Whether people like it or not, the Midwest is a cold place. And whether they are aware of it or not, Midwestern winemakers using cold-climate hybrid grapes to make their wine owe a huge debt to a Wisconsin farmer who was a pioneering grape-breeder.
The Early 1900s Social Landscape
Elmer Swenson was born on his family farm near Osceola, Wisconsin on December 12, 1913. Five year’s before Elmer’s birth, the University of Minnesota had launched a grape-breeding program. Their goal was to produce grapevines that could withstand the Midwest’s cold winters.
Unfortunately, two years later (and three years before Elmer’s birth), Wisconsin’s Anti-Saloon League forced out of office one-third of the state’s legislature who had voted against a temperance measure. Soon 800 of the 1,454 communities in the state were “dry.” Similar “dry” measures were passed in Minnesota and other states throughout the country, eventually leading to passage of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Prohibition. Elmer was six years old when the entire country went “dry.”
The Congressman who was instrumental in crafting the Eighteenth Amendment and whose name became intertwined with it was Andrew Volstead, a Minnesotan child immigrant of Norwegian farmers. Interestingly, Minnesota voters were not at all pleased by Volstead’s actions and soon voted the teetotaler out of office.
Shortly thereafter, an Italian immigrant, Cesare Mondavi, left Minnesota for Lodi, California with the intention of providing grapes for amateur Midwestern winemakers who had no intention of staying “dry” during these times. Mondavi founded C. Mondavi and Sons and shipped many tons of fresh grapes back to the Midwest, and later his sons helped establish California as a winemaking Mecca.
Elmer’s Younger Years
As Elmer moved through childhood, he helped his grandfather in their small family vineyard where they picked grapes for juice and jelly. During that time, Elmer discovered that his grandmother had a copy of the classic text The Foundations of American Grape Culture by T. V. Munson and he read it voraciously. An amateur scientist was born.
During the 1930s, as a young newlywed farming a 120-acre parcel inherited from his grandparents, Elmer began dabbling in grape breeding. He started by crossing his grandfather’s grapes and 15 French hybrid cuttings he had ordered with wild Vitis riparia or “riverbank” grapes native to U.S. regions east of the Rocky Mountains. In the early 1940s, Elmer started writing to University of Minnesota researchers about his experiments. A couple of years later, he attended a University “open house” where he first observed the many experimental varieties in their grape-breeding program. Elmer returned to his Osceola farm with five cultivar cuttings, including the as-yet unnamed “Minnesota 78” that would form the basis for his later releases.
Years of Productivity
For the next ten years Elmer worked alongside the faculty as a true colleague, helping the university develop their apple and grape programs. The University had no funds to support Elmer’s grape-breeding efforts, but this did not dissuade Elmer and others from testing and further breeding the grape cultivars at the University’s Horticultural Research Station in Excelsior. Although Elmer did a great deal of work there, the bulk of his breeding program remained at his own farm.
Truth be told, Elmer’s interest in grapes was primarily focused on breeding table grapes (he wasn’t much of a wine drinker), and thus, he spent most of his time working with Vitis labrusca varieties. Many winemakers describe this grape variety as having a disagreeable “foxy” taste when made into wine. But, in 1977 the University released the “Swenson Red” hybrid and then the “Edelweiss” hybrid.
After retiring from his university job in 1979 and receiving a grant to continue his grape breeding efforts, Elmer formed a corporation with another breeder and a teacher to develop and market grape varieties. Over the next ten years they patented five of Swenson’s hybrids, including the St. Croix, St. Pepin, LaCrosse, Espirit and Kay Gray varieties. Other cultivars Elmer co-released with the University of Minnesota included Kandiyohi, Sabrevois, Norway Red, Alpenglow, Petit Jewel, Prairie Star, Louise Swenson, Lorelei, Trollhaugen, Swenson White, Summersweet, Brianna, Delisle, Montreal Blue, Aldemina, Somerset Seedless, and Laura’s Laughter.
Other more recent University releases—such as La Crescent, which combines Swenson’s St. Pepin with the vitis vinifera Muscat Hamburg—were developed by Peter Hemstad and Jim Luby at the Minnesota Horticultural Research Center, but were based on Elmer’s earlier work.
La Crescent is often favorably compared to the European vitis vinifera Riesling, which many consider the finest white wine grape.Today, many of these grape varieties are not only grown in the United States and Canada, but in countries throughout Europe and even in China.
When once asked if he had a favorite among the grape varieties that he had developed, Elmer shook his head and stated,
“They’re all my kids. They all have their faults and their good points; there’s no such thing as a perfect grape.”
While a true pioneer, Elmer would be the first to acknowledge that there were others who came before him that greatly informed his own work. In 1843 Ephraim Bull planted seeds from local labrusca vines, which led to the development of the cold-hardy Concord grape. Then Louis Suelter built upon Bull’s Concord work, and in the late 1800s developed additional cold-hardy hybrids, most notably his Beta grape. The University of Minnesota used the Beta grape to develop their Minnesota 78, which formed the foundation for Elmer’s later innovations.
Elmer’s Lasting Legacy
On Christmas Eve of 2004 Elmer departed this life at the ripe old age of 91. It can be safely stated that his life’s work was truly a gift to the Midwest and to the world at large. Therefore, perhaps it is fitting that this man left us on the day before Christmas, for it is on this day that many of us anticipate receiving wonderful gifts.
Given that Elmer continued to make crosses and plant out seedlings until 2000, it is most certain that in the coming years we will receive wonderful gifts of new Swenson hybrids that long ago germinated from his home vineyard. The continuing research being conducted today at the University of Minnesota and the University of Wisconsin, as well as the work of many private growers and breeders in the region, are substantially based on Elmer Swenson’s lifelong efforts.
The ingenuity and perseverance of this man represents what I believe is the optimistic spirit of Midwest winemakers. In our cold climate, those of us who grow grapes and make wine must have an optimistic outlook because we engage in our activities within the context of our fruit regularly and literally receiving a frosty reception from our climate. It is this resilience and sharing spirit of the community of winemakers, growers, drinkers and everything in between that fills me with such high hopes for our region’s wine growth in the coming years.
I will continue to periodically create posts that focus on “biographies” of local, national or international winemakers or those important to the winemaking community. Check back in for these interesting tales!