Hardy grapes contribute to boom in Wisconsin wineries

At last count, Wisconsin had 120 wineries
Hardy grapes contribute to boom in Wisconsin wineries
Tim Burton

At last count, there were 120 wineries in Wisconsin. In 2000, only 18 could be found in the state.

Advancements in growing and breeding cold, hardy grapes get most of the credit for this explosion. But a lot of challenges remain, including lengthy permitting processes, unavoidably labor intensive grape harvesting practices, pest control and finding customers in a highly competitive market.

Many wineries grow their own grapes. Those that don’t often prefer using locally grown grapes.
Few Napa Valley grape varieties would survive here, where freezing temperatures can start in October and last until May. Thanks to scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Minnesota, we now have grapevines that can survive the Midwest’s long winters and produce ripe fruit before the first frost.

Some of the grapes that grow best in this climate are Marquette, Frontenac gris, petite pearl and La Crescent. These cold weather grapes are high in acidity but embody an array of flavors and yield a broad spectrum of wines. Marquette grapes are the most common in the Midwest and are often called the North American cousin to pinot noir. Frontenac grapes are very sweet and are good for port wines. Petite pearl grapes are quite bold and can be combined with Marquette grapes to make cabernet and merlot.

Todd Kuehl operates Bailey’s Run Vineyard in New Glarus with his wife Janet Kuehl and their family. Bailey’s Run is a vineyard and winery, meaning it grows its own grapes and then produces and sells wine from its vineyards.

The Kuehls first planted the vineyard’s 4,000 vines in 2015 and are in the midst of their second harvest. Vines have to grow for three or four years before they yield grapes that are mature enough to make wine from.

“It has to be a passion,” Kuehl says.

“It requires a lot of faith up front, because you don’t crop for four years,” adds Aimee Arrigoni, owner and operator of Sugar River Family Farm in Mount Horeb. Sugar River grows grapes for Wollersheim Winery & Distillery in Prairie du Sac, where Wollersheim has made and sold wine since the 1840s.

Kuehl hasn’t been at it as long, but he is making up for lost time. He says he often works 90 to 100 hours per week because grape growing requires special attention, constant vigilance and is very costly to mechanize.

Late in the growing season, the grapes are hand-covered with mesh nets to protect them from birds. Beetles and mites are major risks to vineyards, too. “You have to understand the risks and the pests – birds and other critters – that are sometimes unique to grapes,” Kuehl says.

Winemaking requires passion, hard work and patience. The permitting process can also be lengthy. Companies like Bailey’s Run – that grow grapes, make wine, sell products online and in stores and run tasting rooms – must navigate disparate agricultural, manufacturing, permitting and regulatory processes in addition to state and local liquor laws.

“It’s a lifestyle,” says Kuehl. His family, including his parents, who are in their 70s, handle the marketing, accounting, public relations, retail, event management and everything associated with running the winery business in addition to the complex agricultural operation.

“We didn’t want to look back 20 years from now and say, ‘Why didn’t we do this?,’ ” says Kuehl.

Our Grapes
Number of gallons of wine Wisconsin wineries produce annually.

7-10 years
Average time it takes before a winery turns a profit.

Midwest Grapes
Very few Wisconsin wineries grow all their own grapes. But most of the grapes grown here are consumed here. Some grapes are imported from Illinois, Minnesota, Michigan and Iowa.

More White Than Red
More white wine is produced from Wisconsin grapes than red, but reds are closing the gap. St. Pepin and La Crescent grapes grown in the state produce rieslings and ice wine.

SOURCE: Ryan Prellwitz, former president of the Wisconsin Winery Association and Wisconsin Grape Growers Association

Dustin Beilke is a Madison freelance writer.