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Brenner to grow grapes, share taste of the vine

TOWN OF EL PASO -- Looking ahead to retirement, Larry Brenner wondered how he could take advantage of the scenic countryside around his Town of El Paso home.

Brenner had bought his 300 acres in a valley along the Rush River in 1994, moving there and completely renovating what he called a "shack" on the property. An account executive for Clear Channel Radio in the Twin Cities, he recently began pondering a post-career future right where he lived.

"I've got fond memories of going to Fishermen's Rest when I was young," said the 1977 Ellsworth High School graduate about fishing outings with his grandfather, Carl Shafer.

Although the son of Jerome and Joanne Brenner values the vicinity and wanted to locate some type of venture there, he didn't know what it would be. He said he'd thought of growing trees (he's already planted over 30,000 in the 12 years he's lived there), considered developing an orchard, perhaps even establishing a nursery.

He was at Gelly's in Stockholm when he got the idea for Vino in the Valley, he said. He thought about a pizza-on-the-farm event he'd visited nearby, where the pizzas were made in an outdoor brick oven. The evening he attended the monthly feature, 75 percent of the vehicles at the farm were from Minnesota, he estimated.

"They'd driven clear down there for the experience," he said.

It's the kind of atmosphere he now hopes to create for Vino in the Valley, a weekly outdoor dining and entertainment gathering on his land, Brenner said. He envisions people coming to sample wines, eat a pasta dinner, listen to guitar, violin or piano music, and enjoy the peaceful surroundings.

Warm bread baked in an open brick oven will be served, as will vegetables including pea pods, roma tomatoes and broccoli grown on the grounds, he said. Grapes will also be grown there, in a vineyard he expects to eventually produce fruit for wine. The public gatherings are intended to help pay for his initial investment.

"I'll start with four acres," he said of his plans for the coming year, which involve putting in over 2,100 plants.

Working with the University of Minnesota Horticultural Society and a vine consultant from Lake City, Minn., he understands it will take four years before the vineyard becomes productive and foresees expansion to between 8,000 and 10,000 plants. Pruning will be important, he said; too many pods can affect the sugar content, a critical factor in wine-making.

"We could get three tons of grapes per acre after four years," he said.

While Brenner realizes Minnesota and Wisconsin have been slow to develop a reputation for high quality wine, both states are "getting into it," he said. "Interesting" was a past reaction he remembers to wines from this region, meaning the taster wasn't particularly impressed. Lately, the response has been more like "wow."

Most of the grape varieties he's contemplating are hearty to 40-degrees-below-zero, he said, noting global warming has reduced the potential for such temperatures here. The top concern about cold weather in the vineyard is a late frost in May, after the plants' primary buds have popped. Production would decline in that case, he explained.

Until bottling and marketing wine from his River Valley Vineyard can begin, Brenner will offer other area labels at the outdoor wine-and-dines he wants to hold Thursdays from 4 to 10 p.m. between May and September. An approximately 24-by-100 foot wood frame open-air pavilion is being built to accommodate table seating for around 80 people on a site behind his home, he said. Housing a wine bar and pasta station, it will be equipped with ceiling fans and dimmable lighting. Vinyl sides which can be raised and lowered will be installed.

A gift shop carrying hats, shirts, cheeses, chocolates and more, and a small stage for musicians and entertainers -- some of whom he'll recruit through his radio connections -- will be located nearby, he said. Fire pits and bathrooms will be available. Space on the grounds will be reserved for a farmers market, plus for a children's pumpkin patch in the fall.

"On October weekends, we'll open it up to families," he said, serving spaghetti to the kids, having hay rides, sack races, bobbing for apples and the like. Chili feeds could happen in December, he added.

Brenner said he'll invite neighbors to sell eggs, produce, honey, crafts and similar goods at the farmers market. Aware the Ellsworth Rod and Gun Club holds its chicken dinners biweekly on summer Thursday evenings, he'll promote those, believing they draw "a different audience" than his events, but can compliment each other. He'll team with Lake Pepin businesses to arrange bed-and-breakfast packages as well.

The Ellsworth native will employ a staff of eight, he said, hiring from his El Paso neighborhood when possible.

"People will be welcome to bring a blanket and take a stroll by the river," he said.

Donovan's Construction is the general contractor for the pavilion, which could serve instead as home to a private function he holds annually if his public project doesn't proceed, he said. However, last week he indicated it had received town board approval and will advance to the county level next.

For more information, he encourages visits to a Web site, .