Bringing Wine Country to Lake Country

A close-up conversation with Dennis Drummond Wine Co. about their process in bringing fine wines to Brainerd, Minnesota

WRITTEN BY EMILEE MAE STRUSS | PHOTOGRAPHED BY JEFF COLLINS

When you open a bottle of wine in Minnesota, do you ever think about where the grapes came from? Visitors to Drummond Wine Co. in southeast Brainerd are often perplexed to see acres of land and no vineyard. 

Co-owner, Jody Drummond, says that she used to dream of below zero days in Minnesota, so that she could get grapes from outside of Minnesota. The “51% rule” required her and her husband, Dennis Drummond, to purchase at least half of their fruit from Minnesota. Unless, of course, it was too cold to harvest half of their fruit from Minnesota.

“That’s if the weather is perfect,” Jody said. “Not too many perfect weather years in Minnesota. So then, we write a plea to the Ag. Department to get a variance on collecting grapes from elsewhere.” 

The 51% rule existed to protect Minnesota’s grape industry; however, the law comes with great restriction for the 90+ wineries in Minnesota looking to diversify their menu.

In September of 2020, a federal judge ruled the 51% rule unconstitutional. Wineries now have the ability to gather grapes and other fruits from states with a longer, healthier growing season. Grapes that do survive the harsh Minnesota winters are more acidic and therefore must be balanced with fruits from warmer climates.  

There’s a reason why the northern Bay Area in California is known as “Wine Country,” because they have the ideal Mediterranean climate for growing grapes plump with juicy flavor. Popular California reds include common grape varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The names, although both French in origin, reflect the type of grape grown. The name of the wine is the type of grape. Merlot wine, for example, comes from Merlot grapes.

Something about discussing wine comes with a “pinkies out” sort of feel. In meeting with the Drummonds several times, it’s clear that the wine making industry cares about the poise, per se, of the process. Details are important, such as using a specific type of oak barrel to age the wine or using real corks instead of synthetic, compressed, or twist tops. Jody says it’s all about the presentation of the wine. Sipping wine should be an experience.

How did Dennis and Jody Drummond learn such wine culture in Minnesota? It began in the early 90s, in no other place than wine-country California itself. The Drummonds started a family in California, but Jody’s Minnesota roots made her long to give her children a Christian upbringing like she had.

For twenty-five years, the Drummonds flew back to Minnesota in the summer for their kids to attend Trout Lake Camp in Pine River, Minnesota. The kids got to visit their grandparents and soon the couple tired of traveling back and forth—so they moved to Minnesota full-time in 2005, and planted the seed of one day owning their own winery. 

Dennis’ knowledge of wine began long before his schooling, on an apple orchard in 1980. He then attended Santa Rosa Junior College in California to study viticulture on a fifty-acre vineyard. This is where he met one of his greatest influencers, Richard Thomas, a well-known viticulture professor. 

Dennis entered Minnesota with a master’s degree in Enology, the study of wine. He now teaches an online Introduction to Enology, or wine chemistry, through Missouri State University. He also teaches classes on wine production and cellar operation through two intern classes, which are meant to be hands-on learning.

The Drummonds’ success is largely due to Dennis’ years of studying the science of winemaking. Dennis explained the scientific process, trying his best to simplify it to a general public understanding:  White wine is made purely from the juice from white grapes, which gets rid of the skins. Red wine uses red grapes and involves crushing and pressing to keep the richness in the skins and seeds. To remove the stems, the Drummonds have a de-stemmer machine with a hydraulic press. The entire process is quite automated, but one trip to a behind-the-scenes bottling event showed that the Drummonds still like to have a hand in the final bottling process.

Actually, many hands. The Drummonds have a group of seven to eight volunteers that visit for a full day of bottling wine, depending on which wine is ready to bottle. The red wine is aged in Minnesota oak barrels. Even when the Drummonds lived in California, they were using Minnesota oak barrels, which exudes flavor slower than American oak or Romanian oak and mixes the tannins from the oak into the wine. Tannins give the wine a more bitter or astringent flavor.

Making wine is a delicate science that Dennis has tested, re-tested, and continues to balance. With other 16,000 grape varietals to choose from, the refining process can be quite arduous. Even though the 51% rule was dropped, the Drummonds still place value in mixing grapes from local vineyards, such as Saint Croix Vineyards in Stillwater, Minnesota.

They also order their labels from Viking Label in Nisswa, Minnesota, and try to use local resources as much as possible. Jody suspects that the impact of COVID on the grape industry could be a positive one since there will be an abundance of grapes and prices will drop when wineries open up again.

Right now, the Drummonds offer seven wines: Rosé, House White, House Red, Two Chardonnays (one smooth and another dry barrel aged), Cabernet Sauvignon, and a Red Dessert Wine. The “Red Dessert Wine” is actually a Port Wine, but the name “Port” is owned by Portugal and therefore they had to name it something different. It’s not just science in wine making, but it’s laws, rules, and regulations as well. 

The Drummonds started Dennis Drummond Wine Co. in May of 2017. It took them a while to get a wine license originally because there was a rule they had to be on a farm. At the time, they didn’t have enough land, so the Drummonds had to purchase more land to buy the building they operate out of today on Thiesse Road in Brainerd.

As with any entrepreneurial pursuit, there are often many unforeseen roadblocks to the goal. After years of refinement, the Drummonds have settled on the wines they offer. 

To fully enjoy the experience the Drummonds have worked so hard to provide for Brainerd Lakes Area residents or visitors, Jody says to follow the Five S’s of Wine Tasting (with an informal 6th):

  1. Stem—Hold the wineglass by the stem so you don’t leave fingerprints.
  2. See—Looking for color and clarity of the wine. 
  3. Swirl—Swirl the wine slowly to open up the flavors, the “legs” dripping down the sides of the glass reveal higher alcohol content. 
  4. Smell—What does it smell like? What notes stand out?
  5. Sip—Take the first sip and let it slide under your tongue, shocking your saliva glands. When you’re critiquing the wine, you do this first. The next sip, you sip normally.
    The informal 6th “S” is Savor—Enjoy!

Five Wine Terms to Know:

  • Viticulture—the study of grape cultivation.
  • Tannins—the compounds in wines that leave a bitter, dry, and puckery feeling in the mouth.
  • Bouquet—a term that refers to complex aromas in aged wines.
  • Legs—the term used to describe the lines made on the inside of the glass after swirling the wine. The thicker the “legs,” the stronger the alcohol content. Legs give evidence of a full-bodied wine instead of a light or medium-bodied wine.
  • Fruit Forward—often dismissed as overly sweet, “fruit forward” simply means the wine has more fruity aromas, such as strawberry
    or blackberry.
  • Planning a visit? The Drummonds have a full lunch and dinner menu and are open daily from 11:00 am to 8:30 pm. Special events can be arranged and wine tours are available.