Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Visiting down-home Indian Island Winery August 30, 2011

This building complex houses one of southern Minnesota's newest wineries.

IF YOU DIDN’T KNOW, you likely would think, from a distance, that the sprawling pole shed along Waseca/Blue Earth County Road 37 several miles south of Smith Mills is just another farm building planted among acres and acres of soybean and corn fields.

But you would be wrong. This is home to Indian Island Winery, among southern Minnesota’s newest wineries.

Minnesota artist Jim Hansel created the artwork, "Native Lands," for Indian Island Winery. Considered one of America's premier wildlife, nature and landscape artists, Hansel is legally blind.

Sunday afternoon my husband and I drove west from our Faribault home to check out the winery with the intriguing name, drawn from the Native Americans who once used this land—at one time nearly surrounded by water—as their summer hunting camp.

Inside the winery, you’ll see the artifacts, found on this property, to back up the historical context of this place. And, no, this site was not a Native American burial grounds.

Indian artifacts found on-site and displayed inside the winery.

Tour the winery and/or the vineyard and the Winter family will fill you in on the grape-growing and harvesting and wine-making process. We opted in on the winery tour, out on the vineyard tour given I wanted to photograph the vineyard and didn’t want to hold up a whole trolley full of tourists.

Instead, Tom Winter, who is a partner in the business along with his parents, Ray and Lisa, his wife Angela, and his sister Angie, invited us to follow the trolley out to the grape fields and explore on our own.

Visitors experience the country as they ride past soybean fields on the way to the vineyard.

That no qualms invitation warmed me up to the Winter family right then and there. And, if I was to choose a phrase defining our visit to Indian Island, that would be “down-home, country friendly.”

From Tom’s broad smile, to his and Angela’s adorable 7-month-old son to the charming college student tending the wine-tasting bar to the bucolic setting, everything about Indian Island speaks  “Welcome, we’re happy to have you here in this place we love.”

And clearly the Winters love this land, and each other, as they reside on various building sites within view of the winery and vineyards. “Close, but not too close,” Tom laughs, adding that a cousin also lives nearby.

Indian Island's vineyard covers 13 acres. Here's a view between rows of plants.

Clusters of grapes hang heavy on vines awaiting the harvest.

Grape leaves arc above the rows.

I don't know grape types, but my husband and I found many varieties in the vineyard.

Masses of grapes and individual grapes made for some lovely photos.

The thing we noticed about the vineyard grapes is that they don't look at all like the types of larger grapes sold in grocery store produce departments.

Tom Winter warned us about the LP-fueled cannon before we headed for the vineyard. The cannon "fires" periodically to scare away the birds. Likewise, a loudspeaker system intertwined among the grapes broadcasts the voices of squawking birds, all to keep real birds away from the fruit.

During the winery tour, Tom says several times, “My sister’s the winemaker.” Even though Angie Winter makes the wine, this family works together, from Angela keeping the books to Tom pinch-hitting as a tour guide when he isn’t working in other facets of the winery to… Earlier this year, the Winters were named Waseca County’s Farm Family of the Year.

Visitors learn about the press, filter, crusher and other equipment in the wine-making room.

A box full of corks in the wine-making section of the business.

Together, after only a few years in the wine business, the Winters have accumulated a long list of awards—the most recent the coveted Minnesota Governor’s Cup (aka gold medal) in the 2011 International Cold Climate Wine Competition for their Frontenac Rosé.

The Winters’ wine beat out 250 other entries to take the top honors, Ray Winter says.

Winner of the 2011 Governor's Cup, Frontenac Rose.

Inside the machine shed style building, which looks nothing like a storage place for farm machinery, you can (for $5 and you get to keep an Indian Island wine glass) sample four pre-selected wines and three others at the wine bar. You’ll find Maiden Blush, this year’s bestseller, and wines with names like Dreamcatcher, Prairie Wind and St. Pepin.

You can sample wines (17 are on the current wine-tasting list) and/or enjoy a meal inside or outside the winery.

One of the many winery offerings: St. Croix, a semi-dry red table wine.

Grab a bottle of wine from the vast selection at Indian Island Winery.

If all goes well with this year’s crop, Indian Island plans to offer wines made from only Minnesota-grown grapes. Most grapes will come from the family’s own vineyards with some also coming from local contractors.

For now, Indian Island makes only grape wine. I have yet to sample any, although my husband and I picked up bottles of Maiden Blush and Frontenac Rosé.

The bartender suggested we return: “Come back in the evening, have a glass of wine and watch the sun set.”

That sounds like a plan to me, to this former southern Minnesota prairie farm girl who appreciates nothing more than the sun slipping below the horizon in a serene setting like that at Indian Island Winery.

I can picture myself sitting on the patio at Indian Island, sipping wine and watching the sun set.

FYI: Indian Island Winery is among places featured in the “Minnesota River Sips of History” wine, beer and history trail tour. Click here for more information on this tour that will take you to places like August Schell Brewing Company in New Ulm, Fieldstone Vineyards in Redwood Falls, the historic R.D. Hubbard House in Mankato, Gilfillan Estates between Morgan and Redwood Falls, and more. The sites are hosting special events the weekend of October 21 – 23.

Indian Island is among about 30 wineries in Minnesota and is located southeast of Mankato. The business aims to use only Minnesota grapes, most grown on-site.

FYI: Click here to learn more about artist Jim Hansel who created the signature artwork that graces Indian Island wine labels.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling