Wisconsin Wines and Vineyards
Here’s a juicy bit of information: Wisconsin’s first grape vineyard was planted in 1846, two years before Wisconsin even gained statehood. According to UW-Madison, Agoston Haraszthy—a Hungarian immigrant—planted that vineyard “on the east bank of the Wisconsin River and founded the community that would become Sauk City.” He relocated westward just three years later, settling in Seminole, CA, where he established the famous Buena Vista Vineyard. His vineyard lands in Wisconsin would later on become the site for one of Wisconsin’s oldest wineries.
The grape variety traditionally used in winemaking did not grow well in North America, a fact realized only after many failed attempts in the British colonies along the Atlantic coast during the 1600s and 1700s. UW-Madison states, “It was not until the 1740 discovery of the Alexander grape in Philadelphia that North American wine production became feasible.” This viable new option piqued an interest in hybridization, which 100 years later resulted in grapes that are able to thrive in Wisconsin.
Starting in 1943, Elmer Swenson began breeding grapes at his 120-acre farm near Osceola. He started crossing French hybrid grapes with selections of the local wild species in the hopes of creating a great tasting grape that could grow in Wisconsin’s climate. He eventually began doing some of his work at the University of Minnesota while working as a gardener there, but the bulk of it remained at his home farm. Throughout his life, he developed numerous cultivars that are still used today, including five patented cultivars that became key contributors to the growth of Midwest winemaking.
The first licensed winery in Wisconsin, von Stiehl Winery, opened in 1967 in Algoma. According to their website, there were no wineries in Wisconsin at that time, so a local physician, Dr. Charles Stiehl, “asked the state to create a winery license to legally sell his Door County Cherry Wine.” Five years later, in 1972, Bob Wollersheim purchased the land that had been Agoston Haraszthy’s vineyard—which had been serving as a conventional Wisconsin farm since 1899—and established Wollersheim Wineries on the site. By 2007, Wisconsin was home to 41 wineries utilizing about 480 acres of grapes.
As more cold-hardy varieties were developed, the number of wineries grew exponentially, tripling in the 10-year period after 2007. Currently, Wisconsin’s more than 100 wineries utilize 800 acres of vineyards for grapes, plus many additional acres for other fruits used to produce wines including apples, cherries, rhubarb, and more.
Whether using grapes or some other fruit, wine is formed when yeast consumes the sugars of fermenting fruit, which produces ethanol, carbon dioxide, and heat. Wineries will press the fruit to extract the juice, then add that juice and their other ingredients into a fermentation tank. These tanks are where the real magic happens! This process can take a handful of days or several months, depending on the fruit and the specific type of wine being made. Sweet wines are typically produced when the fermentation period is stopped before the yeast has consumed all of the sugar, whereas letting all of the sugar be consumed by yeast produces a dry wine. After fermentation, wine is usually filtered, stored, and aged. When ready, wines will be bottled, labeled, and sent to tasting rooms or stores across the country!
The other top Alice candidates and I were able to tour Staller Estate in Delavan as part of the 76th Alice in Dairyland Finals back in May. We started our tour where all good wines begin—in the vineyard—learning about the maintenance of the crop. We then went to their processing area to see just what is needed to turn those grapes into wine. Fittingly for Alice in Dairyland, their fermentation tanks are actually repurposed bulk tanks from dairy farms! Everything from harvesting to bottling and labeling is done on-site for Staller Estate Winery, before their products are sold in their store, sampled in their tasting room, or sent to local grocery stores.
If all of this reading about vinting has left you thirsting for a new brand of wine to try, visit the Wisconsin Winery Association at wisconsinwineries.org. They have more information about the history of winemaking in Wisconsin, a product locator for different varieties of wine, and a directory to all of the wineries in Wisconsin. As you responsibly enjoy your next bottle, raise a glass to the dedication and commitment of the former and current growers, processors, and groundbreakers of Wisconsin wines.