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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.”

At CALS’ West Madison research station, gardener Brian Emerson helps student intern Jenna Lind secure young grape vines to a trellis to support their growth, part of the station’s new trials of wine grape varieties.

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).”

Until recently, most Wisconsin grape growers faced those challenges on their own. UW-Madison had done little research on grapes as a commercial crop, partly because the industry’s profile was so small. Judy Reith-Rozelle, assistant superintendent at the West Madison Agricultural Research Station, says most growers operated backyard operations and consumed their own grapes. There was little networking or information sharing among growers, she says.

In 2006, Reith-Rozelle met with Philippe Coquard to look into a more formal research program. “When Philippe and I had our first meeting, we wondered if we could get 20 people to show up at an informational session,” she says. But a meeting in March 2007 at Wollersheim drew more than 100 growers, convincing the organizers that the interest was there. Growers simply lacked organization.

Last year, growers came together to form the Wisconsin Grape Growers Association to share information among growers and promote the industry. Prellwitz, who grows grapes near Ripon, says the early discussions with the university were integral to forming the group. “We have a lot of people coming into this industry without a traditional agricultural background. There is significantly more support available from the university system than most people realize, and we’ll take all of the help we can get,” he says. But the relationship is reciprocal. Reith-Rozelle says grape growers have provided lots of advice about planting and pruning their trial vines.

According to a survey done this year by UW-Extension, the WGGA and the Wisconsin Winery Association, there are now more than 240 farmers growing grapes in Wisconsin. Wisconsin vineyards remain small, averaging less than three and a half acres. But in total more than 100,000 grape vines are now growing in the state. Some of the new growers are seasoned farmers who are turning to grapes because of their value. While the initial investment to establish a vineyard can run $12,000 an acre, each acre can yield two to three tons of grapes, depending on the variety. With a ton of wine grapes selling for about $1,200, CALS horticulture professor Brent McCown figures that an acre of wine grapes can return $1,500, about three times the average per-acre return for corn. Table grapes can offer good returns, as well. While Wisconsin has traditionally not grown many seedless table grapes, Reith-Rozelle says their high market value makes them a good choice for community-supported agriculture and farm-to-consumer sales.

But McCown adds that the growth in vineyards also reflects the popularity of viticulture as a hobby. “We have a lot of retirees from Minneapolis and Chicago buying land in Wisconsin and wanting to grow grapes, but they don’t have any idea how,” he says.

Julie Coquard understands the appeal. “It’s part of getting back to nature and enjoying life. Grapes are a romantic crop to grow … At least it looks romantic until you understand how much work it is,” she says with a knowing smile.

That’s a lesson Lois Sterling can relate to. Sterling, who operates a vineyard in Viroqua, grew up on a dairy farm and never fancied herself a winemaker. Then in 2000, she attended a meeting organized by Tim Rehbein, Vernon County’s extension agent. Rehbein was looking to recruit farmers to grow grapes instead of tobacco, and Sterling thought it might make a fun retirement project for her parents. She came away thinking that she might want to give it a try herself. Now, with her husband and her parents, she cares for 2,500 grape vines on a five-acre vineyard.

“It’s been so much fun. We’ve met so many interesting people,” says Bonnie Sterling. Lois’s mother. “Grape growers are totally eccentric. You have to be eccentric to do this.”

After just two seasons of growth, the grapes at the CALS research stations aren’t ready for the winery. But studies of the vines’ suitability for Wisconsin’s climate are already bearing fruit.

As often happens with romance, the Sterlings’ flirtations with grapes have led to maternity. “My grapes are my babies,” says Lois proudly, and she cares for them with parental attention. To keep deer from eating sprouting vines, for example, the Sterlings hang pantyhose filled with soap shavings from trellises each spring. They have also nailed up old compact discs throughout their fields to create a shiny distraction to avert robins.

“Each year, there is some new crisis,” she says.

But nothing challenges the Midwestern grape grower more than weather. Some of the most popular wines among American consumers—such as chardonnay and merlot—are made from grapes that don’t fare well in Wisconsin’s short growing season. And that means that most of Wisconsin’s wineries have to import grapes to make their wines.

That could quickly change. In the past eight years, researchers at the University of Minnesota have bred and released several new varieties of cold-hardy grapes. Grown by a Wisconsin plant breeder named Elmer Swenson, the new varieties include classically Midwestern-sounding grapes such as La Crosse, La Crescent and Marquette, as well as Old World-inspired lines like Foch (pronounced FOE-ish) and Frontenac.

“We now have a Midwest wine industry thanks to these Minnesota-developed cultivars,” says McCown. “Funding from the Minnesota state legislature over the last three decades drove this grape research. Minnesota is now reaping the rewards because these varieties are patented, and they are getting a return on their investment in the form of royalties.”

But while interest in growing the new varieties is high, little information exists on how the new cultivars perform in Wisconsin. That’s why the trials at the CALS research stations are so eagerly anticipated. “We have an important educational role to play because no one has worked with these cultivars before. We can answer a lot of questions on how you manage these varieties, what kind of diseases and pests are you going to have to deal with, and which varieties can you grow in each region,” McCown says.

The stations will publish preliminary results from the trials beginning this fall, and McCown says CALS will be active in sharing the findings with extension agents and growers. Reith-Rozelle anticipates hosting one-day schools for current and potential growers at the research stations to help the industry develop.

But the industry’s growth also depends on marketing. While some wineries are already growing the cold-hardy grapes, the names of the wines don’t necessarily reflect the new varieties. For instance, Wollersheim doesn’t offer a Foch wine, but it puts Foch grapes into its Prairie Sunburst Red and Prairie Blush wines. The WGGA’s Prellwitz would like to see the grapes get higher billing. “We want to brand cold-hardy varieties and promote them as much as possible,” he says. “When someone walks into a store we want them to recognize these varieties that grow well in Wisconsin.”

McCown agrees that Wisconsin wines could come to occupy a special niche for regional consumers. “You could have blends that will make the wines unique to a particular region. For example, wine from the Driftless Area in southwestern Wisconsin would be interesting. I think that’s a major part of the future—unique, high value, highly marketable wine,” he says.

But ultimately the choice to embrace Wisconsin wines will be up to consumers. Lois Sterling can still recall the days when telling people she was making wine in Wisconsin drew a laugh or a gasp. “I hope with the WGGA in place everyone will take us seriously,” she says. “Even wine people will say, ‘That’s not merlot, or that’s not chardonnay.’ I say, ‘No, we can’t grow that here, but wouldn’t you like to try some Foch or Frontenac?’” Wisconsin winemakers are betting that soon the answer will be yes.