Ann River Vineyard and Winery south of Mora is this year’s Kanabec County’s Farm Family of the Year. The operation is a family partnership between Steve, Kathy, Luke and Jamie Watrin. The Watrins will be recognized at the Kanabec County Fair 4-H Livestock Auction on Saturday, July 27 at 2 p.m. and at Farmfest on Thursday, Aug. 8 at 1:15 p.m.
Kathy and Steve purchased the land in 1990. It was growing corn and soybeans and was converted to alfalfa in 1993 to rebuild the organic matter and allow soil microbes and weather to remove chemicals from the soil. It remained in hay production until 2006 when the first 500 grape plants were planted.
After Luke completed his college masters degree in 2009 at the height of the financial crisis they decided to keep moving forward with their business plan for 10 acres of grapes and a winery. Each year they planted an additional one to two acres of grapes from the University of Minnesota grape program.
Steve said that he was ready for a change after retiring from a 40-year career with Land O’ Lakes where his last responsibility was to manage futures and options trading of milk.
The vineyard and winery are each their own business entity. The vineyard is now 6,300 vines and fully productive producing 50 tons of wine grapes on an average year. Luke manages the vineyard, labor and equipment. Steve manages the vine nutrition and spraying. Kathy works with vines and operates equipment and Jamie who is a full-time dental hygienist also works the vines, operates equipment and assists in the retail sampling room.
They pay attention to every detail in growing grapes. For example, they feed their vines in three different ways with several micronutrients and even molasses. They take tissue samples that they send to Ohio. From there the samples go to the Netherlands for testing. This is done so that they can correct a nutrient deficiency before it gets to be a problem.
In 2017 their winery was completed and licensed to crush grapes. In 2018 their kitchen and retail sampling room opened for business. They currently crush and make wine from half of the grapes produced. The other half is sold to four other Minnesota wineries.
Steve said that they lost about 25% of two varieties this year due to the terrible winter. However, they are much better off than most vineyards in Minnesota. If the weather cooperates, they hope to have enough grapes this fall to produce their own wine, but will likely not have enough to sell. He said, “Grapes need a lot of heat to mature. We need a nice long warm summer and September. The weather is a big, big factor.”
Steve manages the winery, business analytics, customer service, communications and marketing. Luke provides support and is learning the science and art of producing wine.
Kathy manages the retail sales and sampling, sales, payroll, financial data, communications, social media and assists in bottling.
Steve said that winemaking is not easy. You need to understand chemistry, start with good fruit, follow a procedure and not go to step two before step one is right. Even if you do it right you can get off flavor. Every yeast will give a different flavor. “If you don’t want to learn, don’t get into this business,” he concluded.
Their mission statement does a great job of summarizing their business philosophy and goals. It is as follows: “Protect our land and grape vines with environmental sensitivity through the use of farming practices and vinting (winemaking) methods to produce quality fruit and wine using as few resources and energy as possible and be economically sustainable; and thereby, offer our customers a quality wine at a fair price.
The winery helps them to create income to cash flow. They host private parties and meetings. The winery is open on Friday 12 to 8, Saturday 12 to 6 and Sunday 12 to 5 p.m.
The Watrins are involved in the community as Chamber of Commerce members. Kathy is in the Dala Business Women and Steve is in the Knights of Columbus.
The farm is a member of the Minnesota Grape Growers Cooperative, Southern Minnesota Grape Growers Alliance. They are also active in the Minnesota Grape Growers Association and Minnesota Farm Winery Association. Their farm is listed in the Minnesota Department of Agriculture “Minnesota Grown” catalog.
The Farm Family Recognition Program has existed for over two decades and has been sponsored and coordinated by the University of Minnesota Extension, the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences and the College of Veterinary Medicine. The Kanabec County Farm Family of the Year is selected by the Kanabec County Extension Committee.