CLARA CITY, Minn. (AP) - It's planting season in Chippewa County, and farmers are scrambling to seed their fields with this year's crops of corn, soybeans and sugar beets. Except on a small corner of prairie one mile east of Clara City, where Karin Koenen and her son Aric had planted their crop years ago.
Their thoughts this spring are all about putting the value-added version of their crop on sale directly to the public. Hinterland Vineyard and Winery opened its doors to the public this month as the first winery in Chippewa County.
''It's kind of funny that we actually continued,'' said Karin, laughing, as she describes how the original vines were planted in April 2004 just before a big, heavy snow fell.
AP Photo --
Karin and Aric Koenen looking over grape vines at their Hinterland Vineyard and Winery east of Clara City, Minn., April 15. Neat rows of trellis hold six different varieties of grapes on nine acres. The vineyard opened its doors in the beginning of May and began offering the first bottles of wine produced in a Chippewa County winery.
Two years later those prairie-hearty vines produced their first grapes, and since the start, the vineyard has been expanded to nine acres. Neatly lined rows of trellis (and 78-miles of wire) now hold six different varieties of grapes.
Standing amidst them is a newly constructed winery. It holds the first properly aged bottles of Chippewa County wines and the most comfortable and inviting of rooms in which to try them while visiting with friends.
From the windows of the winery's visitor room, you can see tractors parked in the farm yard. The big ones belong to Ron Koenen, husband and father to the vineyard's caretakers, who is readying his fields for this year's corn and soybeans. The family's red machinery buildings and the traditional barn with cupolas makes this look every bit the model, Midwestern farm.
Karin and Aric believe the marriage of vineyard and winery with crops of corn and beans and red machinery buildings may become much more common on the western Minnesota prairie. The vineyard is here for the very reasons the Koenen family began tilling this soil generations ago.
''It has a lot to do with Aric wanting to stay in a rural area,'' said Karin in explaining how the vineyard and winery took root.
They are not making any new farmland, she pointed out, and that makes it difficult for young people who want to get started in farming. So like many others, Karin said she and her husband had been looking at all kinds of options to diversify their farm and provide an opportunity for sons Aric and Ethan to be part of it if they wished.
They ran across a flier from Fieldstone Vineyards of Morgan at Farmfest, talked to its owners, and have now become part of Minnesota's emerging wine industry.
Growing grapes on the prairie takes lots of ingenuity, just as farming has always demanded. Ron Koenen's father, Kenneth I. Koenen, had kept all of his farming equipment from earlier days, and now much of it is being adapted by the family to the unique needs of tending to grapes.
Being a pioneer in prairie viniculture also takes an independent spirit, and that's exactly what interested Aric most of all. Asked why he wanted to return to his rural roots, he said simply: ''I want to be my own boss.''
Serious viniculture was not really possible in Minnesota until 1996, when the University of Minnesota released the Frontenac variety of wine grapes tolerant of our harsh winters. Karin and Aric have planted both Frontenac and Frontenac gris, its white wine twin. They've also taken advantage of university research to plant more recent releases of La Crescent and Marquette varieties.
The Marquette grape has been the source of much excitement in the north country, and for good reason. It makes a wine So pleasing (and so rare right now) that the Koenens believe they will have to ration the sale of the wine they've produced from these grapes.
They've also planted two varieties of grapes developed by private growers for northern climates, Brianna and Petite Amie, and are no less pleased by the results.
But there is no need to rely on the judgment of their palates alone. Karin and Aric have been bringing bottles of their newly vinted wines to downtown Clara City for informal taste testing tRials, where they've won rave reviews.