Local Wineries Fight to Overcome Stigma
Alwyn Fitzgerald was four years old when he had his first sip of wine.
“My parents are European,” he says. It was just as normal to have a bottle of wine on the table as it was salt and pepper.
Even if his preschool palate wasn’t quite ready for those first few drops of wine, Fitzgerald did develop a passion and appreciation for the beverage. He started to teach himself the winemaking process in high school and pursued it as a side project throughout his thirty-five-year career in corporate science.
But as Fitzgerald got to the point of producing fifty gallons of wine at a time in his basement, he realized he didn’t want this to be a pet passion anymore. He wanted more. So he left the corporate world, cashed in his 401(k), landed some investors and opened Fisher King Winery in Mount Horeb in 2011.
“I thought if I don’t do this now, I’ll be an eighty-year-old guy saying coulda shoulda woulda,” Fitzgerald says.
He’s not alone. Fisher King is one of many new wineries in Wisconsin using locally grown grapes, which the winery either purchases from a nearby vineyard, as is the case for Fisher King, or grows itself. From 2000 to 2013, the state saw a jump from thirteen to over eighty wineries, according to the Wisconsin Grape Growers Association, and this year, the number is “closing in on one hundred,” says Fitzgerald. Wineries in the greater Madison and Driftless areas include stalwarts like Botham Vineyards in Barneveld and Wollersheim Winery in Prairie du Sac, as well as newcomers like Fisher King and Fawn Creek Winery in the Wisconsin Dells.
Professional associations have formed, wine tourism has grown and media coverage—both local and national—has followed. The Today Show featured Wisconsin as “a wine destination off the beaten path” this June.
“Our whole industry is really, really changing,” says Fitzgerald. It’s growing up.
But there are growing pains and obstacles preventing the local wine industry from taking off in the way the craft beer business has. “There’s some stigma out there,” Fitzgerald says.
He’s referring to the stereotypes that Wisconsin wine isn’t serious wine, that it’s too sweet and the grapes that grow here can’t produce wine on par with that of California or Washington or Oregon.
“That stigma is a little bit of a cliché, and I wish people would stop assuming that,” says , a veteran vintner and co-owner of Wollersheim Winery. “There are many Wisconsin wineries whose wine can stand up to any wine made in the nation.”
Coquard is perhaps best situated to stake that claim. His wines have won many national awards, and Wollersheim is often seen as both a pioneer and gold standard of the local industry.
But the source of the stigma isn’t the winemaking. It’s the grapes.
“Many of these are hybrids that were developed either to withstand colder regions of Europe or were developed later on at the University of Minnesota, so some of them are hybrids of grapes that have already been crossed quite a bit,” says Michael Kwas, a sommelier and the former wine director at (and Madison Magazine ). It’s not that the hybrids inherently can’t produce good wine, it’s just much more difficult, and the kind of wine they do produce is often a hard sell over other varieties of a similar price from regions like California and Washington.
“I think one of the problems that Wisconsin winemakers face is that they’re trying to make white wine in a market that, at least in fine dining, really prefers dry white wines. Compared to places like California, Wisconsin wines taste sweeter,” he says. It’s a similar story for red varieties. “[Wisconsin] can excel in things that are suited for this climate, such as tomatoes and squashes and beets and cranberries, but how well do grapes grow in this climate for good wine?” says Kwas.
Which brings up another point: the locavore narrative that favors local beer, produce and other food and drink products is often void of local wine.
“When there’s such a trend for locally grown and locally sourced, I really would encourage those who talk this language to really apply what they preach,” says Coquard. “If you support the Wisconsin farming industry, then put a section of Wisconsin wine on your list.”
But if you peek at the wine lists at many Madison-area restaurants, there isn’t a Wisconsin wine section. Or if there is, it’s populated by one, maybe two, varieties from the state. Winemakers and other industry experts point to several reasons, but a main one, aside from the sweetness, is just a lack of education around Wisconsin wines for the average consumer. People don’t really know a lot about local wine varieties, so they stick with the Chardonnays and the Pinot Noirs and the Merlots of the world because that’s what they recognize. Those familiar grapes can’t grow in Wisconsin, so the varieties we do have here—Marechal Foch, St. Pepin, Marquette, St. Croix, for example—scare people away. Or at least don’t excite them as much.
“I think a number of people do write [Wisconsin wines] off right off the bat,” says Matt Robert, the wine director at . “Not necessarily because it’s bad or they think it’s bad, but just because they’re unfamiliar with it. Wisconsin wine just doesn’t come up as much compared to California wine.”
Eno Vino does carry products from Wisconsin wineries, but not many. Of the restaurant’s more than four hundred offerings, only one—Wollersheim’s Prairie Fumé—is currently from the state. In the past they have stocked wines from Botham Vineyards, too. Robert says he’d like to be feature more local wines and support the Wisconsin industry, and he’s always looking for new ways to do so, but it’s hard. Purchasing through a distributor means he can’t just try something from a new winery on a whim. “There’s a process,” he says, and it can be limiting.
But for Fitzgerald, this is exactly the challenge—getting restaurant folks to try his wine. “If we can get them to try it, they like it and they buy it.”
Fitzgerald hopes that recognition from national competitions will help elevate the stature of local wines both around the country and here at home. Among several other recent awards, Fisher King won a gold medal from the American Wine Society this year for its Troll Town Red, made from locally grown Marechal Foch grapes. “That is cool,” says Fitzgerald. “It’s validating the Wisconsin wine industry.”
Coquard also sees the payoff of awards. “It’s a tremendous exposure for us nationwide. When you travel across the nation and you talk about Wisconsin, if you bring up wine, customers will tell you flat out that they have heard of Wollersheim Winery … because of the recognition we have received for Prairie Fumé, Prairie Blush and White Reisling.”
Winemakers like Coquard and Fitzgerald are hopeful that the recognition, education and proliferation of Wisconsin wine will trigger an increase in interest and demand from local consumers, which in turn will lead to higher numbers of local wines on restaurant wine lists and liquor store shelves.
Coquard says he’s starting to see a change. “It’s slowly happening, and I’m optimistic.”