Sales continue to lag for Wisconsin-made wines

2013-12-01T05:00:00Z Sales continue to lag for Wisconsin-made winesROB SCHULTZ | Wisconsin State Journal | | 608-252-6487

Selecting a Wisconsin-produced wine never crossed Laura Morland’s mind after she walked into a West Side liquor store Wednesday morning to buy wine for her family’s Thanksgiving celebration.

Morland purchased a Pinot Gris as a salad wine, a Red Zinfandel for the main course and two more Red Zins for evening wines. All came from California wineries and were recommended to her by Liquor Town owner Dane Hendricks.

“When I think of Wisconsin wines, I think of fruity wines. That won’t work with what I need,” said Morland, who lives in the town of Perry.

Morland falls in line with the majority of Wisconsin wine drinkers, who avoid most of the stuff made from state wineries despite attempts to turn it into a niche market like the state’s widely popular artisan cheeses and craft beers.

A report from the state Department of Revenue showed that just 5.3 percent of the taxable liters of wine prepared and bottled for sale in the state in 2012 came from state wineries.

The report also showed that 31 percent of the wine prepared and bottled by in-state wineries for sale in Wisconsin came from one place: Wollersheim Winery in Prairie du Sac.

Those numbers are similar to those from 2009 despite the fact that 28 percent more wine was prepared for sale in Wisconsin by in-state wineries in 2012 compared to 2009, according to the report.

That goes against the beliefs of some state wine makers and their loyalists who believe a good marketing campaign and the state’s grass-roots history with cooperatives will help the state wine industry take off.

That was the gist of a paper showcasing the state’s two wine cooperatives by two East Coast consultants that was presented at Princeton University in 2012 and at a Cyprus conference earlier this year.

But Peter Botham, co-owner of Botham Vineyards and Wineries LLC, Barneveld, took what he said as a more realistic view of why in-state wine doesn’t sell.

“Most state wines just aren’t any good,” he said.

Botham added that he rarely encounters a state wine that is even remotely well-crafted. “Some of it, I can’t believe people put in a bottle and put it on a shelf,” he said. “I’m astounded sometimes by how bad some of this stuff is that people are willing to sell with their name on it.”

The biggest exception are the wines made by Wollersheim, especially its widely popular Prairie Fume, a semi-dry white, and a new Dry Riesling, Botham said.

Hendricks said Prairie Fume is the top wine seller by a 3-to-1 margin at Liquor Town, which is located on Williamsburg Way.

“They have a mystique,” Hendricks said of Wollersheim, which regularly wins awards for its wines and tours.

It’s also the top seller “by far” at the Hy-Vee store on Whitney Way that has devoted 20 feet of shelving space to 125 in-state wines and an equal amount of space for Wollersheim products, according to liquor and wine manager Mike May.

At Liquor Town, the in-state wines with catchy names that showcase their fruity flavors like Cranbernet, Panachea Peach and Sassy Sangria sit on the shelves and gather dust, Hendricks said.

“Everything is so sweet that you alienate the mainstream,” said Hendricks, who has owned Liquor Town since 1984 and is the store’s wine buyer. “The wine buyer wants California dry red wines, and Wisconsin wine-makers’ hands are tied because they can’t grow the grapes that make those wines.”

Wisconsin’s wineries that produce dry red wines use French hybrid grapes that rarely ever fully ripen because the state’s growing season is too short, Botham said. Thus, the state’s dry red wines have a flavor profile that reminds him of vegetables.

“I’m not saying it’s bad. It’s an acquired taste,” said Botham, who grows French hybrid grapes on his vineyard. “Some people try to mask it with oak and that doesn’t work, either. It’s like biting into a tree.”

Wollersheim’s Prairie Fume and Botham’s Dry Riesling are some of many state wines that come from white grapes imported from out-of-state vineyards but are produced in-house. They are among the few wineries in the state that make more than 25,000 gallons of wine each year and work strictly with wholesalers to distribute their products.

Using out-of-state grapes goes against the policies of the state’s two wine cooperatives. Their members are all small wineries and the co-ops help them succeed while following the state-imposed three-tier system more economically.

