Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

An afternoon on a Minnesota peony farm & winery June 8, 2018

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An overview of one of the gardens at Aspelund Peony Gardens, located at 9204 425th Street, rural Kenyon (near Aspelund).

 

WE WERE ON OUR WAY to do some shopping last Sunday afternoon when Randy mentioned a radio ad for Aspelund Peony Gardens.

 

A view from Minnesota State Highway 60 on the way to the peony gardens and winery.

 

That’s all it took to turn the van around, make a brief stop back home for a Minnesota road atlas and bottled water, and then head east on State Highway 60 rather than south on the interstate. I will choose touring flower gardens any day over shopping.

 

Nearing Aspelund.

 

 

 

Now marks prime peony viewing time at the Goodhue County gardens of Bruce and Dawn Rohl. I first met the engaging couple two years ago at their rural Kenyon (northwest of Wanamingo) acreage, also home to Aspelund Winery. They are a delight, the type of neighborly folks who hold a passion for peonies and wine in addition to full-time off-the-farm jobs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Both visits I felt comfortably at home, welcome to stroll the gardens and the oak-shaded grounds where the wind sweeps across the hilltop location. I feel as if I’m a world away from reality in this peaceful setting of natural beauty and farm field vistas. Dogs play. A cat roams. A tire swing sways.

 

 

 

 

As I walked through the freshly-tilled rows of peonies, I stopped many times to dip my nose into fragrant blossoms, to study the lush (mostly) shades of pink petals, to photograph the flowers that danced a steady rhythm in the wind.

 

 

There is something endearing and connective and romantic in meandering through a peony garden. The spring flower reminds me of long ago brides gathering blooms from their mother’s/grandmother’s gardens. Young love. Sweet. Poetic.

 

 

It’s been a good year for peonies at Aspelund Peony Gardens, according to Dawn. Perfect weather conditions burst the bushes with an abundance of blossoms.

 

 

 

Lilacs, not quite in bloom, are also found on the farm site.

 

At an open house from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. this Saturday and Sunday (June 9/10), visitors can peruse those peonies, choose favorites and select roots available in the fall. The Rohls sell 65 types of peonies and are currently growing 150 varieties.

 

The vineyard.

 

Additionally, they craft wine—from apples, rhubarb, grapes, elderberries, raspberries, cucumbers and more. High Country Spice, made from tomatoes grown on-site, is probably their most unusual wine, one that I loved. Peppered, made from bell peppers, debuts this autumn.

 

The small wine tasting room on the right is connected to the Rohls’ home.

 

 

Towering oaks populate the farm yard, although many were damaged and some destroyed during a downburst in 2017.

 

After touring the peony gardens, a sampling of wines or a glass of wine—sipped inside or on the spacious deck—caps a lovely afternoon in the Minnesota countryside.

 

Aspelund Peony Gardens and Winery are located about five miles from Wanamingo.

 

There’s a sense of neighborliness here, even among guests. Like the couple we met from Skunk Hollow after we’d discussed the differences between hotdish and casseroles with the Rohls. It is all so quintessential Minnesotan, and, oh, so much better than shopping.

 

 

FYI: Plan a visit to Aspelund Peony Gardens during this weekend’s open house which will feature a KOWZ 100.9 FM radio personality on-site on Saturday along with a food truck. Peonies may continue to bloom through Father’s Day, but there’s no assurance of that.

The winery is open from noon – 5 p.m. weekends only. Just like the gardens, open Saturdays and Sundays only.

Click here to read my 2016 post on Aspelund Peony Gardens and Winery.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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In rural Aspelund: Passionate about peonies & wine June 14, 2016

These peonies have been growing for seven years now on the Rohl property.

These peonies have been growing for seven years on the Rohl property.

WIND WHIPPED THOUSANDS of past their prime peonies, their crimson, pink and white blossoms dipping, dancing to the rhythm of summer.

Peony fields line both sides of the gravel driveway and spill into the yard near the tasting room.

