WIND WHIPPED THOUSANDS of past their prime peonies, their crimson, pink and white blossoms dipping, dancing to the rhythm of summer.
With temps in the seventies under clear skies, it was a perfect mid-June Sunday afternoon to tour the Aspelund Peony Gardens in west central Goodhue County, just east of Aspelund/northwest of Wanamingo/northeast of Kenyon.
Paired with Aspelund Winery, also owned by Bruce and Dawn Rohl and on the same rural acreage, this makes a great southern Minnesota day trip destination. It’s peaceful and lovely, educational and relaxing. You can learn about peonies and wine while enjoying both with a couple passionate about both.
While the Rohls have been in the business of growing, hybridizing and selling peonies for awhile, they opened their winery just a year ago—on June 13. A taste-testing of their six wines—three apple, one grape, another elderberry and the sixth, strawberry—made it difficult to choose a favorite. They’re that good. But, after some thought, I’d select Neighborhood Apple as my favorite. It’s their best-selling apple wine, a blend of their apples and apples gathered from neighbors. I like the neighborhood name and concept as much as the wine. The outgoing and welcoming Rohls are the type you’d want as next-door neighbors.
Their employee, Anders Lars, is a neighbor, whom I mistook as their son. And, yes, he goes by the Swedish Anders, not Andy. I asked. This is an area proud of its Scandinavian heritage. Bruce’s ancestors, however, trace to France where they were vintners.
Interestingly enough, it is memories of Bruce’s grandma’s peonies that led him into the peony business. But not how you would expect. He didn’t like her flopping-over peonies and vowed never to plant peonies. That changed on the day he and Dawn visited Bob Tischler, a now-deceased Faribault peony grower. Bob introduced them to other varieties and the couple left Tischler Peony Garden with 13 plants. And, yes, despite his initial dislike of the flopping-over peony, Bruce now has his grandma’s peony from her Hudson, Wisconsin, garden.
Today the Rohls grow 150 types of peonies. Visitors peruse the offerings online or visit the farm during bloom season to select specific bushes. Then, in the fall, the plants are divided and customers get their plants. Average cost is $20, with some going as high as $70.
Buyers range from grandmothers purchasing plants for family to people beautifying landscapes as they focus on staycations rather than vacations to serious peony lovers, Bruce says.
He has hybridized seven peonies, giving them identifying local town names like Aspelund, Wanamingo and Zumbrota. It will be awhile before those are ready to sell, Bruce said, noting the entire process from hybridizing to sale-ready takes about 20 years.
A design engineer by full-time profession, Bruce hopes to some day make the flower and wine business his sole focus. The couple also makes maple syrup and tends their small vineyard of 80 vines in seven varieties of grapes, their 450 elderberry bushes and 150 apple trees.
They are clearly passionate about their peonies and wine. Like the hybridizing of peonies, the couple is also always working on new wines. They hope soon to release a tomato wine that tastes like a Bloody Mary (200 tomato plants are growing on their farm); a cucumber wine flavored with lemons and oranges and with ginger roots; and a fennel wine tasting of black licorice.
It will be interesting to see what they name these new wines. Dawn explains that Mingo Red, for example, is like a Minnesota hotdish, a mingling of their seven Minnesota cold climate grape varieties.
There’s also a story behind the peacocks featured on the wine labels, in the landscaping and in the cozy tasting room. The Rohls attempted to relocate peacocks from Bruce’s father’s farm two miles away. But the birds didn’t stay at the winery/peony garden, returning on their own to their original home. It’s just as well, Bruce says, noting that he learned after the fact they’ll eat flower blossoms. But it makes for a good story and a memorable winery business graphic.
And about the proper pronunciation of peonies, I asked the peony experts. The correct pronunciation is pee-a-knees, Dawn said. However, because Minnesotans like their “o’s,” they mostly say pee-oh-knees. And the Rohls are just fine with that.
FYI: The winery, located at 9204 425th Street, rural Kenyon, is open from noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays from April through December 24 (the neighbors have a Christmas tree farm). If you’re traveling Minnesota State Highway 60, watch for the Aspelund road sign onto Goodhue County Road 1 near Bombay. Go a few miles to Aspelund, turn onto County Road 8 and then shortly thereafter onto 425th Street.
Note that the tasting room is small. But there is plenty of outdoor seating on a patio and deck. The Rohls also welcome guests to explore their beautiful, well-groomed property.
Prime peony blooming season has ended. It’s best to call ahead in the spring/early summer if you want to see these flowers in peak bloom.
For more information about the winery, click here.
© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling