Joy Ann Ribar pens the Deep Lakes Cozy Mystery series, about a winemaker in Wisconsin. Some of you know that my husband and I used to be pretty active with our blog OddBallGrape.com. We’ve tried wines from all sorts of places, including Kentucky, Indiana, Iowa, and Idaho. So, naturally, I had to get Joy Ann on this blog. Here’s to research.
I’m a mystery author from Wisconsin and because my main character owns a vineyard and wine lounge, I do a little research at area wineries everywhere I travel with my books. Okay, I do A LOT of wine research. After all, I owe it to my main character to be authentic, right?
In the course of my travels, I’ve chatted with many wine enthusiasts like myself about their wine preferences. Red, Rosé, or White? Sparkling or Still? Dry or Sweet? Oh, oh: question three is where the trouble begins to brew. Many people from certain parts of the country make a face at the word sweet paired with the word wine. And the sour expressions become even more pronounced when I mention that I’m from Wisconsin and enjoy the wineries here.
Some spew descriptions of the perceived taste of sweet wines, like “cough syrup”, “cloying”, “kool-aid”, or just plain “yuck.” If this is your perception of Wisconsin wines, I want to change your mind.
First a little history
A Hungarian immigrant named Agoston Haraszthy planted the state’s first vineyard in 1846 on the east bank of the Wisconsin River and founded the community that would become Sauk City. He headed west three years later, establishing the famous Buena Vista Vineyard in Seminole, California, and became known as the father of Californian winemaking. (wiscontext.org). [Ed. note – One of the fathers. Jean Louis Vignes brought the first European varietals to Los Angeles, California in the 1820s or so, and Matthew Keller has most of what is now Malibu planted out in vines by the 1850s. Did not know Haraszthy started in Wisconsin, though.] Haraszthy’s Wisconsin property is the site of the famous Wollersheim Winery, which is worth a visit if you travel to America’s Dairyland.
I love it that there’s a connection between California and Wisconsin wine, even though it is only historical. I have to face facts: wine produced in the two states are on opposite sides of the San Andreas when it comes to style and flavor.
Viticulturists in my home state owe a debt of gratitude to native son Elmer Swenson who developed many cold climate varieties and made them public in 1980 when he retired. Wisconsin wines rely on these cold climate grapes to produce wine-worthy fruit in our skimpy growing season. To say grape cultivation here is challenging would be an understatement. We only have 80 to 180 days without frost, depending upon the area. Varieties that grow in temperate climates are never going to grow well here or yield enough grapes to make viticulture worth the effort.
Let’s leap into the present
Midwest wine production has grown by leaps and bounds in the last ten years. California wears the crown, all alone in the stratosphere with its production of 680 million gallons annually out of the 800 million gallons fermenting in vats across America. No state can top that, but Michigan and Illinois rank in the American top ten. Wisconsin comes in around number 19, producing 1.2 million gallons annually flowing from its 80 plus wineries.
Our message to wine enthusiasts everywhere: Wisconsin doesn’t want to compete with California, Washington, New York, and Oregon when it comes to wine appreciation. Wisconsin just wants your love and acceptance. Many of the Wisconsin fruity varieties are meant to be consumed “young,” which means the highest quality falls around four to eight months of age. Simply put, these wines just want to have fun. They are priced to please. However, like our unpredictable Wisconsin weather, extremes in wine styles reside in each winery. The serious wines that contend for honors stately perch right next to the jolly bottles, all in the winemaker’s desire to please every palate. To that end, here are a few wineries and wine varieties to try from my beloved Badger State:
Looking for an elegant, chic, European atmosphere?
