Not giving up on making vino in the valley
As the sun sets on the valley, lights turn on over diners and at the hands of guests at the bar, a fire heats the cooler night air, horses take off on a wagon ride, live music floats through the air; pizza, pasta, and of course, wine, makes its way to tables on the patio, and guests laugh and chat while gazing out at the vineyard and canopy of trees that surround them.
Enjoying the full experience, from the food and drinks to the valley view, is what it's all about at Vino in the Valley.
But one thing is missing — the wine.
Vino in the Valley, located at W3826 450th Ave near Maiden Rock, serves house wine made especially for the restaurant by Cannon River Winery in Cannon Falls, but when owner Larry Brenner opened 12 years ago, he had hoped to be serving guests wine made from the grapes grown just feet from their tables.
The valley had a different idea.
"We've had trouble," Brenner said.
A few of the wines over the years have been made from Vino grapes, but for the most part, the vineyard hasn't produced yet.
Typically it takes about three to four years for a vineyard to produce the grapes needed to make wine, Brenner said. In his fifth year, the possibility of wine was looking promising, but then came the water.
Rain flooded the valley, drowning the roots of the vineyard and bringing chemicals from other farms that are harmful to the vines.
Brenner has been candid about the difficulties he's faced with the vineyard, even detailing it in full in the recent monthly newsletter to guests.
"We're an open book," he said.
Brenner wants guests to feel like family, because to him, they are.
"We want them to know what we're doing down here," he said. "We want our guests to feel like they're part of the gang."
In the beginning
Starting out Brenner knew that raising the vineyard in a valley would be difficult, but he was willing to take on the challenge.
"I thought I could beat the odds," Brenner said. "And I'm still going to try."
Even with the setbacks he's faced so far, Brenner said he isn't giving up.
"It'll work," Brenner said. "We're not going to let it not work."
He's worked with specialists to do soil tests and determine what is lacking, and now he's ready to move forward again.
"We're going to really give it a nice attempt next spring out of the gate," Brenner said.
In the meantime, business isn't hurting. Brenner said thousands of people visit every year.
The restaurant is open Thursday through Sunday starting in May through October, and then on Saturday and Sunday afternoons in October. It opens again in December for a Christmas event that features a visit from Santa, sleigh rides, cookie decorating and cutting Christmas trees.
The goal of Vino in the Valley is to create a dining destination that draws people from the Great River Road as well as over the river in the Twin Cities, Brenner said.
"Its an experimental trip not to just go have a meal but enjoy the beauty and the valley and the friendships," Brenner said.
Throughout the years Brenner has added more to the appeal of the eatery, from basic landscaping to an outside bar.
He works with other local businesses like the Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery and Crystal Cave to bring visitors to the wider area.
The restaurant serves salads, plates, pasta and pizza from its pizza ovens.
The wine created by Cannon River Winery, including Lost Creek Sunset Blush, Rush River Red and Moonlight Whisper White, is from the same grapes growing at Vino in the Valley, so when the Valley comes through Brenner is ready to take over.
Until then Brenner will continue to enjoy sharing the valley with those who visit.
"The beautiful fall nights sitting by the fire, no humidity, just sitting and talking to people, hearing their stories," Brenner said. "It's fun."