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Minnesotans Living The Dream As Wine Makers in Oregon

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- It is not where you'd expect to find a computer expert from Owatonna, a health care founder from Maple Grove, and a credit card analyst from St. Paul, but the wine country of Willamette Valley has become a home away from home for more than a dozen Minnesota-connected winemakers.

"There are quite a few Minnesotans out here," laughed Page Knudsen Cowles, one of the owners of Knudsen Vineyards.

Cowles grew up near Seattle, helping on the Oregon winery her dad planted 50 years ago.

"Knudsen is a long-time, long-established vineyard that started in 1971," she said.

Cowles actually lives in Minneapolis year-round, flying out often to supervise the more than 100 acres of planted grapes in Dundee, Oregon.

"I married a Minnesotan, lucky me. We went to business school together and fell in love," she said of her husband Jay Cowles, part of the family that used to own the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Today, the rolling hills of Willamette Valley produce some of the most in-demand grapes and wines in the United States. Award-winning pinot noirs, up-and-coming chardonnay, and many of the winemakers and vineyard owners hail from the land of 10,000 lakes.

WCCO identified Minnesota-connected wineries from the tiny to the massive, from Knudsen to Raptor Ridge, iOTA Cellars to Winebau Paetra. And then there's the Maserati of Minnesota-connected wineries: Domaine Serene.

Ken and Grace Evanstad lived in Wayzata and built a very successful business: Maple Grove pharmaceutical manufacturer Upsher-Smith. In 1989, they arrived in the Dundee Hills and bought a 42-acre hilltop estate. Domaine Serene was Oregon's first luxury wine, world-class quality with a price tag to match. In 2001, they built a state-of-the-art, five-level gravity flow Pinot Noir winery. Now they're also making sparkling wine in the traditional Champagne method, as well as Chardonnay in its own white winery.

Ken died in 2020 at the age of 77, but his wife continues the family tradition, and their wines continue winning the top awards in the industry.

"Each one of our blocks are named after our children," said Pattie Bjornson, who along with her husband Mark toured WCCO through their vineyard in Salem, Oregon. "This is where it started."

The Eola-Amity Hills is home to Kristjan's block, Claire's block, Hunter's and Kaitlyn's too. The vineyard is 28 acres of planted grapes, but the 75-acre property has forests, creeks and wild areas too.

"We met at the University of Minnesota. Go Gophers," said Pattie.

Mark worked in health care, Pattie worked in corporate computing, both with successful Twin Cities corporate jobs when they started planting roots in Oregon in 2006. Mark grew up in farming and always dreamed of having his own orchard, but a bike trip to Europe instead turned his focus to wine.

"We found the land we loved in Willamette Valley," said Mark.

They bring touches of home to their new home; one of their stainless steel wine tanks is named "Walter Mondale." Asked why there are so many Minnesotans in Oregon, his wife chimed, "I know -- no mosquitos!"

Tim Wilson grew up in the Twin Cities, and left his home in St. Paul and his successful career in credit card processing to learn how to make wine. After working for Chateau Ste. Michele and Edna Valley, he became the head winemaker at Benton-Lane Winery. In 2009, he and his wife Denise founded their own winery, Denison (a combo of Denise and Wilson). He says everyone agrees he's living the dream.

"They're not financial analysts, however," laughed Wilson.

Today, his winery is focused on Pinot Noir, he makes about 1,000 cases every year, souring the grapes from a number of appellations throughout the Valley. Wilson said that other than people from Oregon and California, Minnesotans are the most prevalent group of transplants in Oregon wine.

"I think Minnesotans tend to look west," he said.

All the Minnesota winemakers WCCO visited pointed to the culture of farming in our state as a factor in people being in Oregon. Making wine is romantic, but growing grapes is not.

"It's a pretty nice lifestyle," said Page Knudsen Cowles, "but it is farming and it is challenging."

"The culture in Oregon -- especially in Oregon's wine industry -- reminds me of Minnesota a lot," said Mark Bjornson.

He described a culture of collaboration, friendliness, and Minnesota nice you can taste in every glass.

"There's a lot of love and care that I think shows up in the wine and how we treat people when they come," said Knudson.

Minnesota/Oregon Wine Buying Guide


Domaine Serene

Specialty: Evenstad Reserve Pinot Noir
Minnesota Connections: Grace and Ken Evanstad built a pharmaceutical company, Upsher-Smith in the Twin Cities, effectively creating the luxury wine industry in Oregon.
Find wines: In stores [Order direct]

Knudsen Vineyards
Specialty: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay
Minnesota Connection: Page Knudsen Cowles, managing partner/co-owner, lives in Minneapolis.
Find wine: In stores [Order direct]

Björnson Vineyard
Specialty: Pinot Noir
Minnesota Connection: Owners Mark & Pattie Björnson met at the University of Minnesota.
Find wine: In stores [Order direct]

Denison Cellars
Specialty: Pinot Noir
Minnesota Connection: Owners Tim & Denise Wilson are from St. Paul.
Find wine: Order direct


Specialty: Sparkling Wine
Minnesota Connection: Winemaker Nate Klostermann is a University of Minnesota grad.
Find wine: In stores [Order direct]

Adelsheim Vineyards
Specialty: Pinot Noir
Minnesota Connection: Founders David and Michael Adelsheim grew up in Minneapolis. Assistant Winemaker Matt Perry grew up in Minnesota.
Find wine: In stores [Order direct]

Winebau Paetra
Specialty: Riesling & Pinot Noir
Minnesota Connection: Founder/winemaker Bill Cooper worked at Zipp's in Minneapolis (profiled in this WCCO story).
Find wine: In stores [Order direct]

Le Cadeau
Specialty: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay
Minnesota Connection: Tom and Deb Mortimer lived in Minnetonka. After a wine trip to Oregon they ended up buying a wooded property in 1997, cleared it, planted a vineyard and wound up in the wine business. Winemaker Steve Ryan went to the University of Minnesota.
Find wine: In stores [Order direct]

Raptor Ridge
Specialty: Single Vineyard Pinot
Minnesota Connection: Annie Shull, proprietor and COO, is a St. Anthony Park, Minnesota native.
Find wine: In stores [Order direct]

iOTA Cellars
Specialty: Pinot Noir
Minnesota Connection: Johanna and Don Sandberg (owners/winemakers) are from Tonka Bay.
Find wine: Order direct

Coeur de Terre Vineyard
Specialty: Organic Pinots and Chardonnay
Minnesota Connection: Owner/winemaker Scott Neal grew up on a farm in Southern Minnesota.
Find wine: Order direct

Witness Tree Vineyard
Specialty: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay
Minnesota Connection: Steven Westby was the winebuyer at Surdyk's in Minneapolis before moving to be the winemaker at Witness Tree and opening his own label Elemental Cellars.
Find wine: Order direct

Elemental Cellars
Specialty: Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay
Minnesota Connection: Co-owner Jill O'Donnell is from St Cloud, Minnesota. She and her husband Brian met while living in California, and moved to the Willamette Valley in 1992.
Find wine: Order direct

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