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Grape expectations: Teacher spends summer in Cottage Grove backyard vineyard

Middleton Elementary second grade teacher Megan Zachman has a vineyard in the backyard of her Cottage Grove home with both table and wine grapes, which she spends much of the summer managing. (Bulletin by Amber Kispert-Smith) 1 / 3
Middleton Elementary second grade teacher Megan Zachman as a total of 36 vines on her property. (Submitted photo)2 / 3
Megan Zachman’s vineyard includes six varieties of grapes — Prairie Star, Warden, Somerset Seedless, La Crescent, Marquette and Louise Swenson. (Submitted photo) 3 / 3

A trip to California’s wine country is a dream vacation for some — and just outside their reach and pocketbooks.

But Middleton Elementary second-grade teacher Megan Zachman doesn’t have to go any further than her backyard. She has her own vineyard at her Cottage Grove home.

“I just love watching something grow because it’s something to look forward to all season,” she said. “Plus, it’s just a nice change of pace from teaching because I don’t even have a window in my classroom.”

Zachman’s vineyard has six grape varieties, both wine and table grapes, on 36 vines — Prairie Star, Warden, Somerset Seedless, La Crescent, Marquette and Louise Swenson.

A steep project

Zachman and her husband first planted their vineyard shortly after buying their house in 2010 as a solution to a weed-infested, steep hill in their backyard.

“My brother who lives in San Francisco, pretty close to Napa Valley, was visiting and we were looking out the master bedroom window wondering what I was going to do with that hill,” she said. “And he said, ‘You should put some vines and make it a little Napa back here.’”

Zachman, who had previously visited Napa Valley, said she immediately loved the idea.

“I wasn’t really a big wine drinker,” she said, “but I’m kind of a farm girl at heart so it was something new to try.

“Plus, when we were in Napa, it just looked really pretty — almost corn fields, but like cooler, fancier corn fields.”

Zachman turned to an old neighbor of hers in Denmark Township who had several acres of vines for advice on planting and managing the vineyard.

“It’s such a new thing in Minnesota to try,” she said.

Growing grapes

Zachman got her first grapes this past fall since growers have to wait until at least the third year to actually harvest grapes in order to let the roots and vines strengthen.

Throughout the spring and summer, Zachman and her husband are out in the vineyard about nine hours every week pulling weeds, spraying for bugs, managing black rot, mowing  grass, pruning and trimming.

“We work up there in cleats,” she said. “That’s the only way to do it to secure our footing, otherwise we’re slipping everywhere.”

Come fall, the grapes need to be netted in order to protect from birds. Then it comes time for the grapes to be picked.

Since Zachman has both table and wine grapes she uses some just for eating, while others she uses for jelly. The couple has even tried their hand at winemaking for the first time.

Zachman will also be entering her grapes into the Minnesota State Fair’s crop competitions for the second time. She took home several ribbons at last year’s fair.

However, Zachman said she is not expecting much from this year’s grape harvest since it was such a hard winter and wet spring.

“The grapes look pretty sad right now,” she said. “It’s been a rough growing season.”

Zachman also uses her grapes and her vines as teaching tools in her classroom during her plant unit.

“I talk about it all the time with my students,” she said. “I let them sample the grapes, too.”

Since starting her vineyard, Zachman said she has developed a greater appreciation for all of the wineries in Minnesota.

“We love going to local wineries, too, because we know what they went through,” she said. “We all have to fight the winters together and it’s a tough fight.”

For now, Zachman said she is content managing her 36 vines, but down the road, who knows, opening a winery might be a fun adventure, she said.

“You can grow anything in Minnesota,” she said. “You just have to know what to do.”