Where to Sample Wine, Buy Pottery, and Walk Llamas in Waconia
By Andrew Parks
With gas prices hovering at an all-time high heading into the summer of 2022, Explore Minnesota decided to dust off our old travel guide series Trip on a Tankful as a surefire way to seize the day across our state while saving cash and lowering our carbon footprint.
This itinerary is a winding drive through the winery-dotted landscape of Waconia, with a few stops in Chanhassen and Chaska along the way.
Don’t worry; your eyes are not deceiving you. Prince’s surreal, egg-white estate really is just off the Augie Mueller Memorial Highway, right down the road from a Target and a Taco Bell. #OnlyinMN, indeed. Timed, prepaid tickets are required for entry throughout the week, and range in cost from $48 for a basic guided tour of Paisley Park’s main floor to $160 for The Ultimate Experience, “a more immersive way” for superfans to see and hear additional spaces, film screenings and recording sessions.
Between its many well-manicured gardens, lushly appointed landscapes and peerless collection of shrubs, trees and plants, it’s easy to spend an entire day exploring the U of M’s 160-acre research center. Many visitors opt for more of an overview, however — namely the three-mile walk and three-mile drive routes that wind through the property, hitting lots of seasonal Lady Slippers, roses and evergreens along the way.
Ashley and Evan Carlson offer 90-minute tours of their family’s longtime farm every day, but they’re often sold out, so it’s best to book ahead. Rather than go the petting zoo route, Carlson’s educational, hands-on experience gives newbies the opportunity to brush, feed and lead their llamas the way a farmhand would.
Located just across the street from Carlson’s Llovable Llamas is a Greek Revival landmark and small cemetery that dates all the way back to 1863. The church’s original congregation split in the 1940s, but weekly “brief and serene” services are still held by the Waconia Moravian Church every summer.
To give you an idea of how popular Jon Schmidt’s online tutorials are, a recent open studio event with live wheel and raku demos drew visitors from as far away as California and Seattle. While he’s not fielding any commissions or custom orders at the moment, the part-time potter encourages Minnesotans to reach out about purchasing his striking ceramics in person at his studio or one of the three Mocha Monkey cafes he runs in the region.
Donna Frantz has a saying about the freshly pulled, locally sourced fruit and vegetables at her indoor farm stand: “I’m the best, forget the rest.” Having recently enjoyed several fat stalks of her sweet corn at home, along with a couple flavorful varieties of zucchini, tomato and eggplant, we feel comfortable saying there’s no other nonagenarian in Minnesota quite like this Carver County native. If you’re a serious home cook looking for ingredients that fully reflect the current season, this one’s worth the drive on a weekly basis.
Nothing beats ripping open one of Christine Leonard’s rotating takeout platters at Lake Waconia's laid-back regional park, which boasts a small beach and swimming area. Available for pre-ordered pickup from Leonard's home about 10 minutes away, The Grater Good's main event can be made for as many as 15 people. Our filling two-person arrangement featured strawberry rhubarb jam, fruit, nuts, and four kinds of cheese, including chunks of garlic cheddar and smoothed-out brie from Brooten, Minnesota’s Redhead Creamery. Definitely opt for the cracker and meat add-ons, too; ours meant slices of old-fashioned smoked meat from Cathy Mackenthun’s beloved local deli and a lovingly tied little bag of herb crackers, wheat rounds, apple crisp, and shortbread cookies.
Saturdays are your only chance to experience the “farm-to-glass spirits” at J. Carver firsthand. They appeal to just about any palate, from several different vodkas, gins and liqueurs to rare examples of Minnesota-sourced rye, wheat and single malt whiskeys. A 60-minute guided tour and tasting costs $10 and includes three half-ounce sips. If you’re more of a cocktail person, bar-side tables can be reserved for up to 90 minutes starting at 4 p.m., and outside food is not only allowed, but encouraged.
If you’ve never sampled the cold hardy grapes and heady French hybrids that Minnesota wineries often specialize in, Aaron and Ashley Schram’s gorgeous lakeside property is a perfect start. They offer both seated tastings and 90-minute “vine-to-wine tours,” or if you’d like to choose your own adventure, we recommend a custom three glass flight of generous red, white and rosé pours. If someone from your party would rather have a hoppy IPA or refreshing lager, Schram also serves a wide range of craft beer that was brewed at their Chaska business Schram Haus.
Waconia’s biggest wine operation boasts a large patio and live music every week. Its Sundays at Sovereign program is free and leans towards the soft rock and smooth jazz side of the radio spectrum; a separate Vintage series requires proper concert tickets and taps into the vast back catalogues of Billy Joel, Johnny Cash, Prince and more. Also of note this summer and fall: the newly opened Italian restaurant Gia at the Lake, which recently earned a nice spread in the Star Tribune.
One of Parley Lake’s bartenders said they can spot west coast wine snobs from a mile away. Often dragged out to this picturesque area by more open-minded family members, they’ll walk in expecting to write off Minnesota’s entire wine scene and leave with a smile on their face and a case in their car. Maybe even a painting from co-owner Deb Zeller, who displays her work in a gallery downstairs alongside several other statewide artists.
12. Stay at a five-star farm on Hyde’s Lake
Between all of Waconia’s sprawling wineries and time-consuming activities like the Arboretum and Paisley Park, we can’t blame you for wanting to spend the night out in the countryside. One option is a Norwood Young America farm that can be booked through Airbnb. Its newly remodeled mother-in-law apartment has barn and goat-side views in a quiet location about 15 minutes away from everything in town.
Andrew Parks is the multimedia editor at Explore Minnesota. His past lives include copywriting and content strategy for such clients as Food & Wine, Apple, Condé Nast Traveler, Bandcamp, AFAR, Bon Appétit, and Red Bull.
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