White Winter Winery
By Jessica Luhning | Photo By Jim Klousia 0
This article is an accompaniment to Jessica’s “Edible Journey: Authentic Bayfield Peninsula” published in the Spring 2012 print edition of Edible Madison.
Sometimes a place grabs your attention so much that making the extra effort to stop there on your journey seems well worth the effort—or in this case, no effort since we were already nearby. White Winter Winery in Iron River, a beautiful 50 minute drive southwest of Bayfield, is Wisconsin’s largest commercial maker of the fruit and honey wine known as mead.
Jon Hamilton and his wife Kim have owned and managed White Winter Winery since 1996. Jon hails from a long lineage of migratory beekeepers and as an adult was drawn to beekeeping, home brewing and mead making. When Jon and his wife relocated to Iron River from Kenosha, his hobby became more serious. He soon found himself with 600 pounds of honey that needed an outlet—quickly. In November of 1996, White Winter Winery released their first product to a growing population of mead enthusiasts.
“Mead is a true expression of the land. Here in Wisconsin, our climate and soils produce outstanding fruit and honey. Growing grapes here that yield the higher quality wines of the west coast and overseas is more of a struggle, but we can make mead—great mead,” says Jon. I have always been curious about mead, and Jon’s words resonated with me. After spending the afternoon with Jon and Kim, I have found a new appreciation for mead as a delicious and truly local expression of our region.
The history of mead is quite fascinating, too. Mead is the world’s oldest alcoholic beverage made with three simple ingredients—honey, water and yeast. Some recipes call for the addition of spices and fruit, creating what is known as a “melomel.” The most common fruits used are cherries, blueberries, blackberries, grapes, strawberries, raspberries and currants. Mead was a common folk drink, but it was also considered the nectar of the gods on Mt. Olympus and the favored drink of poets, lovers and kings. Mead was consumed to seal verbal pacts in medieval times. And ever wonder where the term “Honeymoon” originated? This celebrated post-nuptial tradition comes from the ancient ritual of giving the newlywed couple a “moon’s” supply of “honey” in the form of mead to ensure a fruitful union—and the sweeter the mead the more “fruitful” the union.
Over 95 percent of the raw ingredients in White Winter Winery’s mead are sourced within 150 miles of the cellar. Their honey is from the Cable-Mason area of northern Wisconsin as well as New Auburn and Chippewa Falls. Jon relies on larger beekeepers because his demand for honey can vary from 10,000 to 25,000 pounds annually, depending on production.
The fruit used in White Winter Winery’s mead is grown on the Bayfield Peninsula and near Ashland. The Blueberry Mead (one of my personal favorites) is made with blueberries from Highland Valley Farm of Bayfield. Blue Vista Farm of Bayfield supplies the raspberries used in the full-bodied, semi-sweet Raspberry Mead, which is a perfect companion to dark chocolate. The strawberries in the fruity, not-too-sweet Strawberry Mead are grown by John Markus near Ashland.
Many people who are unfamiliar with mead assume that it’s a very sweet drink, but this is not necessarily the case. The flavor of mead, like any other wine, is determined by a variety of factors, from the quality of the ingredients to the amount of residual honey available after fermentation. A traditional sweet mead carries more sweetness on the palate due to higher concentrations of honey. The less sweet Black Mead and Cyser are earthier and pair nicely with sharp cheeses, pork and spicy foods. The Cyser (old English for cider) is another personal favorite of mine and a 2011 Best of Class Honey Wine at the Indy International Wine Competition. The cider used in the Cyser is sourced from Erickson’s Orchard of Bayfield. Because of the natural preservative qualities of honey, mead can be aged for five years or more as compared with a typical fruit wine, which is usually consumed within one year of making. And be sure to try the aged Black Harbor Mead, a blend of honey and black currents aged in French oak for four years, producing a subtly sweet and sexy wine.
White Winter Winery is the first Wisconsin winery to achieve Travel Green Certification. The Hamiltons incorporate sustainability principles into their business plan by incorporating energy efficiency measures, reducing their waste stream, using local and regional products, and building partnerships with local growers and food producers.
If you are looking for a unique local beverage to serve at your next gathering, I strongly urge you to celebrate in the tradition of mead. There is a renaissance of mead as curiosity grows for this ancient and expressive fruit and honey wine.
You can purchase White Winter Winery mead online at their website or from a number of retailers in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois. Check their website for a complete list of outlets.