Peony fields line both sides of the gravel driveway and spill into the yard near the Rohl’s home and wine tasting room.

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.

The entry to the small tasting room.

The entry to the small tasting room.

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 strawberry wine is the best-selling wine, my favorite is Neighborhood Apple, the top-selling of the three apple wines.

Strawberry wine is the best-selling wine. But my favorite is Neighborhood Apple, the top-selling of the three apple wines.

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.

Inside the tasting room, peacock decor prevails, here next to the wine rack.

Inside the tasting room, peacock decor prevails, here next to the wine rack.

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.

So many lovely peonies in multitudes of colors, shapes and scents.

So many lovely peonies in multitudes of colors, shapes and scents.

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.

Peony lovers shop and admire the gardens.

Peony lovers shop and admire the gardens.

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.

There are rows and rows and rows of peonies.

There are rows and rows and rows of peonies.

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.

Bruce's hybridized peonies are growing by the tasting room.

Bruce’s hybridized peonies are growing by the tasting room.

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.

The grapevines grow atop a hill overlooking the countryside.

The grapevines grow next to an aged outbuilding atop a hill overlooking the countryside.

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.

There are two red wines--Elder-bry (elderberry) and Stra-bry (strawberry).

There are two red wines–Elder-bry (elderberry) and Stra-bry (strawberry).

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.

Dawn meets with customers who are perusing a peony catalog in the wine tasting room.

Dawn meets with customers who are perusing peony choices in the wine tasting room.

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.

The memorable symbol of Aspelund Winery.

The memorable symbol of Aspelund Winery.

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.

I couldn't get enough of the peonies, even if most were past peak bloom.

I found some peonies not past peak bloom. Lovely.

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.

Even though peony blooming season is wrapping up, you can still order peonies by shopping online or viewing the selections in this three-ring binder in the wine tasting room.

Even though peony blooming season is wrapping up, you can still order peonies by shopping online or viewing the selections in this three-ring binder in the wine tasting room.

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.

There's plenty of deck and patio space for gatherings to sip wine.

You can sip wine outdoors on the patio or deck, in a beautiful park-like setting.

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.

I still found blooms worthy of photographing.

I still found blooms worthy of photographing.

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.

The Rohls use their own apples and those of neighbors to make their three wines: Cobblers Knob Medley (Honey Gold, Ida Red and O'Connel Red), Cobblers Knob Gold (Honey Gold apples) and Neighborhood Apple.

The Rohls use their own apples and those of neighbors to make their three wines: Cobblers Knob Medley (Honey Gold, Ida Red and O’Connell Red apples), Cobblers Knob Gold (Honey Gold apples) and Neighborhood Apple.

For more information about the winery, click here.

Peony beds mingle between farm buildings on this lovely rural Goodhue County site.

Peony beds mingle between farm buildings on this lovely rural Goodhue County site.

And click here for info about the peony garden.

BONUS PHOTOS:

My favorite old building on the farm site.

Love this old building on the farm site.

Choosing a favorite peony would be difficult among the 150 varieties.

Choosing a favorite peony among the 150 varieties would be difficult.

This tire swing, with its chain grown into a tree branch, adds simple country charm to the yard.

This tire swing, with its chain grown into a tree branch, adds simple country charm to the yard and peony gardens.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Another chapter in the book of Minnesota wineries June 30, 2015

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WHEN VISITING A WINERY, it’s as much about the setting and experience as about the wine.

Rows of grape vines grow alongside the barn at Next Chapter Winery, 16945 320th Street, rural New Prague.

Rows of grape vines grow alongside the barn at Next Chapter Winery, 16945 320th Street, rural New Prague.

On Sunday, my husband and I discovered yet another delightful southern Minnesota winery, Next Chapter Winery, just southwest of New Prague.

This inviting canopied gravel driveway leads wine lovers to Next Chapter Winery. The house is a private residence, not the tasting room as I initially thought.

