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Published April 05, 2010, 09:20 AM

Minnesota couple's hobby turns into vineyard

PRESTON, Minn. — When Dean and Lisa Erickson’s children started to leave the nest, the rural Preston, Minn., couple decided they needed a hobby. Dean’s background in farming led him to want to grow something.

By: Laura Horihan, Rochester (Minn.) Post-Bulletin

PRESTON, Minn. — When Dean and Lisa Erickson’s children started to leave the nest, the rural Preston, Minn., couple decided they needed a hobby.

Dean’s background in farming lead him to want to grow something.

After a year or two of research, that something ended up being grapes.

“We attended several wine tastings and asked wineries what kind of grapes they were looking for — all of them told us Marquette,” Lisa says.

In spring 2007, the couple began developing Windy Willow Vineyard by planting 300 Marquette grapes. Marquette grapes were introduced by the University of Minnesota in 2006.

“When we planted the plants, they were bare and no larger than the ink stick inside a pen,” Lisa says. “They were over my head by July.”

Getting started

Ray Winters, who owns Winterhaven Vineyard and Nursery near Janesville, Minn., has served as a mentor for the couple.

“When we started touring vineyards, some looked really awful,” Lisa says. “I told Dean that if our vineyard could look like (Ray’s), I wanted a vineyard.”

Winters told the couple to prune their plants down to nearly nothing during the first winter.

“You prune them and they’ll all come back to life,” Lisa says.

The second spring the couple planted 100 more Marquette plants and 50 La Crescent plants.

La Crescents produce white grapes and were developed by the University of Minnesota in 2002.

The third year, the Ericksons planted 30 Frontenac gris, which were introduced by the university in 2003. They also planted 420 Brianna, a white grape developed by Elmer Swenson in Osceola, Wis.

Dean says the initial work of pounding posts and making trellises is the most difficult.

During the growing season, he sprays for weeds and mildew and mows the path between each row.

To deter birds from eating the grapes, the Ericksons have windsocks that look like hawks and a device that makes bird distress calls.

They also have to train the plants to grow on the their trellises. Grapes will only grow on first-year wood, so they prune the vines so that the grapes grow at about waist height.

Their children — Gavin, 24, Gabe, 22, and Kaila, 19 — also have helped with the plants when they’re home.

Selling the product

The Ericksons plan to sell both the Marquette and Brianna grapes commercially. They also might cater to hobbyists who make wine at home.

While Winter told the couple to harvest grapes in their fourth year, the

Ericksons were able to harvest about 1,000 pounds of grapes during their third year. They sold them to Winnishek Wild Berry Winery near Decorah, Iowa.

The Ericksons saved some of their grapes to make their own wine.

“We still haven’t tried it,” Lisa says.

She’s told Dean she’d like to open a winery, but he thinks it may be too time-consuming. Both continue to work at their full-time jobs. Lisa works for First Southeast Bank in Harmony and Dean is a registered nurse at Mayo Clinic.

“I think it would be really fun (to open a winery) because I’m a people person, but Dean isn’t as excited about it,” Lisa says.

They hope to create a Web site and a sign touting their vineyard’s name to better market their grapes.

As far as they know, they have the only vineyard in Fillmore County; however, wine-making has become increasingly popular.

While developing a vineyard has been hard work, the Ericksons take comfort in knowing that what they’ve started will be there for years to come.