radio's David Sommerstein has the story.

DAVID SOMMERSTEIN, BYLINE: Join me on the northern border of New York State, near Canada, in Coyote Moon's tasting room. Kristina Randazzo-Ives has a pitch for all her 20 wines, except one. This deep blue bottle contains what's believed to be the first commercial Frontenac Blanc ever, and she's at a loss for words.

KRISTINA RANDAZZO-IVES: It's hard. I mean these, all I can tell you is nobody else has this.


SOMMERSTEIN: The Frontenac Blanc is a cousin of the Frontenac, the very first cold-hardy wine grape in the country. To understand why the Frontenac was a leap in viticulture - the science of growing grapes - let's head outside.

Six years ago, the Randazzo family began turning scrubby, abandoned farmland into this 20 acre vineyard. This isn't the upstate New York of the Finger Lakes, where wines like Rieslings have become world class. This is way north, where the mercury plummets to 30 below zero.

RANDAZZO-IVES: We get pounded with very cold, icy cold tundra-ish temperatures.

SOMMERSTEIN: And traditional wine grapes don't survive winters like that.

TIM MARTINSON: You know, I had people call me from up here and say, we've been thinking about planting grapes and I say, are you nuts?

SOMMERSTEIN: That's Tim Martinson, a viticulturalist with Cornell University. He and a couple dozen other researchers took it as a challenge. They started the Northern Grape Project in 12 states to help cold climate wines thrive. Martinson uses Coyote Moon as a test site. He and Randazzo-Ives tinker with new ways to tie up vine branches to promote healthy grapes.

MARTINSON: Basically what we do is - bring this over the top...


MARTINSON: ...wind it over and...

SOMMERSTEIN: Martinson explains you have to work around cold-hardy grapes' disadvantages. They tend toward acidity. They can lack body, mostly because of the short growing season. And that's why the wine establishment has been skeptical.

Wine Spectator magazine doesn't even review cold climate wines. But the mad scientists behind all the cold-hardy grapes say they're making breakthroughs.

PETER HEMSTAD: My name is Peter Hemstad and I'm the grape breeder at the University of Minnesota.

SOMMERSTEIN: Well, maybe not mad. But determined.

It took Hemstad's team almost 20 years to develop the Frontenac in 1996. A decade later, they released the Marquette. And they were psyched, or as psyched as Minnesotan grape breeders get.

HEMSTAD: The flavor is excellent. The crop was good. It had some tannin, which is part of the structure that you're going to get from the European grapes.

SOMMERSTEIN: Marquette wines are starting to generate buzz as an up-and-coming stand-in for Pinot Noirs. Hemstad concedes these new vineyards of the North are a long way from matching France or California's best. But he says they're reinvigorating rural economies and they mesh perfectly with buy local culture.

HEMSTAD: You know, they're not going to compete with Napa Valley, but if you think of Vermont, you've got the small scale sugar producers, the cheese operators, and now you'll have the small scale wineries right down the street.

SOMMERSTEIN: Today there are hundreds of cold-hardy winemakers across the northern U.S. And the University of Minnesota continues to develop new grapes - which brings us back to that Frontenac Blanc at Coyote Moon in northern New York.


SOMMERSTEIN: Kristina Randazzo-Ives pours me a glass.


SOMMERSTEIN: It's aromatic with peach and nectarine, but also caramel smooth. I didn't know what to expect - I mean it's a totally new grape. Randazzo-Ives says that's exactly what the next generation of wine drinkers is seeking - diversity and adventure.

RANDAZZO-IVES: They're searching out brands and things that they like, which makes the small winery experience and going to different places that have a variety of wines so popular and successful.

SOMMERSTEIN: In three and half years of winemaking, Coyote Moon's won almost 500 awards. That includes best of class among non-traditional reds for its Marquette from the San Francisco Chronicle, one of America's most prestigious wine competitions. Randazzo-Ives believes Frontenac Blanc may just be next.

For NPR News, I'm David Sommerstein in northern New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Sommerstein, a contributor from North Country Public Radio (NCPR), has covered the St. Lawrence Valley, Thousand Islands, Watertown, Fort Drum and Tug Hill regions since 2000. Sommerstein has reported extensively on agriculture in New York State, Fort Drum’s engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the lives of undocumented Latino immigrants on area dairy farms. He’s won numerous national and regional awards for his reporting from the Associated Press, the Public Radio News Directors Association, and the Radio-Television News Directors Association. He's regularly featured on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Only a Game, and PRI’s The World.