This inviting canopied gravel driveway leads wine lovers to Next Chapter Winery. The house is a private residence, not the tasting room as I initially thought.

Randy parked our car to the right out of this photo, next to the house.

Randy parked our car to the right out of this photo, next to the house. There’s plenty of parking behind the shed and barn.

The barn quilt adds an artistic touch to this vintage barn.

The barn quilt adds an artistic touch to the vintage barn.

Even the barn doors hold rustic charm.

Even the barn doors hold rustic charm.

From the time we turned onto the rural tree-lined driveway that tunnels toward a lovely home in a subtle buttery hue, parked our car in the shade of the yard near an aged red barn adorned with a barn quilt and entered the pole shed style winery, I felt comfortably at home. It was as if I had arrived at the farm of a favorite aunt and uncle for a Sunday summer afternoon visit. And wine.

A sign directs visitors to the tasting room.

A sign directs visitors to the tasting room.

The tasting room.

The tasting room.

Love the ambiance of the chandeliers in the tasting room.

Love the ambiance the chandeliers create in the tasting room.

Inside a rather non-descript white metal shed, where chandeliers add unexpected elegance and stacked wooden wine barrels line walls, Randy and I settled in at the bar to sample eight wines ranging from a fruity/black cherry Merlot to the semi-sweet white Muzungu to the refreshing fruity MN Blushing Bride to the winery’s specialty Cranberry Burst, sweet and tart with a burst of fizz and crafted from Wisconsin cranberries.

Sampling Next Chapter wine.

Sampling Next Chapter wine.

For $6 you can sample six of eight wines. The fee is waived with each bottle purchased. We shared two of the wines so we could each try all eight.

The wine is aged only in wooden barrels.

The wine is aged only in wooden barrels.

There wasn’t a single wine on the sampling list that I didn’t enjoy. That’s unusual since I typically find at least a wine or two I don’t like upon tasting at a winery. Maybe it’s the time-honored, authentic aging of wine in wooden barrels (no plastic used here) or the land or the grapes or the crafters or even the comfortableness of this place that resulted in my appreciating every wine.

The grapes are still small and growing.

The grapes are still small and growing.

The attentive and friendly service of Laura, who poured the wines and also offered a brief history of Next Chapter, certainly added to a truly wonderful personalized experience. The winery, she said, is the dream of Timothy and Therese Tulloch, who met in the early 1980s when Therese served with the Peace Corps in the Congo and met Timothy, a native of South Africa. They fell in love, became engaged and planned then to someday own a vineyard.

Rows of grape vines stretch around the property.

Rows of grape vines stretch along the property.

Last July, Next Chapter Winery, with eight varieties of grapes growing on 3,700 vines on six acres, opened to the public.

Musicians

Musicians perform Sunday afternoons in the tasting room.

There's even a piano inside the reception tent.

A piano inside the reception tent.

That's a tasting tent to the left of the barn.

To the left of the barn is a tasting tent.

But this winery is about more than just the wine. It’s about a sense of place, an embracing of rural Minnesota, of creating an experience, of celebrating life and good wine and special occasions and summer Sunday afternoons. Couples can marry here. From 3 p.m. – 5 p.m. Sundays, musicians perform. Tours are offered from noon to 1 p.m. Saturdays. On Wednesday evenings you can paint and sip wine. In the winter, you can catch the occasional theatrical performance.

Across the pond is the tasting room deck. To the left is the tent permanently set up during the warm months for wedding and other celebrations.

Across the pond is the tasting room deck. To the left is the tent permanently set up during the warm months for wedding and other celebrations.

For couples like us, Next Chapter offers a brief respite, a place to snug up to the bar for some great Minnesota wines while chatting with new friends, Gary and Cindy from Prior Lake. Or, if we had been so inclined, we could have kicked back in Adirondack chairs or sipped wine on the deck overlooking a small pond spraying a fountain of water.

At home with a bottle of Cranberry Burst.

