“I like to think about the life of wine (...) How it's a living thing. I like to think about what was going on the year the grapes were growing; how the sun was shining; if it rained. I like to think about all the people who tended and picked the grapes. And if it's an old wine, how many of them must be dead by now. I like how wine continues to evolve, like if I opened a bottle of wine today it would taste different than if I'd opened it on any other day, because a bottle of wine is actually alive. And it's constantly evolving and gaining complexity. That is, until it peaks (...) And then it begins its steady, inevitable decline.”

~Maya (Virginia Madsen) in “Sideways”

As part of St. James Adult Community Education, the Stray Cat Coffee House hosted a wine tasting July 9.

Brochures were available, wineries throughout the state sent bottles, and--if people really fancied a particular wine--the Stray Cat will stock it and/or the St. James Liquor Store will order bottles of it.

Some of the wineries represented were: Alex Bailey Vineyard & Winery (Hastings), Saint Croix Vineyards (Stillwater), Carlos Creek Winery (Alexandria), Glacial Ridge Winery (Spicer), Forest Edge Winery (Laporte), Cannon River Winery (Cannon Falls), Wine Haven Winery & Vineyards (Chisago City), and Buffalo Rock Winery (Buffalo).

This was Margaret Maire’s first time coordinating a wine tasting event, but she loves wine, and said, “It’s hard in a small town to come up with new ideas for classes people would like.” There’s no point in offering classes people won’t attend.

She started working on this event last fall, and her personal favorite wines are dry reds--despite the fact she initially disdained them. But, they’re an acquired taste, she eventually discovered.

In addition to the wine, there also were appetizers available, and a variety of olive oils to sample with house-made bread--Maire brought one of the oils back from Italy. She’s fortunate to travel often--making a habit of trying new wines and other culinary delights at each of her stops--and bringing back what she can. She certainly looked the part July 9, wearing a shirt decorated with wine glasses, and even a pair of filled wineglass earrings.

Curt Mackey was the resident oenophile July 9, and he said he became heavily interested in wines about eight years ago.

“I was always a beer drinker; my wife (Corinne) didn’t believe I would ever drink wine,” he said. “If you would’ve told me 10 years ago I’d be drinking wine, I would’ve bet you $10,000 (I wouldn’t). I never would’ve imagined I’d be drinking wine.”

Now, however, “It’s our passion,” he said. “Our bucket list is to hit every winery in the state.”

Though he and his wife have visited about 70 percent of Minnesota’s wineries, new ones keep springing up every year, he said. So, to accomplish the goal of hitting them all, “I need to drive faster, drink faster, or live longer.”

They’d visited all but two of the wineries on the July 9 set list, but they don’t limit themselves only to Minnesota wineries, he said. They have favorites in Wisconsin and even North Dakota--which no one is mistaking for Napa Valley.

Still, Mackey said good wine can be found anywhere, not just in California.

“We are very fortunate in Minnesota, we have very good wines,” he said. “The University of Minnesota has done an excellent job; they’re really amazing.”

According to the school, the university formally initiated a wine grape breeding program in 1978. In 2000, they completed a state-of-the-art enology lab and research winery, and have since become recognized as one of the top wine grape programs in the United States.

They have over 12 acres of research vineyards with approximately 12,000 experimental vines, according to the university. Seedlings are produced each year using a diverse genetic base. Over 3,000 vines are planted each year and subjected to high standards of rigorous evaluation.

Currently, over 100 of the school’s advanced selections are being tested, as well as over 400 cultivars and selections from other breeding programs, the school noted. Their winemakers produce over 125 wines annually.

At the school, a crack staff uses myriad instruments to evaluate all aspects of the experimental wines, including polyphenols (pigment and tannins), acidity, sugar, aroma, and flavor, the school said. The program has received Best of Class, Double Gold, and Gold awards in national and international competitions.

Another myth Mackey dispelled is that price and quality are always directly proportional. In fact, less expensive wines can be even more enjoyable than a more costly vintage.

“You can get a good wine at a cheap price,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be expensive.”

Mackey said he advises people, “If you find a bottle you like, but three or four, (because) every year, the wines change.” Vines can have an off-year, the grapes are different, etc.

He recounted the tale of a wine which he’d loved year after year. Then, one year, he tasted it, and it was lousy.

He and his wife are on friendly terms with the owners of all the local wineries, he said. “We like to go to the wineries and buy bottles there; it’s a good atmosphere, and some have really good food, too.”

He doesn’t like any wine that is really sweet or really dry. Anything in between is alright-- whether it’s red or white--and they keep two-three cases of wine at home at any given time.

When at a wine tasting, he’ll usually only try about six wines, he said. “After that, your tongue is lost.”

Unlike Maire, Michelle Fuller hates dry reds, preferring wines like White Zinfandel or Riesling. For the July 9 tasting, her favorites were the Black Currant from Forest Edge Winery, the Sogn Blush from Cannon River Winery, and the Deer Garden Blush from Wine Haven Winery & Vineyards.

The Deer Garden Blush is a crisp, medium-dry wine containing an extensive array of floral aromas and fruity flavors from start to finish, according to the Wine Haven. Cannon River calls the Sogn Blush sweet and fruity, and the Black Currant is an award-winning, dynamic, full-bodied red that’s fruity and complex with the character of a fine Cabernet, according to Forest Edge.

Like so many others, Fuller jumped on the wine bandwagon when vino exploded in popularity.

From 2000-2007, wine consumption in America nearly doubled, while beer sales grew less than one percent over that same time period. In 2005--for the first time--a Gallup poll revealed that Americans preferred wine over beer. And, earlier this year, the U.S. passed France as the world’s biggest market for wine for the first time.

In 2004, Alexander Payne’s “Sideways,” set in Santa Barbara County Wine Country, became a sleeper hit. The film grossed over $100 million on a $16 million budget, it was feted by critics, and everyone involved received myriad award nominations--and the film won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

In the film, Paul Giamatti’s character is a wine connoisseur named Miles Raymond, and he bashes Merlot while praising Pinot Noir. Years later, a study conducted by Steven S. Cuellar, an associate professor of economics at Sonoma State University and senior research economist at Sonoma Research Associates, Dan Karnowsky, president of Sonoma Research Associates, and Frederick Acosta, research associate at Sonoma Research Associates, found that after the movie’s release in 2004, Pinot Noir sales increased precipitously, while Merlot sales fell.

In addition, 856 gallons of wine were consumed in the U.S. in 2012, according to the Wine Institute. In 2002--just a decade earlier--that number was 617 million.

Like Fuller, Lori Koch was also part of the wine boom, and she’s now been into wine for about a decade. She prefers dry wines, and her favorite selection at the tasting was the Mill Street Red--which Cannon River calls semi dry. Her personal favorite wine, however, is Apothic Red, and she said she “enjoys the experience of (wine tasting)--people are happy.”

Also fancying the Mill Street Red was Shawna Asendorf, a longtime wine-drinker who sticks with reds. “It’s fun to try new wines,” she said. One of her usual favorites is the Menage a Trois California Red.

On the opposite end of the spectrum from Lori Koch was Beth Koch, who disdains dry wines. During the July 9 tasting, she preferred the semi sweet Dottie’s Angel from Buffalo Rock Winery. “I like sweet wines, like a Moscato or a Riesling,” she said.

Fuller said she’s already been to three of the wineries represented at the July 9 tasting--Saint Croix Vineyards, Carlos Creek Winery, and Cannon River Winery. “Carlos Creek is the best experience; they know what people enjoy, because they’ve been doing it so long.”

Ryan Anderson can be reached at randerson@stjamesnews and followed on Twitter @randerson_ryan