Turning weeds into wine

Urban Forage, a local winery managed by University alumnus Jeff Zeitler, takes an unconventional approach to wine-making.

Eliana Schreiber

When Jeff Zeitler was laid off from his job as a landscape architect, he went back to his roots — wine-making. 

Now, Zeitler and his wife Gita  manage Urban Forage  Winery, where they collect dandelions and other flowers from south Minneapolis neighborhoods to make fruit-based wines and ciders.

The winery, located on East Lake Street, is the only  winery in the city of Minneapolis.Zeitler’s new mission is to recreate a dandelion wine he first made a few years ago.

Urban Forage has asked people from the Longfellow neighborhood to donate dandelions from their yards to create a commercial batch of the wine, Zeitler 

said.

Wines made from produce are often called country wines because farmers make them from their leftover crops, he said.

“People expect wineries to be in a beautiful valley of vines … [but] historically, [wineries] often were in the city,” Zeitler said.

Zeitler first started  making wines and ciders in his University of Minnesota dorm room as a freshman in the 1990s.

“I do not endorse people under 21 making alcohol in their dorm rooms, but I did it,” he said.

The wines have come a long way since he got his start at Sanford Hall , said Eben Laurie, a friend of Zeitler. He said he lived in the same dorm as Zeitler freshman year and tasted  the first cider he made.

Once Zeitler understood the basic chemistry behind wine-making, he found he could make a wine from anything that contained enough sugar — including dandelions.

Though Zeitler’s first wines tasted “like mouth-wash,” Laurie said, his wine-making keeps improving. The dandelion wine, Zeitler said, has a sweet, clean taste without avoiding the sweetness associated with ciders.

After making wines for his family and friends for more than 20  years, Zeitler decided to open the winery in late 2015.

Urban Forage tries to collect locally sourced ingredients, Zeitler said. He also tries to avoid using chemicals routinely used by wineries.

University grape breeding  and enology professor Matt Clark  said fruit wines are not all that different from grape wines, and both undergo the same fermentation process.

The University has developed grapes for more than 100  years and has made moves to support the local wine industry, Clark said.

“We see a resurgence right now in cider-making,” he said, which could be related to the abundance of apples and other fruits in Minnesota.

The Zeitler’s harvest seasonally available fruit — like apples, pears, cherries, rhubarb and others — from residents in the Twin Cities area for their wines. Urban Forage also picks fruit from small orchards in the area after picking season, Gita Zeitler said.

Recent late frosts have made it difficult for Minnesota farmers to grow grapes, Jeff Zeitler said. As a result, many wineries in the state have had to import grape juice to make up for the loss.

Zeitler wants to use crops adapted to colder climates.

“I was never limited by the belief that wine had to be made from grapes,” he said.