American Hybrid Story: Cannon River Thrives on Experimentation

Cannon River Winery is not in California or Washington and Sam Jennings isn’t afraid to tout that the wine he makes is from Minnesota. He’s also not scared to think outside the box and knows what works out West — where he used to work — doesn’t always translate to the Midwest when it comes to taste, marketing and branding.

“These wines are unique and they’re good quality on their own,” said the Cannon Falls, Minnesota winemaker, and production manager. “There was a pretty bad stigma about Minnesota wine for years. In the beginning years of Minnesota wine, there were a couple guys that were doing some good stuff, but some were pretty terrible.

“Someone would buy one bad bottle of Minnesota wine and then all Minnesota wine sucks to them. We’re trying to shake that stigma. There are still a couple curmudgeons in there, but you know getting Robert Parker rated, that’s a step in the right direction.”

The winery picked up scores of 87 on its 2015 Family Reserve Red and 2015 Family Reserve White.

“That’s good in California. That’s great for the Midwest,” Jennings said, who has been the winemaker at the winery since 2014. “People can take us a little bit more seriously.”

In talking with the judge that scored the wines, Jennings said it shaped a lot of what the winery does now and it solidified his thoughts on natural winemaking and shying away from manipulating brands.

“The only reason we didn’t get 90s was the age-ability. That’s where we stopped MLing things so we can age longer. I’ve tweaked the wines, taking what he said. You should be able to put this in your cellar for 10 years and then go back to it. We’ve started listening to what some of the experts are saying about American hybrids, we’re all learning together.”

Pioneering is a key to Jennings and not sticking to a standard. Working with a variety of grapes like Marquette, La Crescent, St. Pepin, Edelweiss, St. Croix, and Sabrevois, Cannon River is forging ahead to create lines like Gunflint and Feisty Bitch that have connected with consumers and boosted the reputation of the region’s fruit.

“A lot of the grapes we grow haven’t been around that long, like Marquette, La Crescent … they were released in 2005. So the grapes are very new. We’re all figuring it out together in the Midwest with the American hybrids.”

Jennings does a lot of natural winemaking.

“I don’t deacidify. I don’t mess with stuff,” he said. “Our wine changes year to year as I really think they should. Our crop yields and stuff like that change year to year. Some years we’ll have a lot of La Crescent and then some years we won’t. It’s important for us to have the local aspect and be as true-to-local as we can, showing these wines for what they are.

“A La Crescent should be La Crescent rather than trying to make it into a Riesling or a Marquette into a Cab. I show with my wines, what the fruit can be, and should be, naturally.”

It’s especially true on the reds, as Jennings won’t do a lot of heavy oaking.

“It’s a lot of neutral oak,” he said. “The American hybrid grapes lend themselves a lot more fruit-forward flavors … a lot fruitier. I really work with that rather than try and just throw oak at stuff because that’s how California makes Cab. I try to treat Marquette for what a Marquette is.”

In his first few years at Cannon River, Jennings said he would throw yeast at the must and see what it tastes like.

“From there we started slowly tweaking the winemaking to help the grapes really show their true colors rather than oaking or MLing,” he said. “It’s just kind of old school. Just as natural as we can with a lot of stuff, a lot of old-school winemaking tricks that I picked up from older guys over the years.”

Jennings was previously an apprentice under Michael Black in Washington, who he eventually employed at the winery a few years back to boost the years of experience in the production.

“We’re not too sophisticated with lab equipment and chemistry winemaking,” Jennings said. “We go by taste and smell on a lot of things rather than what the numbers say. People have been making wine for thousands of years.”​ 

In the early 2000s, original owners John and Maureen Maloney searched for the perfect spot in Minnesota to start a vineyard. Once discovered, the couple founded Cannon River Winery in nearby Cannon Falls. They opened the tasting room and production house downtown in 2004, taking over a former car dealership in a rustic building alongside​ ​Minneiska Park​ on the Little Cannon River, a tributary of the Mississippi River.

“John had a degree in agriculture and he went around just trying to find just the very best place to grow grapes,” Jennings said. “Then he found the spot to make the wine.

“A lot of the growers out here, it’s, ‘I have dirt. I’m going to start a vineyard.’ rather than, ‘I want to start a vineyard, where can I find land to do that?’ “

In 2016, the Maloneys sold the winery to new owner Ron Stowell, who handed the reins over to the staff already in place.

