News

Every fruit wants to become wine

Jane Howard


Mike and Ann Tessneer are excited about the wines they are creating from fruit grown on and near their farm in Harris, Minnesota. They began making wine over a decade ago when they had so much fruit growing on their property they didn’t know what to do with it all. Now they have started a winery, Stark Wines, and in keeping with their passion for using products off the land, they built a timber frame structure at North House Folk School in Grand Marais last summer to house it in. 
Photo courtesy of Stark Wines Mike and Ann Tessneer are excited about the wines they are creating from fruit grown on and near their farm in Harris, Minnesota. They began making wine over a decade ago when they had so much fruit growing on their property they didn’t know what to do with it all. Now they have started a winery, Stark Wines, and in keeping with their passion for using products off the land, they built a timber frame structure at North House Folk School in Grand Marais last summer to house it in. Photo courtesy of Stark Wines “Unmistakable citrus notes and a hint of rose accentuate this mouth-watering wine.” That’s the description of the Stark Wines Riesling on the shelf of the Grand Marais Municipal Liquor Store.

Stark Wines Blueberry Wine sounds good for both body and soul: “Full of antioxidants, this medium-bodied wine has a beautiful hue and warm finish.”

How could one choose between these and the Stark Wines Rhubarb Wine: “The surprisingly generous rhubarb flavor and tangy aroma make this a great wine to serve on its own”? That flavor won medals in the 2010 International Wine Maker Competition and the 2011 International Finger Lakes Competition.


Stark Wines are now being sold at the Grand Marais Municipal Liquor Store. Their grape wine bears a label with artwork created by local artist Betsy Bowen. 
Staff photo/Jane Howard Stark Wines are now being sold at the Grand Marais Municipal Liquor Store. Their grape wine bears a label with artwork created by local artist Betsy Bowen. Staff photo/Jane Howard These wines are products of a new winery that uses fruits harvested from the earth around Mike and Ann Tessneer’s homestead near Stark, Minnesota, just four miles off the I-35 freeway between Rush City and North Branch. But they have a connection to Cook County as well.

The new business is prospering in a timber frame building started at North House Folk School in Grand Marais last spring and finished on-site last summer with the help of a lot of friends and family members.

Mike and Ann have been fans of Cook County for a long time. Mike has been a volunteer at North House, and after building a timber frame sauna, he talked to North House staffer Peter Henrikson about designing a cabin. The winery business took off, however, and Mike and Ann started working with Peter on plans for a winery building instead.

About 33 volunteers came up to Grand Marais, working for three days at a time over the course of a couple of weeks. The project became quite popular, with a circle of helpers that kept growing. Mike and Ann had help from their five grown children, their children’s significant others, their friends, and finally others who simply heard about the project and wanted to be able to build a timber frame structure at North House. “It was quite a big ordeal,” said Mike.

The structure was built with 208 timbers by people who in many cases didn’t know anything about timber frame construction when they started. “Most of the volunteers we had had no power tool experience at all,” said Ann. They were intimidated at first, but by the end of their second day, they were “really confident” and working with pretty complex tools, she said. “It was really fun to see this.”

“Peter is a wonderful teacher,” Mike said.

The couple decided on a timber frame structure early on. “It kind of matches the kind of values we’re wanting to communicate to people,” Mike said. The whole business centers on celebrating the seasons, harvesting products off the land, and making things by hand. “We’re really doing this to make a quality product with our hands,” he said, adding that if you’ve ever been inside a timber frame building, you can see the quality.

The building was raised on the property— with oversight from Peter Henrikson who came down for the event—by “well over” 50 volunteers over the course of five days. “It was the three hottest days in July when the majority of them were there,” said

Mike. “The raising of the timber frame is really kind of a sacred act.”

General contractor Mark Kissner of

Kissner Construction and his wife Judith even came up to Grand Marais to help cut timbers. He organized the preparation of the land and the foundation work. Over the winter, Mike and Ann have been finishing off the inside themselves and have electricity and plumbing in place.

Bringing in friends and family to build the winery was a way to bring a sense of community to the business. “We’re trying to create a good product and create a community around the whole process,” said Mike.

Their helpers came from southern Minnesota, the Twin Cities, St. Cloud, and Duluth. “People really are connected with the business, but also with one another,” Mike said. They are already hosting community group meetings at the winery and offer winemaking classes through Community Education.

Mike and Ann have seen the business growing surprisingly fast. “This was really a hobby gone wild,” said Mike. Both of them have full-time jobs – Ann is an attorney with a law firm in Cambridge, and Mike works for the Minnesota Department of Human Services in St. Paul. “We would not be able to do this without our kids and their spouses and their significant others,” said Ann.

On their nine acres of land, the Tessneers have blueberries, raspberries, red currants, chokecherries, elderberries, arona berries (cousin to the blueberry), and 700 coldhearty grape plants propagated to withstand temperatures down to 40 degrees below zero. This last year they crushed 3,000 pounds of grapes grown in the area, some purchased from other local growers. “The goal is to make a lot of fruit wines,” Ann said.

Stark Wines grape wine is labeled with a Betsy Bowen image of a sandhill crane. Bowen, a well-known artist and illustrator with numerous books in publication, is a long-time resident of Cook County. The Tessneers come to Cook County several times a year. “We just love Grand Marais,” said Mike. They have found that blueberries from the Gunflint Trail make delicious wine.

In 2011, Mike and Ann made 400 cases of wine (a dozen bottles per case), and they’d like to double that in 2012. In five years, they hope to be making 2,500 cases a year.

“We’ve been making wine for about 12 years now,” said Mike. They had been making about five cases a year for themselves, initially in order to make use of an overabundance of crab apples. “There’s only so much crab apple jelly you can eat,” Mike said.

The first year they were in business, 2010, Mike and Ann made 70 cases, and they sold it all. Keeping up with the demand has been a challenge. “If you’re going to have a winery,” Mike said, “one of the rules is that you have to have wine!”

What makes Stark Wines unique? “I think our distinction is really going to be our winery,” Ann said. Visitors to their farm will be able to stroll through the property, sit down outside to rest and enjoy the scenery, and sip wine in the Vinsted, as the new building is called. It means “wine room” in Norwegian. Scandinavian appetizers and desserts will also be available.

Over the winter, Mike and Ann are pruning their vines and making more wine from blueberries they froze last summer.

Mike has a philosophy about fruit that underpins their business: “All fruit wants to become wine.”

Stark Wines as well as winemaking kits complete with juice can be purchased through Mike and Ann Tessneer’s website, www.starkwines.com.

Currently available for shipping within Minnesota are raspberry, rhubarb, strawberry, apple, blueberry, black currant, chardonnay, and Riesling wines.

Stark Wines is located at 43150 Blackhawk Road in Harris, Minnesota, four miles off I-35 between Rush City and North Branch.

Owners Mike and Ann Tessneer can be reached via email at wines@starkwines.com or by phone at (651)674-7548.


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