Interview With Nick Smith of University of Minnesota
Midwest Wine Press spoke recently with Nick Smith at the University of Minnesota (U of M.) Nick is well-known in the region because, over the course of a year, he probably makes more different kinds of wine than anyone in the Midwest.
How did you get into winemaking?
I have a long and convoluted academic path that started out in finance. I re-entered the undergrad program at University of Oregon as a food science major. I had taken a nutrition class and really enjoyed it.
I have always had little of that entrepreneurial spirit. During a U of M microbiology class, I started thinking that wine and beer was an area that was growing and that I was interested in. Then I found a one year program at Oregon State about fermentation and wine and beer.
Don’t you think that working with new grape varietals is entrepreneurial?
Yes, we are going into some uncharted territory here at U of M. We’re helping to create a boutique industry in places where wine wouldn’t exist otherwise. It’s certainly different from Napa or the Willamette Valley. There’s a larger variety of viewpoints in the Midwest and we’re all trying to get this industry to grow. When the answers have not all been established, thinking outside the box helps.
It’s encouraging to see young people coming into the wine industry. At U of M, you, Katie Cook and John and Jenny Thule are all relatively young. Do you think younger people with a passion should consider the Midwest wine industry?
Well, I’m 32 and I’m enjoying my work. In Minnesota, we have the Osborne’s at Four Daughter’s who are in their twenties, I believe, and they are already winning awards. Angie Winter at Winterhaven is another gifted young winemaker. Lisa Smiley at Cannon River Vineyard is young and she has already done an incredible amount in her career. In order to keep growing, there must be a new generation of winemakers and grape growers in Minnesota.
In the case of Four Daughters and the Osborne family, who owns the winery, the kids were encouraged to return to the farm by their parents who are row crop farmers. Is growing grapes in rich, agricultural soil a good idea?
No, it’s not the ideal conditions. You’ll have a lot of vigorous vine growth to manage, but people are doing it and having success. It’s more work, that’s all.
How can an aspiring winemaker get started in the business?
After college, I went to Ste. Michelle Wines Estates in Washington as an intern. My rotation was working in the lab for two days and then in the cellar for two days, so you see a lot. The year I worked there (2005) was one of the biggest harvests ever. We did about 5,000 tons of grapes in one crush at the facility I worked at.
Is there a benefit to working for a while at a larger winery?
Yes, it’s good to work at one of the more established wineries. You get the correct and precise way of doing things pounded into you. At a big winery, it’s a six-day rotation during the harvest and you’re working 60 hours a week. It was a good experience for me at age 25 or 26 plus I got to do some fantastic mountain biking out West.
Then you went to Beringer?
Yes, I was full-time lab chemist at Beringer. The lab experience was invaluable. At the larger winery labs, people take things very seriously. We had six, 150,000 gallon tanks at Beringer. You can’t make mistakes at that level of production.
Who is someone who had a big influence in your development as a winemaker?
I had the opportunity to take one of Anna Katherine Mansfield’s first “Wines and Vines” classes at U of MN before leaving for Oregon. That had a big effect on me. She was doing her early aroma work at the time which was really interesting. And I got to use a GC mass spec for the first time. I wound up getting a degree in Food Science at U of M.
See related story: “Grandma Ester” and Other Wine Aromas
What are you working on now?
Most of the work I do is single vine vinification which is exactly what it sounds like. It can be tricky making just a litre or a half-litre of wine and getting accurate data. If a grape shows promise in the vineyard, it’s my job to help determine if the grape has promise for making wine.
And how do you determine if a new varietal has promise?
Every spring we do a tasting panel with five or six people in the Enology Department. Out of the thousands of vines we’ve grown and made wine from, only four have made the cut and been released. (Frontenac, Frontenac Gris, La Crescent and Marquette.) Finding new varietals is a tedious process.
How many types of grapes do you look at?
Peter Hemstad who runs the program here wants to analyze 80 to 100 different vines each year. For a staff our size, that’s a lot. U of M is unique in that we will do a wine trial with a single vine. We’re trying to get information as quickly as we can.
Is it hard to make wine in such small qualities?
Yes, the influence of oxygen is greater in small batches.
Marquette and Frontenac have helped many Midwestern wineries to make red wine from regional grapes. Even so, the demand for more Midwestern grown red wine is insatiable. Is finding the Midwest version of the “big red grape” an area of emphasis for U of M?
We are progressing directionally toward that goal, but there is not a specific variety that’s quite ready right now. Peter Hemstad has a strong interest in developing a fuller bodied more tannic red wine.
How was the growing season in Minnesota this year?
It has been a long growing season. We had an early spring, a hot summer, then cool and dry in August. Brix levels rose quickly, then slowed during August. In early August there was concern that Marquette and the other U of M varietals could be harvested well before Labor Day.
Sample measurements in early August from several vineyards had Brix readings in the high teens and low twenties for the U of M varietals. Fortunately temperatures moderated in August and sugar accumulation slowed. Sugar levels were still generally high at harvest, as were acid levels.
Some early maturity varietals were harvested in late August with many vineyards finishing harvest by mid-September. But there could still be quite a variation state-wide.
With the high sugar, wineries will have to manage the high potential alcohol. Sweet wines would benefit from arrested fermentation vs. back-sweetening. Dry wines may require amelioration if final alcohol and acidity prove to be too high. With the long growing season, it will be interesting to taste the flavor profiles of this vintage’s wines.