On a picturesque hilltop between Lanesboro, Peterson, Highland and Bratsberg, a new winery is making its mark on the international scene with delightful flavors concocted from local fruits.
Kerry Lea and family started Diamond Ridge Winery eight years ago. In the past four years they’ve picked up medals at the prestigious Indiana International Wine Competition.
In 2007, the winery picked up a silver medal for its HoneyCrisp wine, “the sweetest apple fermented delicately,” and a second silver for its Hot Lips wine.
Hot Lips shows some of Lea’s creativity, showcasing homegrown jalapeno peppers in blended varieties of grapes or, as Lea promotes it, “Taste the jalapeno without the burn.”
Also at the competition in 2007, Lea received bronze medals for Valhalla wine, a “heavenly blend of Minnesota grapes,” and Red Diamond, a heavy raspberry wine.
In 2005, the White Diamond (select apple varieties from Pepin Heights Orchard, Lake City, and available sweet or dry) and Black Diamond (a semi-sweet blackberry) each collected bronze medals.
Diamond Ridge Winery started off on a great note collecting a gold medal in 2004 for its raspberry/strawberry wine, now called Razziberry.
Lea explained her family moved here in 1999 from the Hutchinson and St. Cloud area.
“We wanted to live here. It’s a beautiful, wonderful place,” said Lea.
“I like to make things… bake, cook and sew… I wanted to do something with the berries here,” she noted.
They moved to the farm owned by her husband Gary’s parents. His grandmother Mary (and Oscar) Lea had noted the blackberries growing there.
Lea said, “They were absolutely delicious. I wanted to do something with the berries.”
She noted that, when ripe, they don’t last more than a few hours at full flavor. Lea has to freeze them immediately. They buy a lot of fruit from local farmers, as well as some from Pepin Heights Orchard, Lake City. Diamond Ridge Winery also is moving into grapes.
To learn more about making wines, Lea took classes by correspondence from the University of California, Davis, as well as classes from the University of Minnesota in grape growing, called viticulture. She is certified in Minnesota and Iowa.
She explained that after a two-year process, Diamond Ridge Winery was licensed in 2004. Then, laughed Lea, they had to go through the process of getting labels approved, which takes a long time to make sure they are entirely correct in dealing with not just wine ingredients, but with proper sized fonts and spacing.
The first wine produced was blackberry. They received federal and state licensing, label approval and inspections.
“It didn’t take long to branch off,” said Lea, wanting to blend other varieties of wine.
Creating the wines
Making wine is a seasonal, but year-round process according to Lea. You’d expect her to be busy during the fruit season. She also makes heavy wines in the winter.
Lea said her husband is “good at configuring.” He worked on the Diamond Ridge Winery building.
Gary also helps with bottling, tasting and – perhaps most importantly – critiquing the wines. If he says something needs to be changed, Lea will tweak the blend to satisfy his award-winning tastes.
She also laughed and noted that Gary was the inspiration behind the Hot Lips wine. They had made a cooking wine, and then continued blending it to the silver medal creation it is today.
In addition to her husband, some of their children also help to make Diamond Ridge Winery wines. They are Dan Neilson, 17 and a senior at Lanesboro High School, called “proficient at bottling” by his mother, as well as Alexis Lea, 11, and in sixth grade at Lanesboro, who does cleaning and bottling. Their other children are Celeste Lea, 25; and Chris Neilson.
Next year Lea plans to make changes in some of the blends.
“We have ‘distinctive wines artfully made,'” said Lea, who would call herself a “wine artist.”
Diamond Ridge Winery features 16 wines, with “a few more in the tanks.” They range from sweet, to semi-sweet to dry, with the greatest focus on sweet wines.
Lea smiled and said the fruit group inventions have been their award winners, “I’ll take all the credit. It’s really fun. I consider myself a creator.”
In addition to Hot Lips, another different wine is Mint Mystery, created from mint leaves. Lea said it tastes like peppermint schnapps.
Their three best sellers are HoneyCrisp, First Kiss, a strawberry-rhubarb blend, and White Diamond Apple/Sweet, using the Pepin Heights Orchard blend.
The winery purchases strawberries and other fruits from Wold’s Strawberries, south of Mabel and Spring Grove on the Iowa border. Other fruits they get are blackberries, and raspberries. The Leas grow red currants and elderberry at their own location.
“I have four varieties of raspberries here,” stated Lea.
She likes blending to create a more complex product. Their first wine, HoneyCrisp, was an apple-lemonade blend that won a medal. Lea called it, “apple with a tang.”
Regarding labels, Lea intends to have label contests next year for the public. Another neat offering at Diamond Ridge Winery is custom labels. For example, you could put on a photo for a wedding gift.
At their store they sell wine glasses and antique glasses; wine baskets and themed baskets; wine totes; and wine covers.
Lea invited individuals and groups to visit the winery for wine tasting. Or, she can set up a wine tasting at an event. Lea noted a Red Hat group had done one and enjoyed it.
Also, she noted the Diamond Ridge Winery location would be a pretty spot for a wedding.
The 16 varieties of wines are sold in the area at Chiggy’s in Peterson, County Line Bootleg Liquor in Chatfield, Parkway Pub in Lanesboro, Preston Liquor Store in Preston, Kato Liquors in Winona, Apple Valley Liquors in La Crescent and Apollo in Austin. They are working on more outlets.
The shop, which includes the wine-making facilities and fruit orchards, is located at 25701 County Rd 25 S., Peterson.
The Web site is www.diamondridgewinery.com/