Monday, August 29, 2011

How About Wisconsin Wine With That Cheese?

Wendy Staller, with milk tanks used to ferment wine
In deciding what grapes to plant, California vineyardists don't have to consider varieties bred to withstand temperatures that plunge some 30 degrees below zero. Historically, they've looked to comparably temperate climates in Europe for what they should cultivate, and consequently have had success with such long-established and highly regarded varieties as cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and chardonnay.

Growers with a hankering to cultivate wine grapes in the challenging upper Midwest of the United States, on the other hand, haven't had that luxury. They've had to look elsewhere, mainly inward, to breed grape varieties able to withstand brutal temperatures and deep snow in winter, high humidity in the summer, and a fleeting and compact growing season. After decades of experimentation, they're succeeding. Today, in states such as Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois a nascent wine culture is taking hold, helped along, no doubt, by the locavore movement.

We got an inkling of what Wisconsin winemakers are up against when we stopped by Staller Estate Vineyard and Winery in Richmond Township last week. It's in the southeastern portion of the state, just east of Janesville and south of Whitewater. This is traditional dairy land, the gently rolling landscape lush with densely planted soybeans and corn.

A former dairy farm, in fact, is where the husband-and-wife team of Joe and Wendy Staller, Wisconsin natives with degrees in biology and chemistry from the University of Wisconsin, Whitewater, set up Staller Estate in 2007. The farm's former machine shed houses winemaking gear in the back, a sunny tasting room up front. Their stainless-steel fermentation vats are former 600-gallon milk tanks. Outside, two acres of grapes back up to a field of corn. The couple tends a second vineyard of nearly an acre a few miles to the north. With their own grapes and with fruit they buy from equally daring nearby growers, they're making around 2,500 cases a year, most of it sold locally through retail shops, restaurants and their tasting room. Not surprisingly, guests at the tasting room can refresh their palates with tastes of Wisconsin cheese, which on the day we visited were a first-rate parmesan and a fruity and rich cranberry cheddar.

Wendy Staller in the home frontenac vineyard
Their lineup is extensive - 11 wines were being poured when we stopped by - but their varieties are likely to be unfamiliar to Californians. "We have no chardonnay, no cabernet sauvignon, and nothing that tastes like them," warns Wendy Staller at the outset. She oversees day-to-day operations of the winery while her husband works off-site as a chemist in the research and development of polymers. Both were home winemakers and brewers before going commercial. She periodically flies to Sacramento for short-term concentrated classes in viticulture and enology at UC Davis.

Their packaging differs from the California standard in two respects. For one, they market their wines by proprietary name (Whitewater Rush, Maiden Blush, Lady in Red) rather than by varietal. Secondly, they don't vintage-date their wines, usually a sign that a winery blends wines from more than one harvest; at Staller Estate, however, vintage dating is eschewed because the wines almost without exception are made for consuming within a year of their release, explains Wendy Staller. Incidentally, their wines customarily weigh in at around 12 percent alcohol, and prices are in the $10-to$16 range. (For more information, check out their website.)

Fronteanac, close to maturity for harvesting
 If their wines were marketed by varietal, California visitors would become acquainted with such unusual grapes as la crescent, marechal foch, marquette, niagra, isabella and frontenac. Many of them were developed at the University of Minnesota, several with the assistance of the late Wisconsin dairy farmer Elmer Swenson, dubbed "the patron saint of cold-climate grape growing." His goal, as well as the goal of other grape breeders, was to come up with varieties that would capture the flavors and complexities of traditional European strains while being hardy enough to survive the upper Midwest's trying weather.

The wines they yield at Staller Estate are cleanly aromatic and refreshingly fruity. Several of them are sweeter than Californians are used to, but their acidity generally is so high that the wines come off more snappy than sticky. The only clearly dry white is the Blanc de Crescent, whose apricot notes and razory finish suggested a finely honed riesling. Their most popular wine is Horizon Cuvee, a distinctly sweet white blend based mostly on the grape catawba. I especially liked their Estate Reserve, an herbal, earthy, peppery, medium-bodied dry red made with marechal foch.

Wendy Staller was correct. None would be mistaken for cabernet sauvignon or chardonnay, but several could fill the same role at the table. Indeed, a bottle of the Estate Reserve filled in splendidly for zinfandel or syrah when it was opened to accompany a slab of grilled tri-tip when we got back to the farm where we were staying.

Wisconsin grape growers and winemakers, whose numbers are growing, face more challenges than a brief season and cold temperatures, though those obstacles are formidable. The growing season, for one, is tight; the threat of freezing temperatures lingers deep into spring, and snow is apt to fall even in October. "Mid-May to October is our growing season," says Wendy Staller. "It was cold this year to June." A torrid summer throughout the Midwest, however, helped develop the grapes quickly, with the frontenac just outside the tasting room looking mature enough to be picked most any moment, three weeks ahead of the customary start to the harvest.

Raccoons, turkeys and Japanese beetles complicate the couple's hopes of bringing in a full crop. "They live in the corn and soybeans," says Wendy Staller of the especially troublesome Japanese beetles. "They annihilate everything." Deer also can be a nuisance, but in contrast to California vineyards, generally secured with high fences, the Stallers haven't fenced their vineyard. A pretty effective deterrent for deer, they have found, is to carve up bars of Irish Spring soap into eight pieces, wrap indvidual squares in nylon, and tie them to a trellis every two or three vines. It might not be much of an endorsement for Irish Spring, but so far the technique repells deer and their voracious appetite.

Estate Reserve, made with marechal foch
The Stallers are showing that fine wine can be made in uncharacteristic styles with unfamiliar grapes, and that they have an audience. Wisconsin likely will never challenge California's dominance in the production of domestic wine. But it is showing that fine wines can be made in areas traditionally seen as more suitable for hay, corn, oats and cheese. Indeed, a survey earlier this summer by the Wisconsin Wine Growers Association found that the number of bonded wineries in the state jumped from 50 a few years ago to 73 today. Most of them supplement homegrown wine with wines made from grapes or juice imported from other states, primarily California, New York and Washington - the Stallers use some fruit from the Finger Lakes district of New York - but the report was optimistic that demand among the state's vintners for Wisconsin-grown grapes would continue to grow.

By what we tasted at Staller Estate, we'd have to agree that despite the challenges of making wine in such a seemingly inhospitable setting there is a place on the table for Wisconsin wine, right alongside the many cheeses for which the state already is celebrated.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting a great article on the Wisconsin grape and wine industry.