I would love to go to Cinque Terre but I will only be traveling Europe in February...
I have heard it is good to go there NOT in the tourist season, and I'm also from Minnesota so I'm used to colder weather. I'm aware that the area is still rebuilding itself from the flooding/landslides in 2011..and I am also aware that the coast walk is closed!
I do not see myself returning to Europe for a long time (if ever)so I feel it is Cinque Terre now or never! I'm fine with colder weather and with the upper hiking trails as an only option. I'm wondering if the area will be even more 'dead' due to its current conditions, and if there is any reason why I would really really not want to visit in February. I feel it can still very much be worth it...
Probably February won't be the best period for hiking, but I completely agree with your choice to avoid crowds of tourists.
Have a look on this site http://www.arbaspaa.com full of information about tours at Cinque Terre. That's where I found the idea abour a scenic Flight over Cinque Terre. almost 7 years ago