Midwestern wines are not foxy.
They used to be foxy — a term wine snobs use to describe a bottle that tastes like cotton candy, Concord grape juice with alcohol, or a grape Jolly Rancher.
But by the 1980s, Midwestern winemakers had had enough of this “foxy” moniker and were tired of Napa Valley competitors rolling their eyes at Midwest bottles. Since then, the flyover region has been working tirelessly to produce better wines, bolster a more lucrative wine industry, and garner widespread recognition for the area’s grapes.
And there’s still plenty of work to be done. While wine culture — marked by the presence of local wineries and vineyards, expert sommeliers, and consumer appreciation — has grown in the Midwest, Midwest winemakers are still struggling to bring the region up to par with the West Coast’s vibrant wine scene.
“We always had grape cultivars that we could grow for wine, but some of the market didn’t prefer those flavor profiles,” says Randall Vos, a professor of horticulture at Des Moines Area Community College.
The University of Minnesota’s breeding program, which launched in the mid-’80s, changed that. It focused on creating cold-hardy, disease-resistant, and high-quality grapes that could survive Midwestern winters — and please consumers’ palates. The program hasn’t stopped evolving. “Now, there are a couple of varieties that can be grown throughout the state,” Vos says, noting a few of the U of M’s medal-winning wines, like La Crescent and Marquette. “Those cultivars really kind of unlocked the Midwest’s potential.”
These high-quality, flavorful wines produced across the Midwest cultivated a boom in wine production. In 2011, climate-resistant grapes brought $401 million and more than 12,000 jobs into the United States economy, in the Midwest and other regions.
But despite the growth in production, the Midwest still lags behind California wine country in terms of culture. Winemakers in the Heartland still have more hoops to jump through before they’ll feel on the same level as producers in more established regions. And those hoops aren’t easily jumped.
Historically, the Midwest hasn’t been a hub for wine enthusiasts, partially because there’s just not as much wine here. There are more than three times as many wineries in California than there are in the Midwestern states combined — which means there are fewer places for vinos to put their expertise and passion to work. “There’s only so many opportunities for Master Sommeliers in the Midwest to be compensated at a level that is fair,” says Matt Citriglia, a certified Master on the Court of Master Sommeliers. In fact, he knows of a few who would love to move to the Midwest — if they could find an appropriate job.
Studying to become a Master often involves mentorship from a current Master. And because fewer than 15 of the 140 Master Sommeliers in North America live in the Midwest, Midwest-based aspiring somms have to travel for proper training. That’s the case for Leslee Miller, a certified sommelier living in Minneapolis, who’s put off preparing for the exam because her wine consulting business keeps her so busy. But creating an environment that advances these experts is important: They’re the ones who foster a robust wine culture by working in fine dining and educating consumers. And so even if a Midwestern city’s wine culture improves in terms of vineyards — like those in Ohio, Citriglia says — without these key experts, it’s hard to play catch up with cities like San Francisco.
But it’s not just the size of the cities; the consumers are partly to blame. Midwesterners consume less wine than other Americans: On the list of states that consume the most wine , only three Midwestern states sit on the top half. Instead, Midwesterners tend to spend their time drinking beer.
This doesn’t mean the Midwest is out of the wine game yet, though. State wine associations and other wine-friendly groups are actively trying to increase awareness of what the Heartland has to offer. In the last decade, more competitions solely for cold-climate grapes have popped up, like the Cold Weather Wine Competition in Minnesota and the Mid-American Wine Competition in Iowa (which Vos coordinates). “Our goal is to promote the wine and the grape cultivars of our regions,” Vos says. “The whole point is to increase recognition.”
While promotion helps get Midwest wines into the limelight, scientific advancement will be key, too. Murli Dharmadhikari, the director of Iowa State University’s Midwest Grape and Wine Industry Institute, is confident that continually improving hybrid grapes will help the Midwest gain more recognition as a wine force to be reckoned with. “As the quality of wine improves, the consumption of wine will increase,” he says. “After that, more gourmet restaurants will open, wine tourism will increase, and this will make [Midwestern] wineries a destination to visit.”
Sommeliers, scientists, and grape growers are vital. But at the heart of it all, wine is about its drinkers. “Consumers are getting a lot smarter,” Miller says. “They’re very savvy these days about wine, and they want to know more and more. They’ll taste pretty much anything and everything they can get their hands on.”
And what Midwesterners get their hands on won’t taste foxy.
Wine culture is one thing. But wine cultured?
The UP staff certainly isn’t that.