CUSHING — A mixture of growing intrigue in wine and a temporary bout of insanity led Jon McClain to establishing his own winery.
An industry somewhat sidelined by the microbrewery boom of the last decade following the 2011 “Surly Bill” allowing breweries to sell their products in on-site taprooms, Minnesota’s wine trade continues to grow. There are a lot more wineries in the Land of 10,000 Lakes now than when McClain opened in 2013, but none quite like his.
Scandia Valley Vineyards lies on 5 acres of land north of Cushing in Scandia Valley Township, about 25 miles southwest of Brainerd. Rows of vines growing five varieties of red and white grapes cover about half the property. A large red barn sits in the background, paying tribute to the land’s former days as a dairy farm, and a camper off to the side operates as the sales office. In front of the camper sits a wooden deck lined with basil plants, which give off an aroma that pairs well with the wine.
Before the days of the coronavirus, servers would provide table service to the outdoor customers, uncorking the bottles of wine at the table as patrons watched it splash into their glasses, instead of having to go up to a bar.
The old red barn and the sales camper, paired with fine wines and specialty olive oils and balsamic vinegars, give Scandia Valley Vineyards a rustic yet refined feel.
Or as McClain would say: “We kept everything really hillbilly.”
That’s what he believes sets Scandia Valley apart from other Minnesota wineries.
Jon McClain checks grapes on his vines at Scandia Valley Vineyards Monday, Aug. 3. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
“We didn’t want to be pretentious,” he said. “We wanted to be simple, focus on Minnesota fruit, and just make the experience here fun.”
The witty banter from friendly, outgoing servers, McClain added, helps make customers feel like they’re a part of the Scandia Valley Vineyards family.
First-time customers turn into repeat customers, as word of Scandia Valley Vineyards spreads through summer resort-goers and seasonal cabin dwellers.
McClain opens his doors and uncorks his bottles Saturdays and Sundays from Memorial Day through Labor Day, welcoming guests to outdoor picnic tables where they can sample up to six different wines at a time.
Fourteen varieties of wine line McClain’s shelves — seven reds and seven whites. He’s grown his shelves from four varieties of each when he first opened in 2013, slowly adding new blends each year.
Last year he added a 15th — a white dessert wine — but soon decided it wouldn’t last. The mixture proved labor intensive, and McClain didn’t feel like he could charge enough to offset the costs.
Of the varieties on hand now, McClain is especially proud of his hops wine, something he may be the only vintner in the state to produce. Primarily used in breweries, hops give the wine a unique smell reminiscent of beer.
“It tastes like wine,” he said, “but after you swallow it you pick the hops up again. So, that’s a really interesting one.”
The idea came after McClain read about a winemaker in New Zealand doing something similar and thought he would give it a try. He processed white California grapes — as the Minnesota ones are too acidic — with citra and cascade hops, which generally go into India pale ale beers.
It proved a worthwhile task, as the first small batch he made sold out in 30 days. A large batch this year has now dwindled down to just three cases.
A picture of Bob Marley accompanies “Don’t Worry — Be Hoppy” on the wine’s label.
Fourteen varieties of wine are available at Scandia Valley Vineyards in Cushing — seven reds and seven whites. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
The only other wine that doesn’t feature Scandia Valley’s signature loon on the label is Chase Cat, named and produced in honor of McClain’s old cat, Chase.
“It was my daughters’ cat, and after they both went off to college, they asked me if I’d take care of him,” he said. “So he moved up here with me in ‘06 after I bought this old dairy farm and started putting the vines in. And he lived 17 years, and when he passed away, I buried him in the vineyard, and I decided I was going to make a wine just to kind of commemorate — as the label says — 17 years of ‘catpanionship.’”
The label features a photograph of Chase, and the golden-colored wine made from a blend of LaCrescent and Prairie Star grapes resembles the cat’s color.
McClain is unsure if it’s the novelty of Chase’s picture and story or the tasty tropical flavors of the drink that make Chase Cat his top selling wine. The LaCrescent white wine is a close second.
Scandia Valley’s top red wine is the Classic Red Barn, made with a special blend of Minnesota grapes to give it a sweet flavor.
“A lot of people around here like sweet wines,” McClain said, noting the Classic Red Barn is best served chilled, while most others are recommended to be drunk closer to room temperature.
About 80% of the grapes McClain uses for his wines are Minnesota grown at his winery or by other growers in Crow Wing and Stearns counties. He imports the rest from California to supplement his supply.
McClain, 65, has a long background in the food and beverage industry with companies like Kemps and Hormel but he didn’t pick up winemaking until a little later in life.
“I have some chef friends, and they kind of got me into wine,” he said. “Then I started as a hobbyist 24-25 years ago, making wine with whatever I could find to ferment in my kitchen.”
That turned into a retirement project, eventually evolving into Scandia Valley Vineyards.
