Patented Success

Alumna Penny Aguirre pursues a passion for plants and potables

Penny AguirrePenny Aguirre writes patents for the U of M’s fruit
varieties—and grows them.

Penny Aguirre's ('96–M.S., Horticulture) first love was animals. She enrolled in a vet tech training program near her childhood home in Moorhead, Minn., before transferring to the University of Minnesota. She had a strong interest in science and biochemistry and graduated with a bachelor's degree in microbiology.

It was while working as a scientist at the University of Kansas and living in Lawrence, Kansas, that Aguirre found her second love: plants.

"There were magnolias and cherry trees," she remembers. "I became a crazy gardener."

Aguirre decided that she wanted to learn more about horticulture just as the Plant Molecular Genetics Institute was being formed under Professor Alan Smith. "I told him, 'I'll work on anything but it has to be plants,' " she recalls.

After earning a master's degree in horticulture, Aguirre bought a small wholesale business field growing unusual plants for nurseries and other buyers. "I became a plant collector, just like other people collect stamps or coins," she says. She then took a job as general manager at PlantHaven in Santa Barbara, Calif., an independent agency that introduces new plant species to the U.S. market.

"'Oh, by the way,' they said, 'part of the job is writing plant patents.' "

After a few years, Aguirre took the patent bar exam and became one of the nation's few patent agents specializing in plants. The key to a successful plant patent, Aguirre says, is a plant that is not already available in the marketplace; one that is uniquely different than any other plant, whether patented or not; and one that is stable and can be consistently propagated.

Aguirre moved back to Minnesota and set up shop as an independent contractor writing plant patents.

That's when Aguirre found her current love: wine.

"I got the contract to write the patents for the cold-hardy crops that University of Minnesota researchers develop," she says. "The apples, the shrubs and perennials."

And the grapes.

Aguirre remembers visiting with fruit breeders Peter Hemstad and Jim Luby at the Horticultural Research Center near the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chaska, Minn. "I tasted the wine and thought, 'this is pretty good!' "

Now Aguirre is co-owner of the Richwood Winery near Detroit Lakes, Minn. The tasting room has been open for four years, and the vineyard also serves as an event space for weddings, family reunions and other special events. "We wanted to make a community gathering place where people in the area can meet each other and become friends," Aguirre says.

The winery grows Frontenac Gris, La Crescent and Marquette grapes—all varieties that were developed at the university and all of which Aguirre helped to patent. Aguirre continues to be a patent agent. "That can be done anywhere," she says. "But the winery is very hands-on and it's here," she says. "If the winery were in the Twin Cities, I'd never be able to go to my lake cabin. Here it's just seven miles away."

Richwood Winery has yet to turn a profit, and the past winter's "polar vortex" killed or damaged many of the vineyard's vines. But, for Aguirre, at least for now, the winery is a labor of love.

–Julie C. Lund