BARNEVELD — When Peter Botham planted his first grape vines here, there were only a handful of wineries in Wisconsin.
They included Wollersheim Winery near Prairie du Sac, Spurgeon Vineyards in Highland, Three Lakes Winery south of Eagle River and Door Peninsula Winery near Sturgeon Bay, all of which were founded in the 1970s. In Algoma, Von Stiehl, now the state’s oldest winery, was established in 1967.
The changes since 1989, when Botham converted a former dairy farm turned beef ranch into a vineyard and a few years later a winery, have been stark and dramatic. Distribution laws have been altered, and Botham has downsized his vineyard in favor of quality over quantity. He and his wife, Sarah, were jolted but survived the Great Recession of 2008 and its lingering aftermath while the number of wineries in the state has exploded to over 120, the vast majority of those coming on line in the last 15 years.
But the Bothams have endured and will even survive this year’s weather punches that have limited the growth of their seven acres of Marechal Foch and Leon Millot red grapes. Extreme cold over the winter and unseasonable temperatures in May and June, accompanied by deluges of rain, has left so little fruit on the vines that it won’t pay for the Bothams to conduct a harvest. The fruit that is there is stunted.
So this season, the Bothams and their Botham Vineyards & Winery will adjust, once again. They typically buy about 80% of their grape juice from a New York wholesaler with the remaining 20% of the grapes coming from their own vineyard. Peter Botham believes he has enough wine aging to handle demand so he won’t increase his juice order this year.
“There have been way more good days than there have been bad days. I really wouldn’t change anything. This has just been one of those years,” Peter Botham said as he walked through his vineyard looking for small clumps of grapes. “It’s been a great way to make a living. It’s been rewarding and we have a great life.”
Botham may have been raised in the city, but he clearly has the rural attitude that has come to define agriculture producers in the state, whether they grown corn, soybeans or wheat, milk cows, raise pigs, plant vegetables or have orchards filled with apples and cherries.
That fortitude will be on full display Aug. 11 when the Botham’s host, for the 24th year, a celebration of vintage cars and wine. The event is expected to draw over 150 classic cars and trucks that will be spread out over the 40-acre property that is just off Highway K south of Highway 18-151 and surrounded by rolling prairies. For the aerobically inclined, the winery will host its Uncorked 5K run on Sept. 28 and cap the season with a party on Oct. 13 to officially acknowledge its 30 years of business that have produced nearly 2 million bottles of wine sold throughout the state and in the winery’s tasting room, despite its relatively remote location.
“The number of people we see through our door in a season kind of boggles my mind,” said Sarah Botham, a Beaver Dam native who married Peter in a vineyard ceremony on a hot August day in 1995. “It’s kind of astonishing to see the growth and how that has changed over time.”
The tasting room and an event space is housed in a barn with a limestone foundation constructed in 1904 by John B. and Celia Watkins. The house, where the Bothams now live, was constructed in 1906 and is where the Watkins raised their eight children, seven more than the Bothams, although the couple also has a trio of Great Danes, two of which are 150-pound, 1-year-old puppies.
Peter Botham grew up in Madison’s University Heights neighborhood a few blocks from Camp Randall. He attended Randall School, went to West High School with Wisconsin Brewing Co. president and co-founder Carl Nolen and graduated from UW-Madison, where he studied art and history. Botham took a job at an East Coast winery doing a variety of jobs before getting the entrepreneurial bug. That’s when he approached his parents about using their former beef cattle farm in Iowa County for a winery. Botham followed that up by schooling himself on wine making and having detailed conversations with Philippe Coquard, who was still in his 20s, but Wollersheim’s experienced, French-born winemaker.
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As for the property, Dr. Richard Botham, a Madison surgeon, and his wife, Margaret, began buying the land here in 1967, accumulating 1,000 acres where they raised Herefords until 1975. In 2002, the land surrounding the vineyard and winery became permanently reserved for prairie land when the Nature Conservancy purchased 892 acres from the Bothams to add to the 79 acres that had been purchased in 1997 from Harold Thomas. The acquisitions created the Barneveld Prairie that is filled with wild flowers, native grasses, oak savannas and wooded draws.
The prairie adds to the ambiance of the winery where the first wines were bottled in 1993. The tasting room opened the following year. A new $350,000 winery production facility was added in 2002 and included a modern bottling system, ample room for aging tanks, plenty of storage and a coveted loading dock. At its peak, the winery had about 14 acres in vineyards and produced up to 25,000 gallons of wine a year. Today, they have seven acres in vines and typically produce 10,000 to 15,000 gallons of wine a year.
‘A lot more careful’
The adjustments to the business began in the late 1990s and went full on in 2008 when the national economy took a dive and lingered for years.
“It taught me to be a lot more careful about how you run your business,” Peter Botham said as he relaxed on a wicker sofa on the expansive and shaded front porch of his four-bedroom farmhouse. “Up until then, there was just constant growth and there was always money. There just weren’t any worries.”
Added Sarah: “We had enough fat to get lean. We could trim here and trim there without being really detrimental to our product, to our employees, to our customer experience,” she said. “We had built a big enough business that was stable enough that if we were smart, could withstand it.”
Of all the wine consumed in beer-centric Wisconsin, only about 4% is produced in the state. And of the 800,000 gallons made in Wisconsin, nearly a third of that is produced by Wollersheim, said Ryan Prellwitz, president of the Wisconsin Wineries Association, who opened Vines & Rushes Winery in 2013 in Ripon. Unlike the Bothams, who are concerned about the number of wineries in the state, Prellwitz believes there is room for more as state winemakers whittle away at market share from wineries in California, Michigan and international imports.
“If we got to 10%, that would be a huge amount of growth,” said Prellwitz, who makes about 20,000 gallons of wine a year. “More wineries isn’t necessarily a negative thing. People are making these destinations as part of regional tourism. It’s definitely been a positive. The ones that haven’t grasped that concept may struggle.”
The Bothams have fully embraced the tourism aspect of their business. The views are stunning, there’s outside seating, wine tastings and music. The tasting room also features products from other local producers such as chocolate, honey and Sarah Botham’s own line of flavored cottonseed cooking oil. But the stars of the operation are the award-winning wines, which in the beginning were delivered to accounts like Steve’s Liquor and Woodman’s Market in Madison by Peter Botham using his old black Dodge Ram pickup truck and later a white Chevy cargo van before he went with a distributor.
“I didn’t have a cover on it, so I could only deliver on nice days,” said Peter Botham, now one of the deans of Wisconsin’s wine-making industry. “I’ve seen a lot of change. What it was like when I started and what it is now is like two entirely different animals.”