Local winery scene on the grow, together as one

Jay and Sheila Wiggins at James Perry Vineyards near Rush City. Photo by Jon Tatting
Jay and Sheila Wiggins at James Perry Vineyards near Rush City.
Photo by Jon Tatting

Jay Wiggins’ ability to taste the different ingredients of a dish or spirit can transform him into a mad scientist of sorts, especially when it comes to making wine.

Enthusiasts of grape, mead and fruit wines are discovering this passion, coupled with Wiggins’ “go big or go home” philosophy in life, for themselves at James Perry Vineyards. Jay and wife, Sheila, along with sons Jim and Jerry Wiggins, opened this artisan-style winery last spring in the Rush City farmlands at 4790 480th St.

The vineyards are on the grow across the local landscape, and the area is becoming a place of destination for folks in search of quality, locally produced wine and a memorable wine tasting experience. The local winery scene, including James Perry, Wild Mountain Winery and North Folk Winery, can be accessed by the self-guided Upper St. Croix Wine Trail (upperstcroixwinetrail.com).

For Jay and Sheila Wiggins, who primarily live in Center City, their winery started as a hobby following an automobile accident that left Jay with a back injury and in need of a new interest. With the help of family, they built a garden on a portion of farmland in the Rush City area “to get me back into shape,” Jay said.

And it was no ordinary garden.

“Everything he does is big; nothing is small,” Sheila said of her husband. “That garden had to be as big as a football field. The kids said we needed a hobby, and our hobby went wild.”

Good friends enjoying a good time together during this year’s Upper St. Croix Wine and Art Krawl at North Folk. Photo by Jon Tatting
Good friends enjoying a good time together during this year’s Upper St. Croix Wine and Art Krawl at North Folk.
Photo by Jon Tatting

That hobby allowed Jay to rediscover his passion for vinification, and his winemaking was taken to a new level. He and Sheila connected with Alan and Judy Olson, one of three local families who run Wild Mountain Winery out of Taylors Falls, who taught them the inner workings of the winery trade. They could relate on many levels, since Wild Mountain also started as a hobby.

The Wiggins eventually found success at various competitions for their wine concoctions, and James Perry Vineyards opened for business this year over Memorial Day weekend. But they know it’s just the beginning, with much work to do.

“We’re taking baby steps, learning as we go,” Sheila said. “The winery has really blossomed. It’s a fun job on top of all the other work.”

Jay noted James Perry currently offers 19 varieties of wine, though 27 is the goal. He especially makes a lot of fruit wines from locally grown blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, gooseberries, apples, pears, crabapples and more. He is no stranger to rhubarb, and he even produced a dandelion wine.

“We try to keep it as Minnesota as possible, and we can’t pick enough raspberries,” he said. “The fruity wines hook the young people and those without a pallet yet for wine.”

The Wiggins can recall a number of occasions when someone, who claims to not like wine, is pleasantly surprised after experiencing what they have to offer. On another occasion, Jay pointed out, a man who judges wine paid a visit and was impressed by the variety, uniqueness and quality of the wines he sampled.

Jay said the chemistry in developing a locally produced wine comes naturally.

Scenes at Wild Mountain Winery, Taylors Falls. Photo supplied
Scenes at Wild Mountain Winery, Taylors Falls.
Photo supplied

“I can taste a lot of different things that other people can’t taste,” he explained. “I can come up with different combinations that work well. It’s like cooking to me. My older son also has the gift.”

Guests of the winery can enjoy a glass or two inside the Wiggins’ wine tasting room, where a plethora of wine by the bottle is available for purchase. Step outside, and the countryside view includes a look of the five different vineyards and orchards that grow over 6 acres (and counting).

“Our goal is to retire, travel and pass this on to the kids,” Sheila said. “Our friends and family have been so supportive. Without them, this isn’t here.”

The Wiggins keep busy with work outside of the winery, as well. While Jay works in customer service for St. Jude Medical in the metro area, Sheila serves as kitchen manager at Lakeside Intermediate School in Chisago.