McClain ran across what is now his vineyard one April when he came up north to set up his camper — now the sales office — at its seasonal spot on Lake Shamineau. While going for a leisurely drive he happened upon an old dairy farm with a “for sale” sign.
“It was really in bad shape. I mean, way overgrown with big bushes and lots of trees, and you could hardly see the house because of all the big bushes growing up,” he said. “And I said, ‘This would be perfect for my little winery.’”
He visited the property with a Realtor on a Sunday and owned it by Monday.
If asked how he came to the decision to open Scandia Valley Vineyards, McClain will say he was temporarily insane, not realizing how much work would go into the business.
Starting in 2005, he hand-tilled the more than 1.5 miles of rows by himself. Then the trellises went up, and by 2006 he began planting his grapes.
At the end of 2012, McClain decided it was time to retire from corporate American and focus on opening his winery.
Books, seminars and consultations with other winemakers helped McClain learn the trade. The Minnesota Grape Growers Association hosts a yearly convention with plenty of helpful information supplied.
“A lot of stuff you just kind of learn by doing,” McClain said. “The first time I came out here to prune in March, early April, I didn’t know what I was doing. I had a little diagram.”
Grapes at Scandia Valley Vineyards in Cushing begin the process of veraison, or the process of ripening, Monday, Aug. 3, meaning they begin to turn from green to red. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
Eventually — through some trial and error — he learned what worked best for him and his grapes.
He also learned what doesn’t work, like bitter cold winters with prolonged below zero temperatures. McClain’s grapes fell victim to the polar vortex of two winters ago, which blasted the lakes area with air temperatures of 30 below zero, and wind chills even lower. Brainerd saw a 59-day stretch with below zero temperatures that year.
“I had 100% (of the vines) die back to the ground,” he said. “So all the trunks that had been there for years and years and years were all dead.”
The vines have since grown back up from their roots and began producing fruit again this year. Though not as abundant as in a normal year, clusters of grapes dot the newly grown vines, and as of early August, some of the reds had started veraison — the process of ripening and turning from green to their reddish-purple color.
McClain said there isn’t much he can do to save his plants in such cold weather, but he has developed a trick to ward off fungal infections. Tomato plants sit at the ends of his rows of vines, but it’s not just because he likes the fruit.
“Tomatoes will show a fungal infection before the vines will,” he said. “If I start seeing some fungus on the tomatoes, I know it’s time to spray the grape vines. That way I stay ahead of it.”
Rose bushes work, too.
On the chemistry side of things, McClain said he got a really good manual and took a couple training sessions.
“The chemistry is pretty easy,” he said.
The secret to good wine is to create a balance among all the different factors of wine, including fruit flavor, alcohol content and acidity.
“If you have too much acid, the wine’s going to be bitter. If it’s too fruity, it tastes like grape juice. If the alcohol is too high, they call it ‘hot.’ You can really pick up the alcohol,” McClain said. “And so you just want to kind of have everything in balance so it’s very harmonious and pleasant to the palate. And that’s where the skill comes in.”
Fermented grapes aren’t McClain’s only product. He also works with an importer in Oakland, California, and bottles olive oils and balsamic vinegars under the Scandia Valley Vineyards brand.
A dozen varieties of olive oil are on the menu, with flavors like wild rosemary, blood orange, Eureka lemon, Tuscan herb, garlic, basil and black truffle. Likewise, 14 flavors of balsamic vinegar are available for purchase, including black cherry, cinnamon pear, raspberry, blueberry peach, vanilla orange, cranberry pear, grapefruit, black truffle sea salt and jalapeño lime.
In the days before COVID-19, Scandia Valley wine tastings came with a complimentary sampling of oils and vinegars with bread.
Along with wine, Scandia Valley Vineyards owner Jon McClain bottles specialty olive oils and balsamic vinegars under his brand. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
McClain got a late start this year — like most seasonal businesses — due to the coronavirus pandemic. He wasn’t able to open up for wine tastings until June 27, about a month later than normal.
He no longer serves bread and oils out of an abundance of caution and now employs just one server — instead of the regular four — to serve wine in disposable plastic cups for customers who want to sample.
Patrons write their names and contact information in a guestbook upon arrival to help with contact tracing if it’s ever necessary and are encouraged to reserve a table ahead of time. Walk-ins will still be welcome if table space is available, though. Tables are sanitized between uses, and McClain and his server wear gloves and masks.
Bottles of wine, olive oil and balsamic vinegar are always available for purchase by calling the winery.
Looking back at what he has now created, that temporary bout of insanity seemed to have paid off for McClain.
“It’s a lot of work,” he said, “but it is satisfying, especially when people like what I produce.”
For more information on Scandia Valley Vineyards, visit http://www.svvwine.com/.
Business: Scandia Valley Vineyards.
Number of employees: Owner and four servers before COVID-19.
Interesting fact: Scandia Valley Vineyards produces a wine made from hops, which is primarily found in beer. The hops give the wine a unique beer aroma with a crisp white wine flavor and an aftertaste similar to an IPA beer.