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Move Over, Beer

UW–Madison’s first enologist, based at CALS, will aid Wisconsin’s wine and cider industry

Wisconsin is known for fermented products like cheese, pickles and beer. But now it’s adding even more to that blossoming list: wine and cider. And the Badger State’s 110 wineries and commercial cider makers now have a new resource to help them compete: Nick Smith.

Since he started at CALS earlier this year as the university’s first wine and cider outreach specialist, Smith has been traveling the state, knocking on doors and meeting Wisconsin’s wine and cider makers.

Wine grapes can be difficult to grow in Wisconsin since most varieties prefer warmer climates, but after years researching wine and working with growers in Minnesota, Smith is confident there’s a market for it here, too, given the state’s legacy of fermented products, bustling tourism industry and agricultural diversity.

Smith’s also interested in helping producers realize profits in cider, where it can be hard to compete with large cider makers who sell product for the price of craft beer.

“It’s a relatively rapidly growing industry, especially for cider, which is one of the fastest-growing market segments in terms of percentage growth year after year,” he says.

Smith has blazed a meandering trail to his current position. He was a 19-year-old business management major at the University of Minnesota the day he caught the wine and beer bug. He was making a delivery for one of his campus jobs when he noticed a certain shop across the street.

“There was a homebrew shop right there on campus—I think it was owned by a retired microbiology professor,” he says. “I thought: ‘What is that?’ and instantly, I was hit. It never occurred to me that you could homebrew.”

Smith ended up taking numerous food and fermentation science classes. He then spent a year studying beer and winemaking at Oregon State University before taking a job as a chemist for a commercial winemaker in California.

But the draw back to the Midwest was strong, and he took a position as a research winemaker at the University of Minnesota, where he spent eight years preparing small batches of wine for tasting analysis based on the selections of grape breeders. He also earned a master’s degree in food science.

Just prior to joining CALS, Smith was working as a winemaker in Rochester, Minnesota, but the opportunity to build something from the vineyard (and orchard) up in Wisconsin was too good to turn down.

Since his arrival, Smith has participated in workshops hosted by the wine industry and is gathering input and information about the needs of wine and cider makers in Wisconsin. Many, he says, are new to commercial production and are looking for advice and help in scaling up from homebrew or commercial small-batch operations. Smith, who is funded by state and industry grants, is working with the Wisconsin Winery Association to develop educational outreach tracks for conferences, find speakers and develop short courses for industry, much like the CALS-based Center for Dairy Research, which he says serves as a good model for developing outreach and viticulture partnerships.

As examples, over the summer he hosted an industry workshop on sparkling wine production, which he expects to be a profitable segment of the market in Wisconsin, as well as a preharvest workshop on aspects of fermentation chemistry in winemaking. This fall he’s hosting regional winemaker roundtables at three wineries around the state, offering winemakers an opportunity to meet and discuss wines they are producing.

Smith’s also working to get a fermentation lab bubbling in Babcock Hall, where he currently shares space with ice cream and other frozen-dessert researchers. He may also take students interested in making wine and cider for an independent study course, similar to a beer-brewing course recently led by Jim Steele, head of the fermented foods and beverages program in the Department of Food Science. The department plans to soon offer an undergraduate certificate in fermented foods and beverages.

Smith hopes the revenue generated from workshops will fund additional research on how grape growing affects flavor and aroma development. Wisconsin is, after all, fertile terroir: roughly 10 new wineries, 10 new breweries and 10 new distilleries pop up in the state each year.

“It’s a growing industry, and it’s going to grow without us,” he says. “But the UW can help it grow better.”