Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Bike trip destinations: Morgan Creek Vineyards

Distance from downtown Mankato: Roughly 20 miles.

Route I took: We'll keep it simple this time. Head west on Riverfront Drive until you reach the Highway 169 on-ramp at the end of the road. At that point, bike on the sidewalk adjacent to the highway over the Le Sueur River and follow the residential streets (Olive and Main) to the starting point of the Minneopa Trail. Take the trail to Highway 68 and then hop on 68 for about 15 miles until you reach County Road 47. At that point, take a left on 47, follow that for about two miles, and take a left onto County Road 101/478th Ave (fair warning: it's a dirt road). The winery will be on your left.

Note: The end part of the map for this trip is incorrect. I accidentally mapped the route about three miles too far on County Road 47. Unfortunately, mapmyrun.com won't allow me to edit an already-published route and doing the entire map over again (each of them takes an hour or so to make) seems a little redundant. So the "END" sign on the route is the actual location of the winery. Please adjust accordingly.

General ease/challenge of ride: At 40 miles round trip, it's a definite workout. There's also two sizable dips in the road along the way, so there's two pretty decent hills you'll have climb going both ways. If you're biking to the vineyard, the first climb is around Mile 10 on Highway 68 after the Judson turnoff, and the second climb comes after you onto County Road 47.

Both the hills are pretty decent climbs, but I wouldn't say they're any tougher than -- or even equal to -- some of the steeper inclines in Mankato. So if you've biked up Lookout Drive or bested the South Route Trail, you can definitely handle these downshift dandies (channeling my inner Dick Vitale).

Safety of the ride: When I was planning a bike ride to New Ulm two years ago, I recall a coworker advising against using Highway 68 because he said it had a lot of challenging hills. At the time, I was still pretty new to road cycling. I mostly stuck to bike trails and avoided hills like they were hot lava.

That's not really the case anymore, as biking up Potter Hill on RAGBRAI last summer convinced that almost any incline can be conquered with a little grit and a lot of downshifting. However, at that point, hearing that a road had steep hills was about the same as someone telling me that it was covered with broken glass.

Consequently, I relied on back roads and having to ride on Highway 14 after Courtland to get to New Ulm. The ride wasn't terrible, but as a steady stream of cars were zipping past me on Highway 14, I couldn't help but wonder if Highway 68 would've been the better option.

Well, after doing this ride, I can firmly say that it is the safer option. Traffic on Highway 68 is considerably lighter than Highway 14 and it has enough of a shoulder where motorists can keep their distance. I can't attest for the entire stretch of 68 to New Ulm, but up until County Road 47, there aren't any blind turns in the road where cars can suddenly appear without warning. Since the ride is predominantly out the country, there also aren't any busy intersections to worry about.

Appeal of the destination: I always thought vineyards would be a something of a fish out of water in Minnesota. After all, how can a practice that relies so heavily on the weather thrive in an area where there's snow on the ground 6 months out of the year and temperatures routinely drop below zero in the wintertime?

However, Morgan Creek Vineyards is one of a growing number of wineries in the state debunking that notion.

Founded in 1993 by Georg and Paula Marti, Morgan Creek was part of the early winery movement in Minnesota. According to the tour guide, they were the eighth winery in the state at the time; today more than 40 such wineries exist. The last name of Morgan Creek's founders should sound familiar to locals, as Georg is the great great grandson of August Schell, founder of Schell's Brewing Company in New Ulm.

The story of how Georg and Paula came to own the livestock farmland that the vineyard currently resides on is also pretty interesting. Supposedly, they were walking across the land looking for firewood when they came across a massive oak tree in the middle of the field that still stands today (pictured right). Enamored with the tree, they purchased the land on a spur of the moment decision and immediately went to work on wine making. They planted 500 vines the first year and had their first vintage season in 1998 (most wines take about 5 years to make).

The wine-making process began slowly for the Martis, but Morgan Creek and other area vineyards received a shot in the arm in 1996 when the University of Minnesota developed Frontenac, a cross-bred cold hardy grape that could withstand the state's brutal winters. The U of M has since added to Frontenac with three other cold hardy varieties: La Crescent, Marquette and Frontenac gris.

Today, Morgan Creek produces more than 15 varieties of red and white wine and harvests more than four tons of grapes per year. Their distribution is relatively light compared to major wineries, but they have a loyal regional following and hold their own at state-wide wine-tasting competitions. Morgan Creek also has the distinction of being Minnesota's only underground winery, as their production area is tucked into a hillside to help regulate temperatures (a very important part of brewing and wine making).

As a visitor, the main appeal of Morgan Creek Vineyards is pretty straightforward. It's a winery, which means there's wine, and more importantly, it means there's wine tasting. Visitors have the option of sampling four or eight wines, with the prices being $3 and $5 respectively (I
opted for eight wines, might as well make it worth the trip). The winery also has a restaurant on site (with a lovely patio area, pictured right) to enjoy the wine with. I didn't take a long look at the menu (I had Cliff Bars packed), but I saw several sandwich and pizza options.

Beyond the wine tasting, Morgan Creek also has hourly tours and a gift shop stocked with corkscrews, t-shirts and -- surprise, surprise -- full bottles of wine! Since the prospect of toting a wine bottle home on my bike seemed obtuse, I decided the tour would be the better route. The major points of the tour are to explain the history of the vineyard and give a brief rundown of the wine-making process. Those on the tour will also get to see the various machines used to make wine (at right is the bladder presser, which uses pressurized water to bleed the minerals out of the grape skins).

Since I was the only person on that particular tour, the guide let me walk around the vineyard at my own leisure and was pretty cool about letting me get close to some of the equipment.

I won't say that Morgan Creek is cheap entertainment. The tour and wine tasting is $9 collectively (compared to $3 at Schell's Brewery, with the admission including a free beer) and the vineyard lacks any drinkable tap water, meaning you'll have to buy bottled water if you didn't bring extras for the ride home.

However, the informative tour and a surprisingly-diverse selection of wine for taste testing make it worth the trip.

If you have the schedule flexibility to plan your trip in advance, Morgan Creek has several events at the vineyard that feature live music and grilled dinners. Here are some of the upcoming events worth checking out:

  • Jazz Nite with the Jim McGuire Jazz Trio is held on the first Saturday of every month from May to November
  • Winedown for the Weekend is every Friday with music from pianist Ben Marti
  • The Annual Great Grape Stomp is on Oct. 1, complete with belly dancers and competitive grape stomping

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