L’Etoile du Nord Farm Winery combines award-winning wines with a serene lake setting
By Jim Palmer
A dozen years ago, starting a winery wasn’t on the radar for Polly Perkins and her husband David Christianson. But a conversation with a family member changed all that. Today, the two own and operate L’Etoile du Nord Farm Winery on Lake Irene near Miltona and Parkers Prairie.
The story of their winery starts in 1963.
“I grew up in Alexandria and my parents wanted a summer place for the kids to get out of town. They found this place on Lake Irene,” said Polly, scanning the property. “It had nine acres on Lake Irene and it was only 15 miles from Alexandria. We basically lived out here all summer. My dad would drive to work in Alexandria, and we lived here for the summer, we had a big garden and swam and fished every day. An ideal childhood, I’d say.”
About 10 years later, the family bought the 30 acres of adjoining land, making it a 40 acre property on the lake.
After Polly’s dad died in 2007, she and her sister inherited the land, and did the weekend cabin thing, but their kids were growing up and not so interested in time away from their city life.
“Then in 2010, Dave was starting to plan for retiring,” said Polly. “He grew up on a farm near Crookston and thought farming in retirement might be fun, so long as he had a green tractor.”
But only 10 acres of the land was tillable on the property by Lake Irene.
“I was thinking, ‘What can we do with just 10 acres?’ “So Dave called his uncle Otto, who was a county extension agent years ago in Baudette,” said Polly. “Uncle Otto said, ‘I heard grapes are the coming thing,’ I burst out laughing. I said, ‘Yeah, right. We could be the ‘Napa of the north!’”
But after the laughter stopped, Polly and Dave started to think about the possibilities. Then they started to take it seriously and do some research. They became active in the Minnesota Grape Growers Association and they spent time checking out local wineries.
“This part of West Central Minnesota is on the northern edge of where you can grow grapes in Minnesota. We were given a list of grapes that we were told shouldn’t be grown because they wouldn’t get through the winter, and a shorter list of grapes that could grow in our colder climate.”
Then they took the first big step, buying 600 grape plants and planting them in the spring of 2011. They planted Marquette, Frontenac Blanc, Prairie Star and Petite Pearl. As their grapes grew, they got a feel for the vineyard and started working on the wine-making process. They continued the education process by taking VESTA online enology classes and participating in practicums at wineries in the Twin Cities.
“I saw how others were doing it and we were able to come up with a business model that fit with the size of operation and challenges of a Minnesota winter in our area of the state,” said Polly.
Just as they were about to have a grape crop, a curve ball came their way. In the winter of 2013-14, the area was hit by a “polar vortex.”
“It went down to 35 below zero and it looked like all of our vines died,” she said. “The spring of 2014 we did all the pruning and were waiting for our grapes to leaf out and the bare branches started to bleed... but nothing leafed out. We were starting to panic. We called Uncle Otto and he laughed and said, ‘Oh, those grapes are like weeds. They will be back. Sure enough, two weeks later, they sprung up from the ground.”
“The energy is all in the roots,” said Dave.
“It takes about two years to retrain them,” said Polly, “so that was the point when we realized that we needed to diversify. What would happen if all of our grapes died and we had no fruit to make wine with?”
That diversification includes using honey to make mead and apples for cider, and even acquiring lemons for citrus wines.
“That is a way to balance out what our vineyards give us. Some years we get wonderful crop. Some years we get partial crop. And some years we may get none. With the other wines, we would be able to weather the storm if something happened.”
By 2016, the wine-production room was constructed, and they began fermentation. More grapes were planted on an additional two acres, bringing the total grape plants to 3,000 and adding two more grape varieties to the mix: Sabrevois and Itasca. In 2019, their tasting room was complete and the L’Etoile du Nord Farm Winery was officially open to the public.
Today, people are coming by car, by foot and by boat (off Lake Irene) to check out the new winery and sample the wide variety of grape wines, meads, and ciders that they offer.
“We love meeting our customers!” said Polly. “We have met wonderful people from all over the country who are visiting the Alexandria Lakes Area. Alexandria is a wonderful, well known tourist destination. We also have a solid group of snowbirds and locals who appreciate wine.”
