Wine brings people together
Whether to celebrate or simply relax with family and friends, Kyle Peterson ’98, ’04 M.B.A. of WineHaven, and Eugenio ’91, ’93 M.I.M., ’95 M.B.A. and Teresa ’91 Meschini of Famiglia Meschini, are proud to be a part of their customers’ special moments.
“Wine is one of those unique beverages that has been enjoyed across many cultures for centuries,” said Peterson, who shares winemaking duties with his father at WineHaven in Chisago City. For Peterson, winemaking dates back to his grandfather’s time. Originally a producer of honey, he decided to try his hand at wine.
“My grandfather would read stories about Queen Elizabeth’s royal recipes for mead, which is the European term for honey wine, and he’d try to replicate it using modern ingredients,” Peterson said.
Eugenio Meschini’s grandfather began making wine to reconnect to his homeland of Italy while also working in a separate trade as a mechanic in Mendoza, Argentina.
Although winemaking led these two grandfathers down different paths, each resulted in a vineyard with a legacy carried on by their grandsons, who are happy to invite their customers into the family experience.
Two sweet stories
The Petersons started out as farmers in Minnesota, growing fruits and producing honey in the 1960s, and eventually became one of the biggest honey producers in the state. In the summer, Peterson would help his father and grandfather with the honeybees and raising crops. Then, in the late 1980s and early ’90s, agricultural commodity prices plummeted. His grandfather’s tinkering saved the day. “The wine was something that really helped them, kind of a process evolved from a hobby to a larger scale,” Peterson said. “It was a matter of losing the family farm or trying to do something more value-added with what we already grew.”
Something else helped sustain the family farm and develop WineHaven: Peterson’s undergraduate engineering coursework at St. Thomas.
“My instructors knew about the family farm and our wine aspirations, and they were very helpful in scaling up batches or teaching me about the thermodynamics of fermentation,” Peterson said. “We could apply those concepts from my engineering courses to real life.”
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Eugenio also has early memories of his grandfathers’ winery. He recalls going to the winery every Saturday as a boy during harvest and seeing lots of trucks unloading grapes. “We would have a big family dinner at the winery by the time the day was over,” Meschini said.
He always dreamed of being part of a family business. When he was 12, his grandfather’s business, which included the winery and a vineyard, hit hard times. “It kind of fell apart in one of the typical Argentine crises every five to 10 years,” Eugenio said. In the end, the family had to sell the business.
After completing two years of college in his home country of Argentina, Eugenio came to Minnesota in 1989 for a summer ESL program at Hamline University. Over lunch one day, Herb Leshinsky – a family friend and founder of the now closed Master of International Management (M.I.M.) degree at St. Thomas – asked Meschini if he would consider continuing his education at St. Thomas. That fall, Meschini started as a second-semester sophomore at St. Thomas, studying business administration.
The following year he met his wife, Teresa, who was studying French and international business at St. Thomas. Originally from Rochester, Teresa followed in the footsteps of her father, Dennis Thein, who lived in Ireland Hall while attending St. Thomas Academy (and took some classes at the college before being drafted) and her brother, Mark Thein ’90.
After graduation, Meschini began working for Cargill, and today is the managing director for Black River Asset Management, which has investments in South America and Australia. Eugenio always had an interest in wine, and while traveling in South America, eastern Europe and Asia, he saw a business opportunity.
“I started seeing the role that Argentina was taking on a worldwide basis and the opportunity for the quality of wine that could be produced there,” Meschini said, citing the climate and affordable land as favorable conditions. After a friend of the couple found a beautiful 65-acre parcel of land south of Mendoza, in the Agrelo region, they assembled a team and invested together, buying the vineyard in 2003.
“I thought that’s where the story was going to end,” Teresa said. “I thought we were just going to be investors in a vineyard.”
For a few years, the Meschinis were involved solely in producing the grapes and selling them to established wine labels. Then, in 2007, they partnered with Meschini’s two older brothers, Giovanni ’96 M.I.M. and Primo ’97 M.I.M., to develop 160 acres of land in a higher altitude region of Mendoza than where the original family vineyard had been located. The plot – which would become Famiglia Meschini – is located an hour south of Mendoza in the Uco Valley area.
“We started very small and tried to see what the acceptance was on the market, if there was room for it. Before we knew it, people were loving the wines. The connection between a family-owned business that’s from Argentina and also from here in this particular market – that was a combination that people were very, very open to,” Eugenio said.
