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Napa Vintner All in for Cold Weather

Mike Drash finds a new home in Minnesota
Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Feb 25, 2014 11:50am ET

Mike Drash brought about his own climate change.

The 45-year-old vintner, who's been making wine in California, including Napa Valley, for two decades, has relocated with his family to Kasota, Minn., where he signed on as winemaker at Chankaska Creek Ranch and Winery, a growing 5,300-case operation; the nearest big city is Des Moines, Iowa, to the south.

When we talked this past Friday, the temperature in Kasota was 16° F below zero, Drash said. It is, he believes, the coldest winter on record.

Appropriately, Drash was attending a cold-climate winegrowing conference in his new home state, having for the first time pruned vines wearing snowshoes. Well-versed in Napa's Coombsville AVA, where he sources Cabernet for one of his labels, Drash has found a new perspective: "I'll never say Coombsville isn't warm enough to get Cabernet ripe."

Drash will keep his two Napa-based brands, Tallulah and Aratás, and continue to make Napa Valley wines, but more on a part-time basis, as he focuses on improving the wines at Chankaska Creek.

The impetus for the move was simple, said Drash. "My wife [Tracy] is originally from Wisconsin and lived in Minnesota for years. After 21 years in the Napa Valley we decided it was time for a change and wanted to be near family." 

Aside from adjusting to the cold weather, Drash had some very positive observations of his new digs. "The winery is as nice as anything you'd see in Napa," he said, and one wine in particular, Marquette, is exciting. Its parentage is Pinot Noir and Frontenac. "It's darker than Pinot Noir," he said, "and the grapes have higher acidity." It reminds him of Napa decades ago. The state has about 1,200 acres of vines and 40 wineries. Chankaska also buys grapes from California and Washington; Cabernet and Merlot from the latter, and Zinfandel and Riesling from Lodi.

"I feel a bit like I landed from Mars," he laughed. Aside from the snow and sub-zero winter temperatures, however, the annual degree-days—a measure of average heat accumulation used in viticulture—at Chankaska are about the same as Napa's, Drash said. The northern proximity provides more daylight, and snow acts as insulation for the vines.

Drash began his career as a cellar hand at De Loach before bouncing around to several wineries, including Kendall Jackson, J Wine Co. and Far Niente, before becoming winemaker at Luna Vineyards in Napa Valley. In 2009, the Drashes purchased the Tallulah label, which has the same name as their daughter, who was 3 at the time.

Drash has bought into the upper Midwest's trademark friendly charm, too. "If you find yourself in Minneapolis, give me a ring!"

Jeff Ames
Napa, Ca —  February 25, 2014 2:05pm ET
Mike will do great things there but we hate to lose him here in napa
Karl Mark
Illinois —  February 25, 2014 7:33pm ET
I look forward to trying his wines. Marquette is a wonderful and rather new grape variety here in the Midwest. Well ripened Marquette can taste like Grenache, and I have tasted wines close to 16% alcohol that were extremely good. In addition to it's ability to make a wide variety of wines Marquette is also very disease resistant. Making wine from Cabernet is a beaten path, but learning how to take advantage of all the newer grape varieties that grow well in the Midwest and make wine with those will be a great opportunity and pioneering task.
Michael Sledge
Kasota, MN, USA —  February 25, 2014 11:01pm ET
Thanks for the mention. With a blizzard warning for tomorrow and lows near -21F, this will be a true test of the cold climate vines! Cheers, Drash.
Rebecca Miller
Napa, CA USA —  February 26, 2014 11:00am ET
Last summer I visited Chankaska Creek and was duly impressed. A good friend from Mankato (a wine club member) proudly took us out there to see it and taste and have lunch on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. Most of the wines were lovely and really interesting. We used to live in St. Peter, MN many years ago, and the winery has added a new dimension to the area. Love it! I just wish you treated trade with the same benefits as we get in Napa!
Jim Mcmahon
Napa, CA,USA —  February 26, 2014 6:42pm ET
We already miss you Mike! They are lucky to have you!

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