Besides the wines and ciders, a highlight of the L’Etoile du Nord Farm Winery is the calming view of Lake Irene. Most of the shoreline around the winery is undeveloped so it is a great spot for wildlife viewing.
“We are part of the Lake Irene Preservation Association so we highly value our lake and our neighbors,” she said. “We have a bald eagle nest nearby and bald eagles often land along the lakeshore and eat their supper.”
Polly and Dave take it one day at a time and one season at a time. Besides an intern a few years ago and some help from high schoolers in the vineyard, Polly and Dave are running the winery by themselves. They have multiple productions running all the time and there is always something to do.
“Right now my lemon wine is just finishing fermenting, I have Prairie Star wine ready to be bottled, I have some wine that needs a little oaking. Our equipment is always full,” she said. “We manufacture a little under 1,000 gallons, which makes us a ‘micro-winery’ by California standards.”
It is hard work, but Polly and Dave are enjoying the process.
“Most days are energizing and exciting and some days are terrifying and discouraging, but life is like that,” she smiled. “If you didn’t have some lows you wouldn’t know how great the highs are. I can say we are never, ever bored,” she said.
The work can be hard at times, but Polly and Dave try their best to not overdo it.
“We had an intern one year from Europe,” said Dave. “I thought I was pretty strong. I picked up a pail of grapes, about 30-40 pounds and he picked up four of them and didn’t think much of it. Things do change as you get older and you have to adjust to it.”
“We work with the vines five days a week in the summer once they bud out to encourage them to provide whatever grapes they are going to provide this year. Every year the wines will taste a little different depending on what the vines give us.” Polly added that the mild winter and the hot June has resulted in some “happy grapes” this year.
Polly and Dave consider their business a “wine-focused” farm winery. They offer only cheese and snacks with their wine and they do not focus on large events like some wineries.
“We grow the grapes so we can make the wine the way we want the wine to taste,” said Polly. “Customers like to experience the differences that each winery has to offer. There are nearly 80 farm wineries in Minnesota and each one of us offers a unique experience and I think that is the best thing going for all of us. They all have their own stories on how they got into the business. They have their own goals. Some really excel in weddings and other events. And some are more small intimate experiences like what we have here.”
Part of that experience is taking time to slow down and truly enjoy the wine and the natural setting. Last year, Polly and Dave switched things up a bit in the tasting room. Instead of having people come to the counter to sample the wines, they started to offer flights of wines so people could sample the wines at their tables at their own leisure.
“People really liked this change,” said Polly. “It gave them more time to slow down and enjoy the wine and the lakeside views.”
All the ingredients for their wines, with the exception of the lemons, are grown right in Minnesota, and Polly works diligently to enhance the varietal flavors of the grapes.
“I worked in sterilization and disinfection at the University of Minnesota Hospital for about 13 years so the microbiology and fermentation part of this was nothing new to me,” she said. “I really enjoy the chemistry of the process as well as the horticulture end of it.”
And it is working. Two of the L’Etoile du Nord wines, the Marquette and the Frontenac blanc, recently won medals at the International Cold Climate Wine Competition.
“We know we are doing something right,” she smiled.
The name for the winery, L’Etoile du Nord, is French for “Star of the North.”
L’Etoile du Nord is actually the Minnesota State Motto and it is on both the state seal and the state flag,” said Polly, who added that some of their customers struggle to pronounce or remember the name but it always makes for a great conversation starter.
“Since so many of the grapes we use have French names like Frontenac and Marquette, we felt like it all tied together. This part of Minnesota, with the rivers and the lakes, was actually French speaking for about 300 years. Voyagers came down and traded for furs with Native Americans and a lot of the original explorers were French speaking.”
Those who can’t remember the name often call it “The Winery on Lake Irene,” which also works, said Polly and Dave. And if that doesn’t work, another good option might be “Napa of the North.”
L’Etoile du Nord Farm Winery is open Friday (2-6), Saturday (12-6), Sunday (1-5) from May 1 to the end of October. The winery located between Highway 29 and the west side of Lake Irene, just one mile north of the Miltona Outpost Gas Station and five miles south of Parkers Prairie. Its address is 16451 NW Irene Court NE, Parkers Prairie.
For more information, for online orders, or to learn about their wine club, visit www.letoiledunordvineyard.com or call (320) 298-4686.
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