Cannon River Shoots for the Stars in Minnesota
Walking into Vincent Negret’s back office at Cannon River Winery in Minnesota is like entering the laboratory of a mad scientist. Sticky notes and articles cover the walls – “I’m visual,” he says – and the black countertop, reminiscent of a high-school science class, is covered with test tubes and pipettes full of chemicals. The wine glasses containing samples for analysis can appear out-of-place, but nothing could be further from the truth. You see, Vincent is Cannon River Winery’s winemaker and he refuses to leave the quality of their wines to chance.
Vincent was born in Columbia and is a third-generation winemaker. He has made wine in California, Ohio and, of course, Minnesota. Along the way he developed an appreciation for technology and science and a belief that inventions like stainless steel, temperature controlled fermentation tanks and mechanized bladder presses allow for more consistent wine production. If a wine calls for oak, Vincent believes staves inserted into the tank give him more control over the process. Cannon River did purchase some new oak barrels in order to experiment, but they now sit unused in a side room at the winery.
The winery was the vision of owners John and Maureen Maloney, who invested proceeds from the sale of a prior business in order to chase their dream. John believes site selection is extremely important in the Midwest and describes his vineyard’s location as “world class”. It took two years to find his perfect property, a few miles outside the town of Cannon Falls, after viewing more than 30 possible sites. The vineyard faces south and sits 175 feet above the valley floor making it virtually immune to spring frosts. Rather than sitting in the vineyard, cold air moves down to the river below through the 12 foot alleys between the vines. As a result, they do not have to bury their tender varieties during the colder months.
The couple started planting their 20 acre vineyard in 2001, mostly with University of Minnesota and Elmer Swenson hybrids and they now have about 9,000 vines. Initially they planted Edelweiss, St. Pepin, La Cross and Frontenac. Since then they’ve added Prairie Star, La Crescent, Sabrevoise, Marechal Foch, and Marquette; and, just this spring, Osceola Muscat and Louise Swenson. John thinks the Elmer Swenson varieties are probably the best wine grapes that can be grown in Minnesota.
The winery itself is a repurposed century-old limestone building in “downtown” Cannon Falls formerly inhabited by a Chevrolet dealer. The doors opened to the public after their first harvest in 2004. Since that time production has swelled to approximately 10,000 cases, making Cannon River Winery one of the largest producers in Minnesota. That growth is due predominantly to close monitoring of the vineyard by John and the careful, scientifically-driven winemaking practices of Vincent.
The two men have formed a symbiotic partnership that is yielding results. Under their guidance, Cannon River Winery produces 22 styles of wine, many of which it has trouble keeping in stock. Often the only limit on sales is the amount of juice it can physically process from the fruit of their own vines and the up to 50% from other carefully selected growers.
In order to make so many wines out of a rather modest sized winery, reds and whites have to be fermented at different times of year. Juice from their white varietals has to be vacuum sealed, frozen and stored for later use. Once the red wines are done macerating and fermenting, the white juices are thawed and placed in the fermentation tanks. Fermenting reds and whites at the same time would require a rather large investment of additional capital for more fermentation tanks and floor space.
Vincent isn’t afraid to intervene in the wine production process to boost volume, better control flavors and increase alcohol content. For example, the GoGo Red is mostly Sabrevoise, but a little Frontenac is thrown in simply because they don’t have enough Sabrevoise to make as much wine as they’d like. John wishes they’d planted more.
Vincent will also de-acidify his wines via an acid precipitation process and chaptalize the juice, a method of adding sugar to unfermented grape must to increase the alcohol content. With the natural wine movement receiving so much press in recent years his position in this regard may seem out of vogue. The fact is, making wine in Minnesota and other northern states can be challenging as grapes often struggle to reach full ripeness. Without taking these steps to balance the wines, Cannon River Winery wouldn’t have consistent, high-quality products year after year.
And that quality definitely shows. Vincent graciously offered many samples of Cannon River’s wines. In my opinion they were all very high in quality, not just compared to other Minnesota wines, but by any standard. He even offered a sample of his unfermented and partially fermented juices in order to present a complete picture of Cannon River’s winemaking process.
It looks like this consistent quality should continue because this year’s growing season has been amazing. Bud break at the vineyard was three weeks early, on April 10th, and the vines survived a hard freeze just before that without any problems. In line with much of the Midwest, the drought has caused the fruit to ripen weeks early and the extended growing season is presenting lots of options, including the ability to harvest at lower acidity levels.
Vincent’s friendly, outgoing personality and generous nature undoubtedly have a positive impact on Cannon River’s success so perhaps using the phrase “mad scientist” in reference to the gentleman working magic in Cannon River Winery’s back office is a bit misplaced. Maybe “modern winemaker” is a more appropriate title. Either way, Cannon River Winery is certainly a modern operation and its relatively overnight success, which is largely built on taking chance out of the equation, should serve as a lesson to other Midwestern winemakers.
Troy A. Stark is the publisher of La Vino Dolce, a website dedicated to exploring the world of sweet wines at http://www.lavinodolce.com/ For more information on the sweet wines being made in Minnesota, including reviews, please visit Troy’s site.