May 21, 2017

Hinterland: A Great Winery Worth the Extra Mile

One of the best Midwest wine experiences is finding a gem of a winery in a rural area.  And being a diamond in the boonies the business model for Hinterland Vineyards and Winery in Clara City, Minnesota, about 110 miles west of the Twin Cities.

“You’re coming to the Winery on a gravel road and you step into, ‘Wow, are we in California,’” said Hinterland co-owner Aftan Koenen about the impression she and her husband, Aric, deliver at their winery.

Aric and Aftan Koenen of Hinterland Vineyards

Aric and Aftan Koenen of Hinterland Vineyards

Koenen’s comment is part of an excellent short film produced by Pioneer Public Television using a taxpayer funded grant from the Minnesota Art and Cultural Heritage Fund. A link to that film appears at the end of this article.

The first criteria for any great regional winery is estate or locally grown grapes. Hinterland grows 10 acres of grapes next to the winery. Varieties grown include Frontenac, Frontenac Gris, LaCrescent, Marquette, Brianna and Petite Amie.

Aric Koenen told Midwest Wine Press that his dad farms 2,000 acres full-time and lives on the winery property. Hundreds of visits to Midwest wineries have taught me that if a family is successful at commercial farming, they usually can grow quality wine grapes too.

One large piece of evidence that the Koenen’s are serious about growing wine is their mechanical harvester. For quality winemaking, it’s important to use grapes that were picked all at once at the perfect time. Human labor often can’t pick fast enough to insure an ideal crop.

One of the standout wines at Hinterland is Brianna. (Unfortunately, the Brianna sometimes sells out, so call ahead if you have your heart set.) Aric explains that the most recent Brianna was done in a different style from years past.

Aric and Aftan demonstrate that true Minnesotans enjoy winter.

Aric and Aftan demonstrate that true Minnesotans enjoy winter.

“We added a prolonged cold soak prior to fermentation and also a different yeast,” he explained.  “Most growers want Brianna picked at 18 Brix, but we seem to gain a better taste profile at 20 Brix.  This is completely site specific for our vineyard.  We could easily bottle this vintage dry, but as we all know sweet wine sells in the Midwest.”

Making wine that the local customers like is a key to being successful Aftan told he Pioneer television film crew: “We have to go according to what people around here want, not what we want.”

Another thing that keeps people coming to Hinterland from all over the state is the winery’s restaurant, Aric said. The restaurant uses locally grown meat and vegetables, which are in abundance in this part of Minnesota. Flatbreads, sauces and dressings are made on site, which unifies the wine with the food.

When you visit a winery like Hinterland, it’s easy to wax romantic about a life of growing grapes and making wine in the country. Aric said the couple loves being winery owners, but it’s not always a glamourous  profession.

“Starting a rural winery is an extremely hard and time consuming task,” Aric said. “You need patience and an extremely strong work ethic.  Growing grapes in this climate is unforgiving and nature throws curve balls at every chance.”

To view the film about Hinterland click: Hinterland Winery 

Homepage photo: Aftan in the Hinterland Vineyard during winter

About Mark Ganchiff

Mark Ganchiff is the publisher of Midwest Wine Press, the leading source of news on the growing wine industry in the central United States. Mark has been a wine judge at the 2012 and 2014 INDY International Wine Competition, the 2014 Cold Climate Wine Competition, the 2013 Mid-American Wine Competition, the 2012 Illinois State Fair Wine Competition and the 2013 Michigan Wine Competition. He also enjoys speaking at wine events including the Cold Climate Wine Conference, the Illinois Grape Growers and Vintners Association Annual Meeting, the Midwest Grape and Wine Conference and the Wisconsin Fruit and Vegetable Conference. Mark’s articles about regional wine have appeared in Vineyard & Winery Management, WineMaker and several regional magazines.
Mark is a Level One Sommelier in the Court of Master Sommeliers. He lives in Louisville, but also has a residence in Chicago.