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Cold-hardy grapes create $401 million economic impact

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Media note: The Minnesota Grape Growers Association is holding its annual conference through Saturday at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in St. Paul. Martinson and Tuck are scheduled speakers and will be available for interviews, along with other leaders of the Northern Grape Project. 

Cold-hardy wine grapes developed by the University of Minnesota and private breeders since the late 1990s have generated a new and vibrant farm winery industry, pumping $401 million into the United States economy in 2011. 

An economic contribution study, released at the Minnesota Grape Growers Association's 10th Annual Cold-Climate Grape and Wine Conference in St. Paul this weekend, detailed the source of the $401 million of economic activity and the 12,600 jobs created by the industry. The study, part of the USDA-funded Northern Grapes Project, was conducted by University of Minnesota Extension researchers Bill Gartner and Brigid Tuck.

The key to this economic impact was the release of four new varieties—Frontenac, Frontenac Gris, La Crescent, and especially Marquette—all products of the University of Minnesota’s grape-breeding program.  Unlike more well-known wine grapes, these varieties can survive winter temperatures well below -20F.  This has allowed production to expand to areas where growing grapes was previously impractical due to winter injury problems.

New growers and wineries have expanded fast.  Since the first grape variety, Frontenac, was released in 1996, producers in 12 states have planted an estimated 5,400 acres of cold-hardy grapes, including 3,260 acres of the U of M varieties.  Eighty percent of the 199 wineries surveyed started their businesses after 2002.

"The development of cold-hardy grape varieties has completely changed the grape and wine industry in colder climates," said Gartner, an Extension educator in tourism. His colleague, Tuck, is an Extension economic impact analyst. "In Midwestern states, such as Minnesota, over 90 percent of the grapes grown are from cold-resistant varieties.  States like New York, with a long history and tradition of growing grapes in regions with temperate climates, can expand the industry into new regions with colder climates."

"I never dreamed that I’d be seeing any grapes produced in the Thousand Islands region of New York, where winter temperatures often drop into the -30s," said Tim Martinson, senior Extension viticulture specialist with Cornell University and a co-leader of the Northern Grapes Project.  "The cold-hardy Minnesota and Swenson hybrids made it possible to do so, and we now have a vibrant and growing winery industry both near Watertown and in the Lake Champlain region."

The cold-hardy grape industries generated 12,600 jobs. All of the economic activity is occurring in places where grapes previously were not grown. 

Other findings of the research include:

  • Locally sourced wineries created $215 million in economic activity in 2011, including 5,000 jobs, from cold-hardy grapes. 
  • Cold-hardy wineries drew tourists to their tasting rooms. In 2011, those winery visitors spent $140 million while visiting the wineries.  Their purchases created 1,700 jobs.

The Northern Grapes Project is funded by USDA’s Specialty Crops Research Initiative Program of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, project number 2011-51181-30850.  Participating project states include:  Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wisconsin.

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