New Wines on the Block
By Wendy Allen | Photos By Branches Winery and Wollersheim Winery 0
When tasting Wisconsin wines, "banish everything you think you know about wine grapes," said Paul Gospodarczyk, a certified sommelier and consulting winemaker to Branches Winery, during a wine tasting class. "We've known for centuries what to do with Riesling and Pinot Noir grapes, for instance. But the Wisconsin grapes we're using—La Crescent, Marquette and Edelweiss—have only been around for about 30 years, so we don't really know what we're doing." He's kidding, of course. He went on to say, “It's more that we know how not to mess up, so the challenge now is in bringing out the really unique qualities of these grapes, which are going to naturally be very different from French or Italian varietals."
How refreshing it is to embark on a new adventure. In the heart of Wisconsin’s grape-growing country, two wineries—Wollersheim Winery of Prairie du Sac and Branches Winery in Westby—are mapping the relatively unexplored landscape of the upper Midwest’s young, coldhardy grape varietals and coming up with unique creations that proudly tout “Wisconsin.”
Wollersheim Winery’s 100%-Wisconsin Coquard Brandy was a long time coming for Winemaker Philippe Coquard. Regulations still on the books from the post-Prohibition era did not allow wineries to distill spirits until the law was finally changed in 2009. Coquard jumped at the opportunity, and the winery received its distillery license in 2010. Wollersheim’s first batch of brandy was released in 2013, fulfilling the dream Coquard and Founder Bob Wollersheim, who passed away in 2005, had cultivated for decades. That first batch sold out within a week, but this year’s batch is still in good supply.
Coquard Brandy is Wisconsin through-and-through, which warms the heart about as much as a sip of the brandy does. It is made from Wisconsin-grown LaCrosse and St. Pepin grape wine distilled on-site in the winery’s copper still and then aged two years in barrels made from northern Wisconsin oak. Coquard credits the local oak barrels for a 2014 batch that tastes even “better than last year. It’s a lot smoother [and] a lot closer to the end product that I dream of.” No, perfection doesn’t happen in just two years, and Coquard is excited to age the brandy for longer periods of time. “I think it’s going to get even better in time,” he says.
Originally from Milwaukee, Gene and Therese Bergholz left corporate America in 2007 and began planting Marquette grapes on their land near Coon Valley, thinking, “It would be cool if someday we could have a winery there,” says Therese. “Turns out my ‘someday’ was many years out, but my husband’s was more like two years.” Things progressed quickly as they added around 1,000 new vines each year, acquired a beautiful slice of ridge-top land near Westby, and built the fermentation building in time for the 2012 fall harvest.
Winemaker (and pizza chef) Gene, with his sunburned skin and dusty work boots, looks like he should be out on a tractor, but looks are deceiving. He knows his stuff...and gives a generous pour. Therese exudes sunshine and is the energy behind the many events held at the winery throughout the season, from weddings to crafting classes and wine pairing dinners.
More than 95 percent of their grapes are estate grown, with the remaining small percentage coming from small growers in Viroqua and Stoddard; and they source cranberries from the Wisconsin Cranberry Cooperative. Branches’ 2013 Vine Dance (Edelweiss) and 2012 Celebration Berry (cranberry) won awards at the Wisconsin State Fair Professional Wine Competition in 2013, their first year in business, and they received four more medals in 2014.
Local extends beyond the wines, too. For their wood-fired pizzas, they use local, organic tomatoes, and their basil and cheese comes from nearby Nordic and Westby creameries. “Starting the winery has helped me understand ‘local’ in new ways,” says Therese. “From the grapes to the plumber, the ripple effect of a small business is amazing. That money is staying right in our area.”
What’s up next for these wineries? Branches will release its first oak-barrel Marquette dry red wine this fall, and in summer 2015, Wollersheim will host the grand opening of its new distillery, where it will expand from brandy to other distilled spirits, such whiskey and gin, made from locally sourced ingredients.