​“Ron’s new to the industry and he came into it fresh without preconceived notions or ideas,” Jennings said. “He’s a successful business guy. So he’s open to trying new things. And if something isn’t working, then why are we doing it, he would ask. Let’s try something different. So it’s kind of refreshing.

“I’ve worked for a lot of people that were born and raised in the industry or been in the industry forever. It’s fun for me because as long as it tastes good, do whatever you want.”

That is when Jennings said the winery’s ability to grow took off.​ Brands were refreshed and new brands created.​

​“The wine didn’t​ change, because it was good wine before​,” Jennings said. ​“As soon as we put a fresh set of eyes​ on it, it started gaining ground.”

Distribution of the winery — which averages around 9,000 cases per year — has expanded beyond Minnesota with a new focus on Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Far enough away to be new and fresh, but still close enough to connect with a similar wine culture.

“​We’re expanding slowly but surely. You’ve got to sell before you build it,” Jennings said. “That’s the biggest thing. We have seen growth every year. We do our annual projections and we’ve been selling out before we were projected to sell so sales are pretty decent.”

Jennings believes a winery of Cannon River’s size needs to thrive as a self-distributed company.

“Self-distribution is great because you control your own destiny,” he said. “For small local farm wineries like us, you get pushed to the back of the catalog by wholesalers. They’re not pushing your product or your brand. Self-distribution is key.

“We can keep our costs down. We make a decent wholesale price on it and the stores, they can make a good markup on it. So it’s kind of a win-win.”

With more than 400 accounts in Minnesota and 300 more in Wisconsin, it keeps Jennings busy in 

the offseason as he makes sure to find as many touchpoints in the state to make connections, through wine pairings and dinners, 

tastings with wine buyers and being a face for the company even into Wisconsin.

Because of the global pandemic of COVID-19, the winery has been short-staffed so Jennings is splitting deliveries with the winery’s general manager this spring to help keep sales afloat.

“We talked about going with a distributor here in Minnesota,” Jennings said about the winery’s growth. “But you lose control over it. I spent a lot of time in the market and it really helps to put a face to your brand and to your wine to have them meet the winemaker and meet the salesperson, and encourage their staff to come down to the winery and hang out, do tours and stuff like that with some of our bigger accounts.”

​The winery purchased its own bottling line three years ago and now does some side work in bottling wine for smaller wineries in the area along with a customer in Wisconsin.​

“We were spending a lot of money on mobile bottling,” Jennings said. “That was the alternative and we don’t have the space to bring a trailer inside, so we were doing it out in our parking lot. And it’s Minnesota, so you get rain and wind or snow in late April.”

Due to height limits inside, the winery utilizes more 1,200 gallon fermenters with some 750s and 550s along with two 3,000 gallon tanks in the back. Jennings was hesitant at first when he joined the winery but now sees it as an advantage.

“At first I was like, ‘this is gonna be kind of goofy,’ but you get to experiment and try different yeasts. You have three juices in three different tanks so you can do three different yeast varieties and when you blend them you have a lot more complexity to it rather than doing one batch of 3,000 gallons.

“So I enjoy having the smaller tanks instead of just giant ones. Because you’re able to do a lot more fun stuff.”

The winery houses one seven-ton press and Jennings pointed out again they are not overly sophisticated.

“We don’t do crossflow filtration or anything like that. We just do old-school winemaking,” he said. “I see a lot of smaller wineries that have this monster equipment and crossflow filtration systems.

“When I did my apprenticeship, we were doing close to half a million gallons on site. And we were still pad filtering, we didn’t have a crossflow. I’m seeing a trend where a lot of people are getting really sophisticated, fancy equipment for really small operations. That’s a lot of money to spend. You need to have some deep pockets to spend $100,000 on a crossflow filter that should be sitting in a million-gallon facility. My plate frame filter is like 30 pads. It’s not even like a double stack with 60 pads. If you know how to use them, and have been around them … they work fine.”

Jennings added that a lot of people may see winemaking on paper and in their heads. It’s taste and feel for Cannon River because every year can be different, especially in the Midwest.

“You’ll have some years where the acids will be sky-high. Some years, the acids we find manageable,” he said. 

“We just kind of roll with the punches and don’t stress too much about chemistry and stuff, and we make pretty decent wines.”

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