“America’s Dairyland” is far from evolving into “America’s Wineryland,” but visitors to Wisconsin can find local wine almost as easily as they can find local cheese.
I attend a family reunion each summer on the farm of a cousin just outside Brodhead in south-central Wisconsin. No grapes are grown on the spread, but throughout the state vineyards are springing up along corn fields and wineries are moving into former dairy barns.
Between chores, we headed out to see what we could find, starting with Botham Vineyards & Winery at Barneveld, an hour’s drive to the northwest.
When Peter Botham began to plant wine grapes in 1989, the state had just half a dozen wineries and a scattering of vineyards. Today, Wisconsin has around 120 wineries and is approaching 1,000 acres in vineyards, reports the Wisconsin Winery Association.
“I honestly don’t understand it,” says Botham of Wisconsin’s expanding wine trade. “The market for Wisconsin wine is really, really tiny. One study a few years ago found that only 5 percent of the wine bought in Wisconsin is produced here. I think there’s just one wine buyer for every 10,000 beer buyers.”
One clue to why Wisconsin’s small wine trade is growing could be in how Botham, among others, sells most of his wines – directly to customers at his winery. Two-thirds of the 5,000 cases he makes yearly are sold in his tasting room, which occupies one corner of a rambling hillside dairy barn dating from 1904. That’s a complete reversal from the traditional wholesale distribution that he relied upon just a few years ago.
In Wisconsin, as in California, small producers struggle to get attentive and effective wholesale representation. On top of that, competition for a spot on grocery-store shelves and restaurant wine lists has intensified with expansion of the wine trade nationally.
As a consequence, wineries such as Botham rely largely on wine tourism for business. He and other Wisconsin vintners are learning that day-tripping Midwesterners welcome the opportunity not only to see vineyards as well as alfalfa, soybeans and corn, but to taste their yields in settings picturesque and comfortable.
Botham is well-placed to take advantage of that impulse, being about 45 minutes west of the capital city of Madison, an hour northeast of Dubuque in neighboring Iowa, and close to several state parks as well as Mount Horeb, a Scandinavian-themed tourist town that bills itself as “the troll capital of the world.”
In trolling for customers, Wisconsin wineries, to judge by our small sampling, also are keen to position themselves as destinations all on their own, given that they tend to be scattered rather than clustered. Botham, for one, supplements its wine selection with a series of special events, such as this past weekend’s 23rd annual vintage-car show and the upcoming “Uncorked” 5-kilometer run through the vineyard, expected to draw 2,000 participants Sept. 29.
That a wine culture is rising at all in Wisconsin is a testament to science, perseverance and adaptability, the latter including an expanding appreciation for wine in a population more closely identified with beer and brandy.
As to science, Wisconsin’s notoriously brutal winters, abbreviated growing season and high summer humidity make the cultivation of traditional vitis-vinifera grape varieties like pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon impractical. Thus, grape varieties bred to withstand icy temperatures and to ripen fast dominate Wisconsin’s vineyard acreage. “Winter confines what you can grow, and the menu is pretty tiny,” Botham says.
Botham farms eight acres of wine grapes, half of what he was tending early on. He lost three acres to drifting herbicide spray from a neighboring cornfield, and cut back other blocks so he could farm the vineyard in large part by himself, given that labor has been difficult to find and retain. “People don’t want to do this kind of work anymore,” Botham says.
But he was cut out for it, growing up on what had been a dairy farm and then a cattle operation, though in his youth farming didn’t seem an appealing occupational option. As a consequence, he earned a degree in history at the University of Wisconsin, and was on track for a graduate degree in architectural design at the Maryland Institute of Art at Baltimore when he realized he wasn’t cut out for a desk job.
After working awhile at a winery in northern Maryland he returned to the home farm, hired on at Wisconsin’s best-known winery, Wollersheim of Prairie Du Sac, and began to lay the groundwork for his own vineyard and winery.
In Wisconsin, cold-hardy grape varieties go by names unfamiliar to California wine enthusiasts – Frontenac, Marquette, Marechal Foch and La Crescent, for example – though stylistically the wines they yield can be similar in flavor and structure to what Californians favor, but with less-strident tannins and more-pronounced acidity, broadly speaking.
For example, Botham’s 2016 Field 3 ($20), his signature wine, made solely from the black grape Leon Millot, is Beaujolais-like in its light, bright color, fresh cranberry fruit and revitalizing acidity. In a blind tasting, it could be seen as a European take on gamay or pinot noir for its charming fruit, wiry build, silky feel and dryness.
His 2017 Pure Bred Red ($11), made with Marechal Foch, displays the sweetness and spice that a good many Badgers expect in their wines, but its uplifting acidity and overall balance keep it from coming off cloying.
His non-vintage Blonde Rocks ($15) is a delicately sweet, cleanly fruity and surprisingly spicy unoaked chardonnay. Though the name Blonde Rocks refers to the limestone soils in the area, the wine bears an “American” appellation, given that the fruit was grown in Washington state and then crushed and pressed in the Finger Lakes district of upstate New York before making its way as juice to Botham.
Similarly, his single most popular wine, an off-dry riesling ($11), is made from grapes grown at the Finger Lakes.
About an hour south of Botham, on the edge of Browntown, Ric and Teresa Joranlien own and operate Hawk’s Mill Winery, which they have styled to be as much entertainment complex as traditional winery. They’ve built a massive pavilion just down slope from the winery to accommodate class reunions, birthday parties, University of Wisconsin alumni dinners and the like.
And their lineup of wines is tailored principally to accommodate Wisconsin’s fondness for sweetness, with many of them based on fruits other than grapes, such as Georgia peaches and Michigan blueberries. “If I made what I like (dry wines), I’d have no sweet wines here, but then I wouldn’t have any customers, either,” says Ric Joranlien of the Wisconsin sweet tooth.
Their most popular wine, perhaps in part for its cheeky name, “Currantly Single” ($11), is a mix of black currant and pear so sweet it is best taken as a dessert wine.
The most curious Wisconsin wine we sampled, however, was brought to the reunion by a cousin who had picked it up at the winery Fermenting Cellars of Milton, 30 miles northeast of Brodhead. He’d handled it gingerly the whole way.
The bottle looked to hold two distinctly different wines, and it did, a sweet white on the bottom, a dry red on the top. No partition separates the two layers. The red portion is Marechal Foch from a vineyard at Brodhead, the white Niagara from Michigan.
This was the result of a bottling error last fall, when a dry and lighter red wine got blended with a sweet and heavier white wine but remained separated, explained Mary Eckert, who with her husband Bill founded Fermenting Cellars eight years ago.
Right away, they recognized that this offbeat blend could fit into the marketing of their winery as a wedding venue, and named the wine “Crafted Blend: Where Two Become One” ($15). As long as the bottle is kept upright, the two wines remain separate. Tip and shake it a bit, however, and it becomes one red wine, sweet and spicy. “If you don’t mix them, each pour tastes a little different in each glass,” says Mary Eckert. “If you want a uniform taste, take the bottle and tip it over (before you open it) so it’s like a lava lamp.”
The wine has been well received as a wedding gift, but she cautions buyers to present a bottle to the matrimonial couple before it is added to the stack of presents. “When guys load up the gifts they just kind of throw them,” she adds.
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