Wisconsin is known for its beer and its Old Fashioneds, but a number of local wineries are giving those signature adult drinks a run for their money. The state is home to over 80 wineries, offering a change of pace from the tried and true usual beverages of choice for many residents.
Wineries in South Central Wisconsin can go toe-to-toe with some of the best vineyards in the nation, with numerous local wineries winning national awards for their wine. However, the owners and operators of these businesses are taking care to stress their ties to their communities, with most wineries family owned and operated, and each maintaining a presence with municipal events like wine walks.
‘Our own take on wines’
Fawn Creek Winery in Wisconsin Dells opened in 2011 as a joint venture between a group of siblings and their spouses.
The group, that included Dan and Diana Hanson, Sally and Dan Haberkorn, and Susan and John Marx, bought the Tourdot Winery and renamed the operation Fawn Creek Winery, expanding production and activities with each passing year.
“The winery was built by my wife’s family,” John Marx said. “It was kind of her vision.”
The winery is entering its ninth year of operation, and Marx says they are hitting their stride.
“We kind of do our own take on wines,” Marx said. “We don’t do the big bold heavy California wines, ours are a little lighter bodies, and we do fruit flavored wines.”
Those fruit flavored wines are somewhat of a rarity among wineries. Two of the most popular flavors at Fawn Creek Winery are the Razz-Prairie wine, a raspberry flavored Pinot Noir, and Black Bear-y, a seasonal blackberry flavored Merlot that is only available in the fall and winter.
The unique offerings have helped Fawn Creek establish a niche.
“Ours (clientele) is primarily new to wines… the neat thing is you see them start with the sweet wines, and as they come back they gravitate towards the drier,” Marx said. “I think that’s where we fit in, we get a lot of new wine drinkers who have never tried wine before, and they’ll come here and try ours.”
Like most other wineries in the region, Fawn Creek offers tours and wine tastings. For first time visitors to the winery, Marx will try to help with a recommendation, but he says knowing what an individual will like can be difficult.
“Everyone’s tastes are so individualize, it’s one thing that floors me with wines,” Marx said. “One person’s dry, or one person’s sweet. They overlap each other because palates are so different that somebody will call a semi-sweet wine too dry but someone else will call it too sweet, so it hits both ends of it.”
Besides wine tastings and tours, the winery offers a variety of events throughout all four seasons. Visitors can find live music every Saturday and Sunday Memorial day through October, acoustic music on the covered and heated patio in the winter, participate in life-size checkers or a nine-hole disc golf course, or book the winery for private events.
“We have a music festival once a month, jazz fest, country fest, blues fest,” Marx said. “We’re always building… we built a little gazebo out there for events, we get a lot of bridal showers, birthday parties, and tons and tons of bachelorette parties.”
If someone finds a wine they enjoy at Fawn Creek, they can purchase bottles for between $14 and $15 from the winery, local and regional grocery stores, or the winery will ship wines to Minnesota, Arizona, or anywhere in Wisconsin.
Sitting on 36 acres of land with five acres dedicated to the vines, just north of Wisconsin Dells, Marx says Fawn Creek Winery is ideally located.
“Where we’re located, outside the dells, we get people from Minneapolis or Chicago because we’re halfway in between, it makes a nice meeting point,” Marx said. “We’re far enough away from the Dells that people can come here to get away, but we’re close enough that it’s easy to get here.”
Fawn Creek is open daily from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, visit fawncreekwinery.com.
A growing tradition
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New Lisbon’s Burr Oak Winery is coming up on its 25th anniversary but already has deep roots in Juneau County’s history.
The winery takes its name from an ancient Burr Oak on the grounds, and the buildings on the winery grounds are modeled after a German winery while incorporating stained-glass windows from a 150-year-old Episcopalian Methodist Church that was torn down in Mauston.
Burr Oak Winery owner and winemaker Steve Kennedy planted his first crop of grapes in 1997. Since then he has expanded the varieties of grapes to over 40, with more than 10,000 cold-climate vines growing in the 14-acre vineyard. The winery opened in 2004, with an expansion added to the facilities in 2010.
“It was a hobby that just kept growing,” Kennedy said. “Once I planted the vineyard it grew and grew.”
Although fall and winter are the slowest seasons at the winery, Kennedy and Burr Oak Winery manager Terri Bell say there is still plenty to do for both visitors and the staff.
“We have a Harvest Festival the weekend after Labor Day where people can come enjoy wagon rides or stomp grapes,” Bell said. “We also have our Holiday Open House coming up on the 23rd of November, with wine tastings and discounts.”
Kennedy says that although there are fewer visitors for tours and tastings in the winter months, the staff is still busy.
“We’re still doing our bottling and filtering, though we hope to get some more visitors if the weather cooperates,” Kennedy said.
Once grapes are harvested Kennedy said they are then crushed and fermented. The grapes then sit for six months, at which time they are filtered and ready to bottle. Burr Oak Winery processes about 100,000 bottles of wine each year.
The most popular wines from Burr Oak Winery are the Castle Rock Red and White wines. Castle Rock White is a semi-sweet wine made from three different grapes, with aromas of apricot and peach. The Castle Rock Red is also a semi-sweet, light-bodied wine made from a mix of Frontenac Gris and Frontenac with hints of cherries.
Burr Creek Winery is open daily from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, visit burroakwinery.com.
An expanding empire
Wollersheim Winery in Prairie du Sac is one of the oldest winery estates in the Unites States, with the first vineyards planted in the 1840s.
The winery was owned for over 100 years by the Kehl family, who operated it as a winery until 1899 when a variety of factors forced them into converting the grounds into a dairy farm. Robert and JoAnn Wollersheim purchased it in the 1970s from a descendant of the Kehl’s, and the winery has now stayed within that family for 47 years.
Julie Coquard, the daughter of Robert and JoAnn Wollersheim, now runs the winery with her husband Phillippe, who is the chief winemaker.
Their daughter, Celine, went to school for winemaking and does the lab work and wine fermentations. Celine’s husband, Tom, is a distiller who runs that side of the operation. And Julie and Phillippe’s son, Roman, recently came back from Europe where he attended culinary school, which led to the winery adding a bistro.
“Within the last month we added the bistro… People can get their food, get some wine, and have a place to sit and enjoy it,” Coquard said. “We considered doing food for a while, and our son Roman came back… so it was a perfect time to start.”
The bistro is just the next step in a long line of expansions the family has added as Wollersheim’s popularity continues to grow.
In 1990 the family bought the Cedar Creek Winery outside of Milwaukee. In 1994 the Prairie du Sac winery added a fermentation room, and in 2008 a new building was built for additional space, shopping, and tasting. A 2009 state law change allowed the family to get their distillers license in 2010, which in turn led to the 2013 release of their first brandy and a 2015 addition of a complete distillery.
“It started out small and slowly expanded… It was logical we would make brandy since it was from grapes, but we expanded with the addition of Tom who took over all the distilling,” Coquard said. “Over the last 40 years, every five years we have something else to do. It’s been an evolution.”
The winery offers wine tasting nearly every day of the year, with the distillery offering similar services. November is one of the busiest months of the year, with the distillery’s first bourbon releasing Nov. 16, a barrel tapping at noon Nov. 21 to celebrate the release of the winery’s new Ruby Nouveau red wine, and a Vintage Christmas wine and spirits walk on Nov. 30.
Wollersheim Winery is open for tours and tastings from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. The bistro is open Thursday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. The distillery is open daily from noon to 5 p.m. For more information, visit wollersheim.com.
Reach Christopher Jardine on Twitter @ChrisJJardine or contact him at 608-432-6591.