Pennsylvania consultant Carol Coren and Southern New Hampshire business professor Christina Clamp co-authored the paper presented at Princeton and Cyprus that said the state wine industry will grow with the help of the cooperatives.

“Wisconsin has done more in terms of intelligent application of the cooperative model than many other geographic locales in the world,” Coren said.

Rudy Jungwirth, Badger State Winery Cooperative president, said it’s imperative for wineries to focus on making wine with locally grown grapes.

“I will argue with anyone who says they can’t make it without California grapes,” Jungwirth said.

A relatively new hybrid grape developed at the University of Minnesota and initially grown in Wisconsin that was created to thrive in a short growing season is helping the state wine industry turn the corner, Jungwirth said.

Wollersheim grows one of those hybrids, the St. Pepin, and uses it for its extremely popular ice wine that sells out every year, said Wollersheim co-owner Julie Coquard.

“There are some really good wines made from those grapes,” Coquard said. “I think that’s a big part of the state’s future. More of those grapes are being planted now.”

But some wine makers are making bad wine with the new hybrids because they don’t know what they’re doing or they are too eager to make it before they are ready, Jungwirth said.

“Our business is about quality, and they are looking for quantity. That won’t work,” he said.

So Botham reiterated that Wisconsin winemakers should put their primary focus on making better wine if they hope to grow the industry.

He said there’s a preconceived notion among wine buyers that Wisconsin wine isn’t good quality.

“A lot of the time, unfortunately, that gets reinforced because what they taste at some of these wineries is poorly crafted wines,” Botham added. “That makes the uphill climb even steeper.”

Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(6) Comments

  1. Wisconsin Winemaker
    Report Abuse
    Wisconsin Winemaker - December 11, 2013 3:13 pm
    Dear Mr. Schultz,

    I was disappointed to read your story in this past Sunday’s State Journal because of the portrayal of an otherwise positive situation in such a jaded and negative light. The article also contained a number of inaccuracies that need to be addressed. Our wine industry in Wisconsin is robust and growing. Wisconsin winemakers are selling delightful, well-balanced wines made both from Wisconsin-grown fruit as well as from grapes and other fruit brought in from out-of-state. The headline should have read: “Sales Boom for Wisconsin-made Wines”.

    Julie Coquard of Wollersheim had it right: There really are some outstanding wines made from locally grown grapes. Our winery, for example, is dedicated to crafting premium wines made from Wisconsin wine grapes (we crushed and pressed over 50,000 pounds of Wisconsin grapes this past September alone). We certainly do not see sales lagging – quite the opposite. Our wine sales have been tracking over 50% higher this year than last. And we are just one representative winery. Our dry red Marquette for example has been winning Gold medals around the country and we haven’t been able to make enough to meet demand.

    Some of the quotes in your article reflect an older, staid attitude about the quality and salability of Wisconsin wines. The landscape has dramatically changed, however, from just ten years ago. Wisconsin wines and wineries are being lauded on the national stage. Wollersheim was awarded Best Winery in America at the prestigious San Diego wine competition. We recently took a Double-Gold & Best in Class in Santa Rosa (Sonoma, CA) for our Blue Rapture wine. Wollersheim, Door Peninsula Winery, Cedar Creek Winery, Von Stiehl Winery, and River Bend Winery (just to name a few) are all national Gold and Silver metal winners in 2013.

    Contrary to what one wine shop owner said in your story, Wisconsin grape growers DO produce fruit that is transformed by state wineries into delicious world-class wines. The same holds for Wisconsin apple, berry, and other fruit farmers. And the notion that our growing season in Wisconsin is too short for grapes to fully ripen is simply false. Vinifera grapes (the classic grape varieties of Europe) do require a more temperate growing climate than can be found here. But the cold-hearty hybrid grapes we grow in Wisconsin hold up to our February temperatures and yes they do indeed ripen by Fall – their sugar levels peak, flavors are concentrated, and acid levels drop by harvest time. There are now over 200 vineyards in our State (not to mention all the non-grape fruit growers) and most of the tonnage produced is of excellent, usable quality.

