Post Town Winery
Rochester, Minnesota
Vintage of a lifetime
Auri Ag Innovation News April 2000 (Vol. 9, No. 2)
By Cindy Green - Photos by Rolf Hagberg

At age 86, farmer and self-taught viticulturist Elmer Swenson is still breeding tasty, cold-hardy grapes

Elmer Swenson

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."

Elmer SwensonMunson 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.

Elmer Swenson at his tablePlotting grapes

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 in there."

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."

Elmer Swenson outdoorsA 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."