Von Stiehl Winery, Algoma, WI is Wisconsin’s oldest licensed winery. The Civil War era brick building might make you believe you’re in Europe. You can even tour the production facility and take in the underground limestone cellars used to store the wine barrels. Their Pinot Grigio has won them acclaim. I prefer the Niagara, a white vintage, for its fresh semi-sweet authentic grape flavor. In red varieties, their Cabernet Sauvignon won gold at the USA wine ratings international competition. I appreciate that wine paired with a thick steak, but my husband and I brought home a bottle of Captain’s Red, which the winemaker describes as “highly quaffable off-dry”. What we appreciate most about Captain’s is the lack of tannin aftertaste and its fruity finish. Plus, it’s great to drink with pizza!
Elmaro Vineyard, Trempealeau, WI. Nestled atop a hill overlooking a national wildlife refuge with the Mississippi River lying just beyond, this pastoral setting offers live music, yoga, sip and paint classes, wine education or a special location to have a wedding. For me and my wine companions, it was hard to find a variety we didn’t like, but my favorite hands down is the Elmaro Rosa, a rose colored wine made from a blend of Concord and Catawba that’s just easy to drink with friends. If you’re seeking award winning varieties, Elmaro took a gold medal at the Long Beach International Grand Cru for West Prairie White, a semi-sweet white wine.
Wollersheim Winery & Distillery, Prairie du Sac, WI. If you didn’t know better, you’d believe you left Wisconsin and relocated to the French countryside. The scenic hillside, where the vineyard, tasting room and wine cave sit, is beautifully landscaped and serene. Originating from France, the Coquard family of winemakers have proudly crafted wines for 400 years. Wollersheim has won barrels of awards, but perhaps is best known for the local favorite, Prairie Fumé, a semi-dry white wine. Newly released Scarlet Fumé, a semi-dry red with aromas of cherries and violets, could give its older sister-wine a run for the money.
Looking for a festive atmosphere?
Fawn Creek Winery, Wisconsin Dells, WI. Located in the driftless area, this winery’s address may be Wisconsin Dells but it’s five miles from the racket and hubbub in a lovely country setting with plenty of space to spread out. This place is lively with touring visitors by the trolley-full and live music every weekend. Come here for fun, their famous giant pretzel that feeds five or six, and fruity wines. Their Semi-sweet Riesling won a silver award, but most of their wines are perfect for desserts or summer picnics. Their Black Magic doesn’t last from one season to the next, but I prefer the Just Peachy Chardonnay.
Looking for quiet relaxation?
Vines and Rushes, Ripon, WI. This is another countryside winery with lots of room to relax and linger. Besides award winning wines made from Marquette, Briana and St. Pepin grapes, they make wood-fired pizzas to die for. They also host wine-pairing dinners and workshops. Their Marquette Rosé inspired my main character’s Red Granite variety in my second book, which I served at my launch. A real people-pleaser, it sells out quickly, well before the next year’s vintage.
River Bend Winery, Chippewa Falls, WI. This classy winery has a large tasting room, comfortable outdoor seating where food trucks offer guests a reason to stay, and a fantastic distillery. The vintners have won more than 50 gold and silver medals. Highest honors go to their Magenta (semi-sweet rosé), Sunset (sweet red), LaCrescent (semi-sweet white) and Moonlight (sweet white).
Pieper Porch Winery and Vineyard, Waukesha, WI. This southeastern Wisconsin winery has an expansive outdoor lawn for picnickers to bring their own coolers and blankets while enjoying a bottle or two from their vast offerings. Todd Pieper works his wine-making magic combining nature’s orchard fruits with grapes to create tasty blends. It’s hard to choose a favorite. I love the Wildflower White, a German-style Gewurztraminer, and the Marsh Moon Riesling. With almost 30 varieties, I guarantee you’ll find one with your name on it.
Other notable wineries to visit and sample:
Blind Horse, Kohler, WI.
Baraboo Bluff Winery, Baraboo, WI.
Autumn Harvest Winery, Chippewa Falls, WI.
I hope I’ve convinced you to come to Wisconsin, try our wines, and see for yourself that variety is the spice of life. After all, the U.S. leads the world in wine consumption, so there’s room for all at this table of plenty.