Student-Created Quaffs

Red Fusion, a wine produced by Campus Craft Winery, a collaboration between the CALS-based Fermentation Sciences Program and Wollersheim Winery.   Photo by Sevie Kenyon

Red Fusion, a wine produced by Campus Craft Winery, a collaboration between the CALS-based Fermentation Sciences Program and Wollersheim Winery.
Photo by Sevie Kenyon

The wine, Red Fusion, was produced through the Campus Craft Winery, a collaboration between the Fermentation Sciences Program and Wollersheim Winery. Students enrolled in FS375, a course taught by food science professor Jim Steele and enologist Nick Smith, were responsible for not just producing the wine, but also naming the product and developing the label. The project yielded 230 cases of wine this year, and Steele hopes to up that number to over 1,000 cases next year. Proceeds will help support the food science department’s wine-related outreach, instruction and research efforts.

The beer, S’Wheat Caroline, was produced through the Campus Craft Brewery, a collaboration between the Fermentation Sciences Program and the Wisconsin Brewing Company. Developed by students Daniel Deveney (mechanical engineering), Jenna Fantle BS’16 (food science) and Eric Kretsch (microbiology), the American wheat ale was declared the winning brew among a field of student-crafted competitors by a panel of expert judges. This is the second beer released through this collaboration. Inaugural Red, released in May 2015, has been very successful in the marketplace.

Both beverages are available at Union South and Memorial Union. Additionally, the beers are available on tap and in retail stores statewide. Due to the relatively low volume of product available, beyond campus Red Fusion is available for purchase only at Wollersheim Winery.

Move Over, Beer

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.”

Vintage Wisconsin

IF THINGS HAD PLAYED OUT JUST A LITTLE DIFFERENTLY, America’s love affair with wine might have started on a scenic hillside overlooking the Wisconsin River. In the middle of the 19th century, a Hungarian count named Agoston Haraszthy planted vineyards on those gentle slopes, hoping to introduce the European tradition of fine viticulture to America. But the harsh winters took their toll on both Haraszthy and his grapes, and after just seven years in Wisconsin he headed west. Eventually, he found his way to Sonoma, California, where he founded another vineyard and helped plant the seeds of California’s powerful wine industry.

Today, the fertile hills along the Wisconsin River are again planted with grapes, and Philippe Coquard sees signs that Haraszthy’s vision may finally be coming true. Coquard is chief winemaker at Wollersheim Winery, which has operated a vineyard on the banks of the Wisconsin River for 35 years. Winning both national and international recognition for his wines, Coquard has put Wisconsin on the wine world’s map. But these days,

Coquard has lots of company. Fifty-two commercial vineyards have sprouted in Wisconsin, and interest in viticulture is soaring. And that makes Coquard wonder: Could Wisconsin be known not just as the cheese state, but as the wine-and-cheese state?

“Wine and cheese are a natural pairing,” he says. “Wisconsin has a history of growing grapes since 1850. Once we know what varieties work here, we can grow grapes to make outstanding and recognized wines.”

The idea is compelling. Last year, Americans drank up 25 percent of the wine produced worldwide, making the United States the world’s leading consumer of wine for the first time. Combine that taste for wine with a growing interest in locally produced foods, and Wisconsin grape growers sense opportunity. “People actively go around the state looking for wineries,” says Ryan Prellwitz, president of the newly formed Wisconsin Grape Growers Association. “As our industry expands, people won’t have to go to California to find good quality wines.”

True, Wisconsin winters haven’t mellowed much since Haraszthy fled for the coast. But the new crop of Wisconsin wine growers have a one thing the Hungarian entrepreneur didn’t: the benefit of research. As part of a partnership with state grape growers, CALS’ Agricultural Research Stations have launched a new program to evaluate varieties of grapes that may be best suited for Wisconsin’s growing conditions. Supported by funds from the state’s Agricultural Development and Diversification Grant program, the trial began in 2007 with the planting of 15 varieties of seedless table grapes. Last year, researchers at three research stations—West Madison, Spooner and the Peninsular station near Sturgeon Bay—added wine grapes into the mix. Four red-wine grape cultivars and three white-wine grape cultivars were planted at all three sites, which were chosen for their differing climates. Another five varieties are being tested at West Madison and the Peninsular to test warmer-climate grapes.

Coquard, who helped get the research project off the ground, is already encouraged. “Grape growers in Wisconsin need information on what can grow in cold winters and hot, humid summers, when to prune, what kind of trellis systems work best for which cultivars, what spray will control fungus, et cetera. We at Wollersheim, with (our) experience, have most of these answers, but what works for us might not work at a different site. We don’t have the land or the time to sacrifice vines, either. There are also so many new cultivars available,” he says. “We are looking forward to seeing some true experimentation coming out of these trials.”

Wisconsin’s geography is surprisingly advantageous for growing wine grapes. In addition to deep, rich soils that are conducive to grape vines, our rolling hillsides protect grapes from high winds while allowing gentler breezes to blow through the plants, keeping frost damage at bay. The lakes and rivers that surround the state create a variety of microclimates that can suit the crop quite well. Several vineyards are located near the Mississippi River in Vernon County, with others along the Wisconsin River in Richland and Sauk counties and near Lake Michigan in Door County.

But geography also presents a challenge. “Grape growing is just so specific to the microclimate you are in,” says Julie Coquard of Wollersheim Winery. “It’s just a challenge to learn what to do all along the way, how to take care of (the vines).”