At home with a bottle of Cranberry Burst.

While Randy purchased bottles of Muzungu and Cranberry Burst, I headed outdoors with my camera, following the rows of grapes, stopping to photograph, extraordinarily pleased that we found this lovely rural Minnesota winery between New Prague and Montgomery.

Our second purchase, Muzungu, Swahili for "white guy."

Our second purchase, Muzungu, Swahili for “white guy.”

FYI: Wine tasting hours are from 1 p.m. – 7 p.m. Wednesday – Sunday. Be aware that, on weekends, the winery may host the occasional wedding and thus be closed to the public. I’d advise calling ahead at 612.756.3012 if you are driving from a distance. Click here to reach the Next Chapter Wintery website.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

One grand winery & pizza place in the Minnesota River Valley June 6, 2014

A vineyard at Grandview Valley Winery, rural Belview, Minnesota.

A vineyard at Grandview Valley Winery, rural Belview, Minnesota.

TWO YEARS AGO TOMORROW, in the scenic Minnesota River Valley north of Belview, a winery opened.

Folks have raved to me repeatedly about Grandview Valley Winery, located on land that’s been in a family (Wayne and Kari Rigge and John and Laura Rigge) for four generations.

Now, after visiting this winery, I understand their enthusiasm.

The winery and its vineyard.

The winery and its vineyard.

But it’s not just the great homemade pizza and the wine that appeal to me. It is the geographic surroundings, the pronounced pastoral loveliness of this peaceful place positioned within the southwestern Minnesota prairie.

Entering Belview from the north.

Entering Belview from the north upon returning from the winery. Grandview is nearly six miles north of this small town.

Pause to read the Boiling Spring historic marker.

Pause to read the Boiling Spring historic marker.

Another marker notes the Knutson family farm.

Another marker notes the Knutson family farm.

To get there from nearby Belview, follow Redwood County Road 7 north, winding past farm places, past historical markers for Boiling Spring and the Knutson family farm, where my Aunt Iylene grew up.

Turn onto this gravel road just off Redwood County Road 7.

Turn onto this gravel road just off Redwood County Road 7.

This is good pasture land.

This is good pasture land.

Incredible aged bedrock.

Inpressive aged bedrock.

And then, shortly after the markers, turn east, your vehicle kicking up dust as you pass more farms, cattle grazing in pastures and mammoth bedrock heaped in hills along tree-hugged gravel roads leading to Grandview.

Almost there.

Almost there.

Arriving at Grandview Valley Winery.

Arriving at Grandview Valley Winery.

Nearly six miles from Belview, you reach vineyard and winery.

Dine inside or outside on the patio to the left.

Dine inside or outside on the patio to the left.

Solitude embraces with the type of comfort that comes from being in a locale where you feel cocooned from the world, sheltered from the worries and stresses and rush of everyday life. For me, it was the “I could live here” thought. Or at least escape here for a few hours. This marks the perfect place to sip a glass of valley made wine with delicious homemade pizza.

The nearly full parking lot.

The nearly full parking lot.

Not that Grandview offers quiet dining. Quite the opposite. The gravel parking lot on this late May evening, is already nearly full. Inside the winery, diners pack tables while several groups gather on the patio. It’s almost a surprise to see so many here in this rural location, although I’ve been warned about the busyness and sometimes long wait for pizza.

The bacon cheeseburger and BBQ pulled pork pizza.

The bacon cheeseburger and BBQ pulled pork pizza.

But on this Saturday evening, probably because of area high school graduation parties, my husband, a sister, my older brother and his wife, and I need not wait all that long for our two pizzas—halves of German, BBQ pulled pork, buffalo chicken and bacon cheeseburger. To my surprise, I find the sauerkraut-topped German pizza to be especially tasty and my favorite of the four.

