Venture to Mineral Point for American Wine Project’s newly opened tasting room
Erin Rasmussen aims to showcase lesser-known American grape varieties that grow well in cold climates like Wisconsin’s.
Erin Rasmussen has winemaking in her roots. Her father and grandfather were both amateur winemakers, and she grew up with grapevines in her backyard.
When a friend suggested interning in Napa, California, she cold-called Ancien Wines for a job. Rasmussen’s official winemaking journey started the day she walked into Ancien and heard her favorite band, Talking Heads, over the stereo singing, “This must be the place.”
“I was never quite sure what I wanted to do as a career because I liked everything,” Rasmussen says. “And then it turns out as a winemaker you have to be a chemist, microbiologist, meteorologist and salesperson. It encompassed [all of] these diverse interests that I have.”
Her winemaking journey led her from the hills of Napa and Sonoma to New Zealand for a graduate degree in viticulture, the study of grape cultivation. Eventually she realized that she missed family, was sick of the California climate (which included periods of severe drought, water shortages and yearly wildfires) and wanted to push the envelope on her winemaking creativity.
“Winemakers were saying there’s only mediocre wine in the Midwest,” Rasmussen says. “I’m so stubborn, I said, ‘Well, let me show you.’ ”
After a brief stint in Nebraska, Rasmussen returned to her home state of Wisconsin — she grew up in Madison and studied French and music performance at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
Once back, Rasmussen released her first wines in 2019 under the name American Wine Project. Her goal with the business has been to showcase lesser-known American grape varieties that grow well in cold climates like Wisconsin’s.
“The grapes we grow here are distinctly American,” she says. “They were crossbred within the country for our difficult growing [conditions].”
The concept behind American Wine Project’s name is Rasmussen’s commitment to using American grapes. Varieties include La Crosse, St. Pepin, Marquette, Petite Pearl and Sabrevois, several of which were developed by Osceola-born grape breeder Elmer Swenson.
While Rasmussen doesn’t have her own vineyard — she works with Wisconsin growers in Mount Horeb and Pulaski, along with some in Preston, Minnesota, and Des Moines, Iowa — using Midwest growers and making wine on-site in Mineral Point means grapes and bottles don’t travel thousands of miles by boat or plane to make it to the dinner table.
Rasmussen’s approach to winemaking requires her to draw on a mental catalog of all the wines and foods she’s ever tasted.
“That’s what we all do when we wine-taste — it’s all about memory,” she says. “I think to myself, ‘These flavors remind me of this other kind of wine and I know how that’s made, and I want it to end up sort of like this, so I know I need to do these things,’ and then I have [to] come up with my winemaking plan.”
Her goal is to create wines without added sugar that allow the grapes to speak for themselves. Wines are aged in neutral barrels that won’t impart a barrel flavor. Rasmussen selects label art from the public domain and names each wine to reflect the unique flavors in each bottle.
American Wine Project’s most popular wine is Switch Theory, a red blend featuring a color theory wheel on the bottle. “[I] made it obvious that it’s not a static thing, so I selected the color theory wheel, done by an artist in New York in [the] early 20th century,” Rasmussen says. “The name is light and electric and makes me feel that through sound.”
People trying American Wine Project for the first time may enjoy Sympathetic Magic, a rich red wine using Marquette grapes, or Modern Optimism, a spicy, herbal white wine. Infrequent wine drinkers might like Wit & Wisdom Piquette, a fizzy wine that’s like a cross between cider, hard seltzer and sour beer. On the other side of the spectrum, American Wine Project is partnering with State Line Distillery this summer to create vermouth, a fortified wine.
American Wine Project’s tasting room opened in Mineral Point in June. The tasting room will eventually offer cheese plates, Giant Jones Brewing Co. beer and nonalcoholic beverages.
The space was originally the industrial arts building for the Mineral Point School District, and then a landscaping company took over the building and put in an acre of gardens, a human-made pond and a water feature. When Rasmussen acquired the space, her goal was to create a relaxing oasis where people can connect with the outdoors and each other, building on the previous tenants.
“I want people to feel like they’ve stumbled on this hidden gem of a place,” Rasmussen says. “To try wine, to relax with their friends, let their kids run around, hunt for frogs by the pond and to feel like it’s their little secret second backyard where they don’t have to mow the lawn.”
Hannah Wente builds community through freelance writing and nonprofit work.
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