State Fair Sweepstakes award makes winemaking all the sweeter

Staff photo by Connor Cummiskey Local vintner Duane Laffrenzen won the sweepstakes for amateur wine making at the Minnesota State Fair this year.

NEW ULM — Local vintner Duane Laffrenzen won some might big bragging rights at the Minnesota State Fair, winning the 2017 Minnesota State Fair Amateur wine making sweepstakes.

The sweepstakes winner is the vintner who wins the most points for placing wines in the 22 categories. Laffrenzen earned six first-place ribbons and one ribbon in second through fifth places.

“This is my fourth year of doing this,” Laffrenzen said. “This year I entered 19 different wines out of the 22 categories. (…) This year out of the 19 that I entered I placed 10.”

This is the first year he has taken first place. Last year Laffrenzen was first runner up and while he enjoys the victory, competition is only a secondary reason for him to participate.

“The reason I do this is that for every entry you take up there you get at least one critique sheet and then, if you move on to a higher place, you will get four,” Laffrenzen said. “I do this to get good, independent assessments of my home-made wine.”

Staff photo by Connor Cummiskey While most parents turn their college-bound child’s room into a storage closet, Duane Laffrenzen turned his son’s room into a winery.

He likes the judges’ critiques because, for one, the judges are experienced winemakers. One judge told Laffrenzen a couple of years ago that they could taste that his rhubarb wine was fermented on the stalk.

On the stalk means that Laffrenzen had put chopped up rhubarb stalks in the fermentation mixture. Now he presses the rhubarb into a juice and uses that.

The second reason Laffrenzen likes the judges is because they are independent. If he gives a wine to a friend or acquaintance, they are more likely to say they liked it even if the wine is not good.

For about five years Laffrenzen has been regularly making wine. He had done it before then, but had stopped when his kids were growing up.

“I did it back many years ago when our kids were young, we made pop and stuff like that,” Laffrenzen said. “We made some beer, made some wine, kind of let it go as our family grew. Then back in 2012 I really resurrected my hobby.”

Staff photo by Connor Cummiskey The Valley Vintners each have their own label for wines, Laffrenzen’s is Hollywood Haus Wines. The bottle on the left is from a batch of what the vintners call “Garbage can wine” where they all bring ingredients to make one batch of wine.

He was reintroduced through some in-laws. His wife’s cousins Duane and Linette Tracy own Cat Tail Country winery in Iowa. It was under the Tracy’s tutelage that Laffrenzen started fermenting wine again.

“It is a great hobby for giving gifts,” Laffrenzen said. “Weddings, birthdays, anniversaries — we made a batch of wine for my wife’s, her parent’s 60th wedding anniversary. We made that and we gave that away to people who showed up to the anniversary.”

In 2014 Laffrenzen started the Valley Vintners, a club for amateur vintners. They meet usually once a month on the third Thursday of the month except in the summer, when meetings are organized as special events.

“The intent is to help people find a hobby that they can share with other people, they can enjoy it,” Laffrenzen said. “You can do this throughout your life and it is fun to go out and create stuff.”

Each vintner in the club also have their own labels. Laffrenzen calls his Hollywood Haus wines because he lives on Hollywood Avenue.

During meetings vintners will sample each others wines, share new techniques and ideas and get feedback on what they have done.

“This past year we have helped three different wedding couples make wine for their weddings as gifts or things like that,” Laffrenzen said.

Wine making is, on a basic level, just a few simple steps broken up by periods of waiting. Usually it starts with a kit or “raw product” — the fruit, vegetables or other produce that is fermented.

With a wine making kit, a vintner can simply follow the instructions. Generally the first step is to throw the material into a primary fermenter.

“After the fermentation process, which is the process of converting sugar to alcohol which takes about a week, you place it into a container called a carboy from anywhere from one to four months,” Laffrenzen said. “Then you bottle it and then depending on the product or the kit you consume it right away or it might have to wait and let it age.”

Generally, fruit and vegetable wines do not need to age too long and are often consumed soon after they are made.

Grape wines usually need longer aging periods. That is why most available for purchase in stores are a few years old.

“The time in the aging process just lets the flavors mellow, lets it soften, because there are different chemicals in the wine — acids and tannins that over time will change,” Laffrenzen said.

Acids and tannins, tannic acid, are derived from the source of sugar as it is fermented and influence the flavor of wine.

Another reason aging is necessary for wine is to provide clarity. The clarity comes by allowing yeast cells and sediment to settle out of the drink.

Laffrenzen pumps his wine through a filter so he does not have to wait for it to settle.

“It gets out the small, residual cells of yeast that is left over from the fermentation process,” Laffrenzen said. “You can let them settle out over time, it is just that it takes a lot more time.”

Becoming an amateur vintner is as easy as finding the nearest specialty brewing shop and buying a kit.

“If people want to get into this, contact one of the group and start by doing one or two kits because that will give you a confidence level and have some of the basic chemicals that are all pre-measured,” Laffrenzen said.

Laffrenzen can be contacted at (507) 354-1867.