John Taylor admits he’s always been a bit of a contrarian. So the fact that he started out studying enology and agribusiness but ended up here in Minnesota to perfect a wine made from the cold-climate Frontenac Blanc grape shouldn’t come as a surprise.
It was research on cold-climate grapes from the University of Minnesota Extension that caught his attention while he was still living and working in California. “I thought it might be fun to make wine on the last frontier of winemaking,” he shares. In 2017, he arrived in Minnesota and the following year, he joined Chankaska Creek Ranch & Winery, where he now serves as winemaker, distiller and vice president of alcohol operations.
“You only get one shot a year, one vintage every year,” he notes. “There’s a story to that vintage, which helps build mystique and romance into the product.” He wants to shepherd not only the right grape into the right wine into the right bottle — and into your glass — but also help shepherd Minnesota onto the map as an important viticultural area, much like Napa Valley.
That might seem bold, but with the lessons the industry has learned — plus a raft of patience — Taylor thinks that it’s possible, especially with the establishment of the Alexandria Lakes and Upper Mississippi River Valley viticultural areas. As he explains, Chankaska owners Kent and Jane Schwickert have certainly built the foundation to launch it.
“I’d put Chankaska right up there with West Coast or Old World wineries,” Taylor says, citing the owners’ 300+ visits to wineries around the world. “They didn’t spare any expense in creating a property that is not just an onsite experience, but a property with the tools necessary to make world-class wines. When you’re here, you can see the results of the vision and you can taste it in the wines, spirits and liqueurs we make.”
Situated just outside Mankato, Chankaska can host 350-person events and is home to 13 acres of vineyard as well as another 12 acres of grounds with a creek and forest winding throughout the property. “We really pride ourselves on not only making a great product, but also providing a great experience,” Taylor notes.
And with each harvest, he thinks it’s possible Minnesota wines will be labeled with that coveted viticultural area stamp and sought after worldwide. “I want to finish my career in Minnesota, and if I helped put Minnesota wine on a national or worldwide stage, I’ll have considered my career a success,” he says.