Developing the business
Though the only true Meschinis are the ones directly involved in the business, they count others as part of their famiglia – “family” in Italian – to pay homage to their heritage. “I think that it really helps that Mendoza is completely in the wine country and it’s a super small town – not in numbers, but in that everyone knows each other,” Teresa said. The woman who designs the vineyard’s labels went to grade school with Eugenio, the vineyard manager played rugby with him and the winemaker was a classmate of his oldest brother.
Eugenio travels to Argentina once or twice a year for Cargill, but the whole family, including their four children, make the trip every other Christmas. “We are not only a bilingual, but a bicultural family. (The kids) all speak Spanish, and I would say they are equally Argentinian as they are American and they feel it and they are proud of it,” Eugenio said.
Because their time to directly influence the winemaking process is limited, the Meschinis take an innovative approach. “Whenever we go down, if we’re drinking a wine that we like and that we think the market likes, we bring that wine to Argentina,” Teresa said. “It seems silly to bring wine to Argentina, but then we sit down with the winemaker.” Eugenio elaborated: “We share with our winemaker and with our two brothers what’s selling today. If you’re in Argentina and you never try the wine from New Zealand or South Africa, then you’ll never understand what the market is and where the market is trending.”
Aside from giving input on wine, the Meschin couple has separate roles. Eugenio spends 50 percent of his time traveling for Cargill but handles coordinating what kind and how much wine is produced. When it arrives in Minnesota, Teresa markets and sells the wine.
Although they conduct business from their phones or laptops, which allows Teresa to spend time at home with the children, the family loves to organize wine tastings and events. “We’re lucky because we get to talk to the consumers and see what they like, and then we get to go back to Argentina and say, ‘Let’s try this,’ and we have the grapes to do it. We’re nimble in that way. We’re not a big corporation,” Teresa said.
While the Meschinis spend more time on the business end, Peterson enjoys direct involvement in the science of the wine. He studied winemaking at Cornell University in New York, choosing it over California because of a climate more similar to Minnesota’s. At Cornell, he learned about breeding hybrid grapes – one of the keys to growing wine grapes in Minnesota. “You take a French grape that has a lot of wine qualities and crossbreed it with a wild Minnesota grape that’s very winter hardy. Ideally you want to get winter hardiness from one of the parents and wine qualities from the other,” Peterson explained.
Peterson and his father had a large grape research program at WineHaven in the 1990s, doing their own hybridizing of grapes. They started with approximately 20 varieties in their vineyard, but less than half survived. Eventually, they reached success, patenting two grape varieties. Chisago, named after the region, was approved first in 2008, and Nokomis in 2013. The two are sister grapes but, according to Peterson, the Chisago tends to be sweeter and “more grape-y” while the Nokomis is drier, more full-bodied and intense. For now, the varieties only are available at WineHaven.
“It takes five years to really establish a vine, from new vine to producing a good crop of grapes … (but) they’re great growers and really popular in terms of the flavors, so I’m sure they’ll eventually be available to more people,” Peterson said. The Chisago already has won several awards, which Peterson said is “phenomenal” for a new grape.
Aside from the breeding, Peterson said his science background is useful in many other ways. “I remember undergrad students saying, ‘We’ll never ever use this stuff,’ and I can think of many times where I maybe thought the same thing. I am doing titrations like we learned in general chemistry and testing acidities, which is extremely important in wine,” Peterson said.
Peterson enjoys blending, which he describes as “the winemaker’s art: to be called a chardonnay, 75 percent of the grapes have to be chardonnay grapes, but the other 25 percent you can blend and that’s what makes every winery different.” He also loves combining grapes and trying to figure out what the final alcohol or acid levels are going to be. “That’s all calculus,” Peterson said. “It’s so awesome when we can compute that and then actually expand it into a 1,000-gallon batch.
“After it’s mixed, we can test it and find it’s exactly what the numbers said they should be. To me, that’s mind-blowing and there’s not a lot of winemakers, even in California, that can calculate all that,” Peterson said.
Surprisingly, a vineyard in Minnesota works about the same as in any other part of the country, except the growing season is shorter. “The vines usually go dormant in November and we spend all winter long pruning our vineyards by hand to get ready for the next growing season,” Peterson said.
WineHaven has 50 acres of land; just under 20 of those acres are for grapes. Approximately 85 percent of what the business sells is grown at WineHaven, but the winery works with growers in New York and California to bring in certain varieties of grapes that aren’t hardy enough for Minnesota winters, such as the chardonnay and merlot.
