Minnesota winemakers fight to change grape laws

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Two Minnesota wineries are pushing to change the law regarding how wine is made in the state.

Last April, a federal judge in Minnesota dismissed a lawsuit. Thursday, appeal arguments took place in federal court.

Nan Bailly, owner of Alexis Bailly Vineyard in Hastings, is one of two winery owners to file a federal lawsuit two years ago, arguing current Minnesota law surrounding how she makes her wine is hurting her business.

“I’ve respected the law for 41 years,” said Bailly. “My goal is to make 51 percent of my wine from Minnesota-grown grapes. I can’t meet that goal. Nobody will this year.”

In Minnesota, if you are a winery, you don’t have to grow a single grape in order to make wine, but when wine is produced, the law requires at least 51 percent of the overall production fruit to come from within the state.

“That’s obviously unconstitutional under the U.S. Constitution’s protections of interstate and foreign commerce,” said Anthony Sanders, of the Institute for Justice. “Free trade is under assault in this country, both at the federal level and the state level. And we are using this lawsuit to try and protect that freedom for our clients.”

The Minnesota Grape Growers Association disagrees, pointing out that there are more than 90 wineries statewide and the vast majority are fine with the 51 percent rule. Plus, exceptions are very common.

“If that winery cannot meet that 51 percent, all they have to do is submit a letter to the commissioner,” said Jenny Ellenbecker, of the Minnesota Grape Growers Association. “I’ve never heard of anyone getting denied.”

Bailly questions why the law exists in the first place, saying it’s more expensive to buy in state. Plus, Minnesota grapes that can survive the winter make them more acidic and must be balanced with fruit from warmer climates.

She believes, just like breweries and distilleries, she should have the freedom to create a variety of wines without having to ask the state for permission.

“I want to make the best wine I possibly can, and I need all the tools available to me to do that,” Bailly added.

A decision by the court of appeals is expected later this year or early next year.