The guys order beer, my brother choosing  Goosetown, a German craft beer from August Schell Brewing Company in New Ulm. Goosetown is an historic nod to an ethnic New Ulm neighborhood where primarily Catholic, German-Bohemian immigrants began settling in the late 1800s. They kept gaggles of geese. My husband opts for Grain Belt’s Nordeast, another Schell’s made beer, because Goosetown is not on the beer list he’s been handed and he doesn’t hear my brother’s order.

I failed to photograph the wine. But I did photograph the wine list.

I failed to photograph the wine. But I did photograph the wine list.

I choose a semi-sweet white wine made from Frontenac Gris grapes and finished with hints of peach, apricot and green apple. Rockin’ Coyote holds the promise of summer and the wild side of this land where I’m certain more than a few coyotes range.

Our conversation flows with the ease that comes from dining among those you love, those who know your history and your quirks and don’t care.

We laugh. And I am teased mercilessly for my gullibility as my sister-in-law reveals that crawdads will not be served at her daughter’s wedding as she previously told me.

Grandview feels like home to me, my connectedness as solid as the aged bedrock lodged in this land.

FYI: Click here for more information about Grandview Valley Winery.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Poetry in wine tasting November 14, 2011

I photographed this gorgeous mural at Cannon River Winery in downtown Cannon Falls in mid-August. This was the only Minnesota winery represented at a wine tasting event in Faribault Friday evening.

Cannon River Winery Sogn Blush with the label created by an artist from the region.

Crisp nuances of pink grapefruit, mango and sweet melon interwoven with hints of soft white tea and honeysuckle.

Flavors of rhubarb and black cherry complemented by hints of mocha, chocolate, spice and vanilla.

…slightly sweet with aromas of wild berries and just a hint of American Oak.

Welcome to wine tasting.

My husband and I embarked on our first-ever wine tasting experience Friday at the Paradise Center for the Arts Members Appreciation Night in historic downtown Faribault. I know. You’re thinking: “She’s never been to a wine tasting party…”

Well, well, isn’t life all about new experiences no matter your age?

Once Randy and I got our instructions, wine glasses and guidebook, from whence the above lovely and poetic phrases have been lifted, we headed into the Paradise theatre to sample wines.

We quickly discovered that, with 45 wines available, we would need to be selective in our sampling.

We also surmised that we needn’t be “Minnesota Nice” and finish off any wine samples we disliked. “Just pour it in here,” we were instructed. And so we did, whenever we found a wine too bitter or not quite delivering as described.

And so the evening proceeded—meandering and sipping and repeating “I don’t like dry wine,” and chatting with friends and acquaintances. We discussed the wines, traded glasses and sipped and sampled and asked each other, “Do you like this one?”

It was fun.

We’re never going to become wine connoisseurs. But if Randy and I pick up tidbits here and there, we learn a thing or ten that might assist us with selecting wines. I mean, I’ve bought wine in the past because I liked the label design or name or bottle, silly as that may sound. So, yes, graphic designers, artists and marketers, you can influence my wine choices with creative and visually appealing packaging.

Friday night, words also impacted my wine tasting decisions. Imagine that—words influencing me.

I mean, could you resist …zesty aromas of orange, lemon-lime and peach…silky, black-cherry elegance…memorably lush…exquisitely sweet…decadent character…intriguing layers of fresh pineapple, green apple, crisp lemon, juicy pear and wildflowers…?

(How do you get a job describing wines? That’s a writing assignment I could savor given I enjoy turning a poetic phrase now and then.)

Visitors to the Cannon River Winery enjoyed Minnesota wines on an August afternoon.

Wine barrels inside Cannon River Winery.

The labels for Cannon River's "Sogn" series are designed by regional artists who compete for the honor. Currently, you can vote for your favorite Sogn art at the winery.

A former garage houses the Cannon River Winery. President Obama visited Cannon Falls, thus the welcome sign on the winery during my mid-August visit..

Click here for more information about Cannon River Winery.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Wine description source: Paradise Center for the Arts Holiday Wine Tasting booklet; wine selections sponsored by Haskell’s.

 

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