At age 86, farmer and self-taught viticulturist Elmer Swenson
is still breeding tasty, cold-hardy grapes
Elmer Swenson's passion for viticulture has
spanned most of a century. As a five-year-old in 1919, he
picked up his grandfather's book on hybridizing wild American
grapes, and it piqued a lifelong interest.
Though he hasn't gained much in fame or fortune,
this self-taught grape breeder has created some of the Upper
Midwest's finest grapes. Such varieties as Swenson Red,
Edelweiss and St. Croix not only stand up to brutal Upper
Midwest temperatures, but also to wine connoisseurs.
Health claims about grapes are easy to believe
when Swenson says he eats grapes every day in season. At
86, his wife deceased, he lives alone in the original farmhouse
built by his grandfather. Vigor and humor show through every
time-carved line on his face.
"He was the real pioneer who started it all
almost 50 years ago" says Jim Luby, University of Minnesota
fruit breeder. Swenson's hybrids will be among those tested
at a new research winery at the University of Minnesota.
The early breeder
Swenson's wooded 120-acre farm near Osceola,
Wisc. was homesteaded by his maternal grandfather, a fruit
hobbyist. "I remember being with my grandfather as a toddler
when he walked through his little area of grapes in a two-acre
orchard of apples, plums and cherries", Swenson says.
With the help of a teacher who boarded on
their farm, Swenson started reading "Foundation of American
Grape Culture" by T. V. Munson, a national authority on
grape breeding who died the year Swenson was born. "I studied
that book, which gives detailed description of all the species
native to this country."
Munson is credited for helping save the French wine industry, Swenson
says. Grape cultivars that European immigrants brought to
America died within five years, even though wild grapes
were abundant. Curious about the hardiness of American grapes,
some travelers brought rootstock back to France. Soon after,
French vines started dying, as they had in the New World.
The problem was traced to phylloxera, carried
from the New World where wild grapes had built natural resistance
to aphids that invade vine roots. Munson sent rootstock
to the French, who grafted their vines onto American roots.
Though the practice saved entire vineyards, it was controversial,
Swenson says. Many French viticulturists thought American
stock would ruin their prized grapes. "I don't like to be
critical," Swenson says politely, "but the French are rather
contrary." So the French started breeding their own varietals.
Swenson was fascinated with the French hybrids,
crosses between ancient Vitis vinifera grapes, which
produce superb wines, and hardy American species. After
taking over his grandfather's farm, marrying and starting
a family, he ordered 15 French hybrid cuttings and started
his own vineyard laboratory in 1943, crossing flavorful
varietals with riparian grapes native to U.S. regions east
of the Rocky Mountains.
He started writing to University researchers
about his experiments. While most professors from the Midwest
told Swenson not to bother, Richard Wellington, head of
fruit research at Cornell's ag experiment station in Geneva,
New York, said Swenson was onto something and even sent
him pollen. In the years to follow, word of Swenson's work
got out to viticulturists around the country, who asked
Swenson for cuttings.
In 1969, the University of Minnesota Horticultural
Research Center asked Swenson to take a job as senior plot
manager. "It was a vacation for me; I got the job and sold
the cows," says Swenson, who commuted three hours daily
before renting a house on the research farm.
Hired primarily to prune and care for apples,
blueberries and raspberries, he was on his own when it came
to grapes. "They didn't say no and they had room, so I muscled
Swenson's first two hybrids were released
by the U of M: Edelweiss, named by a grape hobbyist in New
Hampshire, and Swenson Red, which the grape's namesake claims
is "as good as a California (table grape) in taste and texture.
I hit the jackpot there."
A lifetime's legacy
While he had a small plot at the University,
Swenson did most of his research at his Wisconsin farm and
accelerated his hybridization work with a corporate foundation
grant after retiring in 1979. In the mid '80s, Swenson,
another breeder and a teacher formed a corporation to develop
and market grape varieties.
"Ten years later the royalties didn't generate
enough to get the research done," so the corporation dissolved,
says co-founder Robin Partch, who bred grapes in Redwood
Falls, Minn. at the time. Still, they patented five of Swenson's
hybrids, including the St. Croix, St. Pepin, LaCrosse, Espirit
and Kay Gray. Partch now uses several Swenson varieties
as winemaker at Northern Vineyards in Stillwater, Minn.
One of only a couple cooperative wineries
in the United States, Northern Vineyards' offerings include
St. Croix, Prairie Smoke, made from LaCrosse grapes, and
Oktoberfest from Edelweiss grapes. "We make quite nice wines
out of Elmer's collection," Partch says.
Does he have a favorite among all the grapes
he has developed? Swenson shakes his head. "They're all
my kids. They all have their faults and their good points;
there's no such thing as a perfect grape" Swenson's offspring
grow not only in the Midwest, but as far away as New York,
Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Estonia and Poland. He recently
learned that cuttings he originally gave to an Oregon breeder
ended up under propagation in Colorado vineyards, sold publicly
under the name Swenson White.
"The hybrids he's grown over the years he'll
share with anybody," says John Marshall, secretary of the
Minnesota Grape Growers Association.
"He is a treasure for us all."
AURI AG INNOVATION NEWS