“We try to be a winery of regional flavors because when my family and I travel, we enjoy talking to the winemakers and hearing about new things we might not have heard of. … Almost all the time, that’s what we end up liking the best and usually taking home with us – the unique things that they’re really proud of.”
The vineyard’s honeybees stay busy, as they are transported south to Florida in the winter and come back to WineHaven in the summer. “We almost sharecrop with some beekeepers in Florida,” Peterson said.
A graduate degree advantage
Part of the reason for Peterson’s business savvy in patenting the grapes stems from his graduate degrees: a 2001 law degree from William Mitchell College of Law and his M.B.A. from St. Thomas. “When you’re a small business, you try to do as much as you can to save on costs. I went to (St. Thomas) and focused a little bit more on finance,” said Peterson, explaining his role at WineHaven. “There are so many things in wine that deal with the government – from taxes to regulations and even what kind of wording you can put on your wine bottle. So, it was kind of natural that every time an envelope from the government came, my parents would be glad to hand that to me.”
Peterson also has a full-time job outside the wine business as a partner at Patterson Thuente, where he specializes in intellectual property law. He spends three-fourths of his time there and the rest at the vineyard. For him, there is never a typical day at WineHaven. The operation comprises approximately 20 people and includes three main aspects: grapegrowing and wine production, retail and tasting, and hosting large events such as weddings and corporate events. Peterson floats among the different areas as needed, making sure the business runs well, but prioritizes administrative tasks.
Meschini tried winemaking school as well – his father sent all three brothers – but after making it through four of the required six years, he decided the science of viticulture wasn’t for him. He did go on to earn two graduate degrees from St. Thomas – an M.I.M. in 1993 and an M.B.A. in 1995. In both college and business school, Eugenio was part of an exchange program with a number of international universities, many located in South America. Although he was an international student himself, he said the experience helped open his mind and prepare him for the real world, as well as grow an international network.
Recognition in the wine world
“I have learned in the world and in my real business that vertical integration sometimes makes a lot of sense,” said Eugenio, talking about what sets Famiglia
Meschini apart from other winemakers. The operation produces nine different wines, including a chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, pinot noir and several malbecs, but
in small quantities; total production is around 4,000 cases of wine per year, which, according to Eugenio, “for any winery in the world is very small.”
“People appreciate that – the uniqueness of what they’re drinking. It’s not a mass-produced wine,” Eugenio said. Teresa added, “We’re all about keeping wine accessible. People are intimidated by wine and they really shouldn’t be.”
The Meschinis believe customers liking their wines is the biggest compliment to their business. “It’s more about that … people will come and tell you, ‘I never tasted a family of wines and liked every single one of them,’” Eugenio said.
Four of the Famiglia Meschini wines also have received 88 of 100 possible points from Stephen Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar. The Meschinis already have started selling wines in Missouri and are looking to venture out to other states in the years to come.
WineHaven produces more wines, between 20 and 24, which include a wide array of specialty wines such as cranberry, raspberry, rhubarb and even pumpkin wine in October. “Why do we do it? Because we like them, they’re fun and people are usually shocked and amazed that we have these on our list,” Peterson said.
The winery also makes a honey wine, which is the only wine it makes available outside of Minnesota, and has been named in the top three U.S.-made honey wines for the past 10 years. The wine also is available internationally in Japan and South Korea, which Peterson said is rare. “I think this winery is literally the only winery between the Rocky Mountains and the Appalachians that has its wine available outside the country,” he said. In total, the winery has won more than 200 awards between New York and California competitions in the last 10 years, and the wine is available in about 200 liquor stores throughout Minnesota.
Even so, Peterson wants WineHaven guests to feel like part of the family. “It’s not a big bureaucracy. … We have a family atmosphere here, with the four generations that are usually around,” he said. The location of WineHaven, with three lakes in the surrounding area, allows customers to come enjoy a glass of wine and a view.
Even with his time split between the Patterson Thuente firm and WineHaven, Peterson still finds time to teach an introduction to intellectual property law course in the St. Thomas graduate engineering program as an adjunct instructor. “I’m still strongly connected to St. Thomas,” he said.
As for the future of their business, the Meschinis plan to continue being good caretakers of the brand and doing what they love. Teresa said it’s too early to tell whether their kids will one day take over the family business. “Our oldest is going to be a freshman in college next year. I can see some that have the personality for it and some that don’t, but I don’t ever really want to dictate my kids’ futures,” Teresa said.
Peterson and his wife feel strongly about letting their children pick their own paths as well. “That’s what my parents did for me, so we’re definitely going to do the same for them in terms of letting it be their choice," he said.
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