Vintage Wisconsin

Wine is booming in the land of beer and cheese. Growers are hoping that CALS research on Wisconsin-friendly grapes can help uncork the industry's potential.

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).”