Geography of wine

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Geography Professor Gareth John

Geography Professor Gareth John tours a winery with his students during a field trip which is part of the Geography of Wine class he teaches.

Geography Professor Gareth John Jon Millner, one of the owners of Millner Heritage Vineyard and Winery south of Kimball 


At first blush you might think that a college course titled The Geography of Wine was this generation’s Basket Weaving 101.

You would be wrong.

St. Cloud State University Geography Professor Gareth John has fashioned a compelling course on the topic after reading a book by the same name and asking himself, “How can I teach something like this?”

The course was introduced two years ago and taught again this past summer. John hopes to teach it again as early as summer 2012.

The class has drawn an interesting cross-section of students, including those passionate about wine and those who know very little but want to learn more. Others who take the course are more interested in the wine tourism business, which is becoming huge in Minnesota as well as other regions where grape growing has become fashionable. One of the students from the first class has gone on to the University of Minnesota to acquire his master’s degree in plant biology and become a grape breeder.

In 1993, John said, Minnesota had three wineries. Today, that number is more than 40 and grows every year. And the number of vineyards is even greater: More than 1,500 acres are planted with grapes.

“All levels of geography can be used in teaching this course,” John said. For instance physical geography plays a role as climate and soil are two large factors that determine where the best grape growing areas are located.

It is generally acknowledged that the best grape-growing region in Minnesota is the southeastern portion of the state in part because the soil along the Mississippi River Valley was never touched by glaciers. But there are exceptions. One is in the area just south of Kimball where the Millner Heritage Vineyard and Winery is located. Vineyards such as this with gravelly soils and sloping hills are preferable, John said.

John’s class tour of the Millner Heritage Vineyard and Winery was led by owner John Millner. He gave them an up-close look at the operation and the intricacies of growing grapes for making wine.

Politics even come into play in learning about wines. While Europeans may feel that the best wines come from their vineyards, but try telling that to the folks who operated vineyards in Napa Valley. And Californians hardly acknowledge Minnesota wineries, John said.

With wine being the fastest growing beverage in the United States, the class is also very timely. And the Minnesota Grape Growers Association is one of the fastest growing in the world.

Minnesota is starting to be competitive at grape growing with other regions in the world that have similar climates. There are now four different varieties of grapes being sold to growers. The University of Minnesota is considered one of the top wine grape programs in the U.S. with a goal to develop high quality, cold hardy and disease resistant grapes.

And with thousands of Baby Boomers retiring, John expects the number of vineyards and wineries in Minnesota to keep growing as more retirees with disposable incomes enter the business.

Another factor may also lead to Minnesota becoming more of a player in the wine industry — climate. “With climate change, 50 years from now, winters may not be as harsh,” John said.

Wine growers in Europe are already anticipating those changes, with many purchasing land in locales that they speculate will be ideal for grape growing.

“In the wine world, climate change isn’t something that will happen; it has happened,” John said.

One of the students who took the course from John this past summer was Tim Johnson, a mass communications major with a minor in geography.

“I took the class as a geography elective,” Johnson said. “Wine is a great tool to teach geographical concepts. We learned about the wine making process from spring blooms to bottling and everything in between.”

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