Wild Mountain Winery

Not far from Almelund is another winery, brought to the St. Croix Valley by three local families including winemaker Irv Geary. They share a passion for making Minnesota wine exclusively from the hardy grapes that grow in their vineyards atop one of the highest points in Chisago County.

Wild Mountain Winery, 16906 Wild Mountain Road, Taylors Falls, is run by the families — each with a vineyard a few miles away — that contributes to the operation housed on Alan and Judy Olson’s scenic land off County Road 16, near the ski and recreation area. They dedicate about 6 acres of their land to grapes, which also are grown by Geary along with Jim and Peggy Stockwell.

Andy Olson, son of Alan and Judy, said business has been steady with wine enthusiasts from all over the state and even beyond. Local residents can be another story, he noted, since many still don’t know about the wineries in their own “backyard.”

He especially appreciates the winery’s relationship with James Perry Vineyards and Mike and Ann Tessneer’s North Folk Winery in the Harris area. The focus is on how they can complement one another, rather than viewing each other as the competition.

“We try not to tread on each other,” Olson said.

Wild Mountain offers varieties including Prairie Star, La Crescent, La Crosse, Frontenac, Frontenac Gris, St. Croix, Marachal Foch, Sabrevois and rare kinds developed by famed wine maker Elmer Swenson and the University of Minnesota. It has received a fair share of awards, too, from such events as the International Cold Climate Wine Competition.

Much of the credit goes to Geary and his unique winemaking ability. For the non-wine drinking crowd, he has introduced a hard cider, called Log Jam Hard Cider, which comes entirely from Minnesota’s own Haralson apples.

Special events also attract people to the winery. From the recently held Wine and Art Krawl to a fall-time grape stomp, Wild Mountain is always trying to boost enthusiasm for locally produced wine and the wineries that create an experience for it.

Geary and Olson have developed a special curriculum, too, for wine enthusiasts. As school teachers outside of the winery, they enjoy sharing their knowledge on such topics as food pairings, tasting techniques, identifying wine faults and proper serving and storing temperatures in a workshop setting.

The workshop was launched around Christmastime last year and generated about 400 people, said Olson, noting the curriculum will be presented again this year.

Geary also serves as president of the Minnesota Grape Grower’s Association, which was formed in 1976 to, in part, heighten public awareness of the Minnesota grape and wine industry. In Minnesota, he noted, the number of wineries has grown from six or seven in 2001 to 48 today.

“Minnesota wine is becoming more popular,” Geary continued. “The wine industry (nationally and statewide) is growing a rate of 8 to 10 percent a year, and that includes the time of the recession. In 2010, wine sales passed beer sales in the United States.”

He added: “People are starting to recognize Minnesota wine is just as good as elsewhere in the country. We make wines that are representative of this area.”

North Folk Winery

At North Folk Winery, 43150 Blackhawk Road, Harris, Mike and Ann Tessneer have created a wine tasting experience centering on a tasting room that resembles a cabin one would find along the Gunflint Trail in northern Minnesota.

Their award-winning wine is produced in small lots from locally grown fruit, and they enhance the experience with a tasting room made of timbers from Grand Marais, Minnesota — that and plenty of community events featuring artists, musicians and even authors. Many particularly enjoy the gourmet, wood-fired pizzas that are made by hand on Friday nights.

The Tessneers, too, appreciate the friendly connection that’s been established with some of the neighboring wineries. Ann Tessneer discussed what makes the local winery scene unique.

“Each winery has its own personality,” she said. “Each owner has his own story, history to tell. The have their own ambiance, and our winemaking styles are all different, so you get to experience all of those things. We don’t view ourselves as competitors; we are collaborators. We are working together to create a doable day trip for people.”

She added: “Minnesota wines are getting better, and we think we have just as much to offer as California wines. I think Minnesota wine is coming into its own.”

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