Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: Wisconsin’s Wollersheim Winery

Hungarian immigrant Agoston Haraszthy lived in California for just two decades, from 1849 to 1869, and for only 12 years during that time was he involved in the state’s nascent wine trade.

In that short stretch, however, he accomplished so much – founding Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma County, planting 250 acres to vines, importing 300 varieties of grape cuttings from Europe – that he was among the first nine inductees to the Vintners Hall of Fame when it was established in Napa Valley in 2007, joining such higher-profile figures as Andre Tchelistcheff, Robert Mondavi and Charles Krug.

But Haraszthy’s interest in making wine in the United States didn’t start in California. A year after he arrived in the United States in 1840 he could be found in central Wisconsin, high on a bank overlooking the Wisconsin River, tilling the sunny limestone slopes with visions of corn, wheat and vines in mind. He founded Haraszthy Town, later to be christened Sauk City as Wisconsin’s first incorporated village.

Historic evidence suggests that he began to develop a vineyard of European grape varieties in the spring of 1848, but he apparently was quick to recognize that Wisconsin’s weather isn’t exactly hospitable to traditional grapes like cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and riesling. By 1849 he split to warm and sunny San Diego, where he was elected the city’s first marshal and the county’s first sheriff before he drifted north.

Haraszthy’s Wisconsin property and his dream of making wine passed into the hands of the German-Swiss brickmaker Peter Kehl, who with his son Jacob enlarged the cave and cultivating a flourishing vineyard, but with hardy American grape varieties that could withstand Wisconsin’s fierce winters and summer humidity.

The Kehls prospered at making wine and brandy until the end of the 19th century, when dairy cows and other crops more traditionally identified with Wisconsin began to attract their energy and interest. Prohibition did in their winery entirely in 1919, and they ended up burning their barrels as firewood.

In 1972, however, Robert and JoAnn Wollersheim bought the site. Robert Wollersheim, a home winemaker and NASA engineer, replanted the slopes with vines, restored and revitalized an underground cellar, and opened a tasting room and wine shop.

Today, Wollersheim Winery accounts for about half of Wisconsin’s annual wine production, turning out 100,000 cases a year under its own brand and the label of its sister winery, Cedar Creek at Cedarburg.

Robert Wollersheim died in 2005, by which time his son-in-law, Philippe Coquard, was well indoctrinated in running the estate. Coquard, a native of Beaujolais, arrived at Wollersheim in 1984 as an agricultural work-exchange student. He never left. In addition to assuming winemaking responsibilities, he married the Wollersheims’ oldest daughter, Julie.

Coquard has had a hand in guiding Wollersheim from the days when the estate seemed jinxed by the ghost of Haraszthy to its current success. In the late 1980s, the winery was on the verge of bankruptcy. “We were wondering if we could make it,” Coquard recalled.

In searching for a solution to the winery’s financial straits, he concluded that he needed to make a light, fruity and delicately sweet white wine with the crisp acidity that would enhance its flexibility at the dinner table. In the fall of 1988, he fermented the juice of some seyval-blanc grapes grown and pressed in New York, and the following spring released the youthful wine under the proprietary name “Prairie Fume.”

The wine was an immediate hit, both among consumers and wine judges. In competitions, it quickly racked up four gold medals. “It was like a switch had been turned on,” Coquard says of the winery’s suddenly bright future. “That wine pulled us out of bankruptcy.” Today, Prairie Fume accounts for a third of the winery’s sales.

Coquard is fiercely proud of Wisconsin. The family’s 27-acre estate vineyard is planted solely to the French-American hybrids Marechal Foch and Leon Millot and the Wisconsin hybrids St. Pepin and LaCrosse, all developed to stand up to the Midwest’s trying climate.

This spring he released the winery’s first brandy, under the proprietary name “Coquard,” made solely with the Wisconsin grapes LaCrosse and St. Pepin and aged for two years in barrels of Wisconsin oak.

As for Wisconsin’s identity as a wine state, he’s especially keen on the prospects of Marechal Foch – pronounced mah-reh-shal fosh – a black grape that in his hands yields clean red wines of varying weight and intensity, from the lilting Beaujolais-inspired “Domaine du Sac” to the deep, complex and more robust “Domaine Reserve.”

This fall, for the first time, Coquard bought grapes in California and had them shipped to Wisconsin. Grown at Lodi, they were the black grape carignane, which he chose for its historic connection to Haraszthy. Carignane was among the varieties that Haraszthy brought back with him from Europe in 1862.

Virtually all of Wollersheim’s wines are sold in Wisconsin and northern Illinois, though the winery does ship its wines.

Philippe Coquard is a member of a family that has been making wine in France for 13 generations. How have they taken to his decision to bolt from Europe to the United States? “They still love me,” says Coquard, who notes that a younger brother is making wine in Italy.