Grapes and wine yield sweet success for Minnesota couple
Joe, left, and Melanie Cihlar raise grapes, soybeans and corn near Glenwood, Minn., and are members of CHS Prairie Lakes. They were raised on farms in rural Minnesota, but moved to the Twin Cities to pursue careers. In 2009, they returned to Joe's hometown and their agricultural roots.
Joe and Melanie Cihlar have three little helpers: Henry, Vinny and Oliver (pictured). “The boys love tractor rides with Joe and fight over who gets to ride in the combine,” says Melanie. “This year, we let them stay home from school one day during harvest to show them how the grapes are picked. Our hope is to pass the winery to them some day.”
Halfway between Minneapolis, Minn., and Fargo, N.D., seven acres of empty vines decorate the rolling hills of Glenwood, Minn. The harvested grapes have been crushed, pressed and fermented, and the wine is aging in steel tanks and oak barrels at a nearby winery owned by Joe and Melanie Cihlar.
Rolling Forks Vineyards opened its doors on July 2, 2020, almost a decade after the couple planted their first vineyard. Until 2018, the Cihlars sold their cold-hardy grapes to wineries in Minnesota and North Dakota, patiently working to make their vision a reality.
“It’s always been our dream to open a winery of our own,” says Melanie. “All the stars aligned when the property went up for sale in 2009.”
Tucked into the countryside, surrounded by a field of rolling hills and overlooking Lake Minnewaska, the picturesque winery is a Midwestern version of Tuscany, Italy. It isn’t just the view that appealed to the Cihlars. It was the area’s dry spring and summer climate — grapes don’t like much moisture — the elevation of the property, which provides natural drainage and prevents flooding, and it was Joe’s home area, 3 miles from his uncle’s farm.
“I had my eye on this property for years,” says Joe. “Melanie and I had already made the decision to move back to the area. Then, three months after we were engaged, the property went up for sale.”
Starting a vineyard from scratch takes determination and sweat equity. The Cihlars spent hundreds of hours preparing the soil for planting, installing thousands of posts and about 50 miles of wire to construct the vineyard’s trellis system, planting acres of grass and putting in 8 miles of underground drip irrigation. “Planting a vineyard is the easy part,” says Melanie. “The preparation work is the true labor of love.”
Once the vineyards were established, winery construction began, and in fall 2019, grapes were picked for the first batch of Rolling Forks wine.
The winery and vineyard span 2.7 miles overlooking Lake Minnewaska. The name, Rolling Forks Vineyards, was chosen for the area’s rolling hills and the four “forks” where water naturally drains along the surrounding hills.
A Patio with a View
A patio was not part of the original plan for the winery, but the Cihlars’ contractor talked the couple into adding it a few months after the COVID-19 pandemic reached the U.S. “We wouldn’t have had such a successful opening if we hadn’t had the patio,” says Joe.
The Cihlars used GPS guidance to plant their vineyards and installed an underground drip irrigation system to reduce water waste and risk of waterborne diseases. They own seven acres of grapes and manage another seven acres a few miles down the road for Joe’s uncle, who retired in 2009. “It’s a good risk mitigation tactic,” says Joe. “Grapes are very sensitive. If bad weather ruins the grapes at one vineyard, we can rely on the other, so we don’t lose an entire season’s crop.”
Three varieties of grapes developed to withstand the Minnesota cold are grown in the scenic vineyard: Marquette and Petite Pearl are red varieties and La Crescent is a white variety. Seventy percent of the grapes used in Rolling Forks’ wines come from the Cihlars’ vineyard; the rest are sourced from northern Iowa and Colorado. Eventually, Joe and Melanie hope to make their wines with 90 percent locally sourced grapes.
Winemaking runs in Joe’s blood; his uncle raised grapes. “When there was extra fruit, you either preserved it or fermented it,” says Joe, who has won five awards, including two second-place ribbons, in Minnesota State Fair wine competitions. The Cihlars’ wine can be enjoyed at the winery and a few local restaurants, and can be purchased at area liquor stores and online.
See More: Find details at rollingforksvineyards.com
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