    Lastly, the 5.3% sales statistic cited in the story was presented as a negative. To the contrary, the fact that Wisconsin wineries achieve that significant level of sales given the vast ocean of wines available from around the world is a remarkable feat. Of course we’d always like to see higher sales, but I believe that percentage is higher for us in Wisconsin than for our counterparts in most surrounding states.

    I would invite you to perform a little more hands-on primary research – not just rely on the opinions of a few biased individuals. Come visit our winery in Mount Horeb as well as the other wineries around the state, meet the winemakers, check out the production facilities, and taste some of our award-winning Wisconsin wines for yourself.


    Alwyn Fitzgerald

    Founding Board Member
    Wisconsin Grape Growers Association

    Board Secretary
    Wisconsin Winery Association

    President & Winemaker
    Fisher King Winery
    102 W. Main Street * Mount Horeb, WI
  2. Lynn White
    Report Abuse
    Lynn White - December 04, 2013 7:37 pm
    I would disagree that MOST Wisconsin made wines are not very good. That may have been true 5 years ago, but has certainly changed. I have tasted wines from most of the wineries in Wisconsin and would say the vast majority have good or very good wines in their portfolio. Not every wine made at every winery is going to turn out perfect. That is true for every winery throughout the world. Those that come out with the exact same wine year after year are usually large wineries that do a lot of manipulation to make sure the wine turns out to a specified “recipe”. Even the best wineries in Wisconsin turn out clinkers.

    Winemakers can buy grapes or juice from California if they want to make California style red wine. Winemakers on the cutting edge are using the cold hardy grape varieties grown here in WI. Those varieties are pretty new, and it takes 5 years for a vine to produce for a commercial harvest, so there is a shortage of the better quality WI grown grape varietals. In the future, look for excellent reds made from Marquette, and for whites, La Crescent, St. Pepin, and Frontenac Gris will be very popular. A Parallel 44 La Crescent recently won Best of Show for top white wine at the International Cold Climate Competition.

    The unfortunate part is that most of these wines, because of limited quantities, do not get widely distributed around Wisconsin, so you won’t find them in liquor stores or grocery stores.

    Go off the beaten path and visit some wineries and I think you will be pleasantly surprised.
  3. GaryRobbins
    Report Abuse
    GaryRobbins - December 01, 2013 12:55 pm
    hammock - Relax and have a drink to perhaps take the edge off. Seems like you really need it. High alcohol wines like many of today's California Zins tend to overwhelm and dominate turkey. Just sayin', that's all.
    There are many more wines out there that many red drinkers could like more with turkey. But you're right, I can't tell you what to drink. If I could, it wouldn't be wine, that's for sure. And if you love having your wine dominate your meal, then cheers to you!
    Happy Holidays
  4. midwestguy
    Report Abuse
    midwestguy - December 01, 2013 11:55 am
    Nice ad for Botham disguised as news.
  5. bananahammock
    Report Abuse
    bananahammock - December 01, 2013 10:08 am
    Thanks for letting us know what we should pair with Thanksgiving and the huge mistake we're making. I never knew I should force my pallet to enjoy something it doesn't. I'll be sure to choke down something I don't like simply based on what I'm "supposed" to do.
  6. GaryRobbins
    Report Abuse
    GaryRobbins - December 01, 2013 9:18 am
    Attention Wisconsin Winemakers:
    The reasons Wisconsin residents buy local beer and cheeses is twofold.
    First, and most importantly, the quality of these products is very good.
    Second, the products are Wisconsin made.
    So while buying local is important, the quality is what is most important. Do it right, and we will support you very well. But you've got to do it right first!
    And while there are some wines and wineries making good wines, too many of them from Wisconsin just plain suck.
    I know, because I buy and try plenty of Wisconsin wines. I come back to the good ones, and there are even some good ones that pair very well with Thanksgiving dinner (certainly better than a big, high-alcohol California Zinfandel! NOT a good recommendation, but a mistake that is made far too often).
    Anyway, pay special attention to the Elmer Swenson hybrids, because the future of vineyards and wineries in northern climates may depend on his work.
    Master making wine with those grapes first, and I, and I believe many fellow Wisconsinites, will support you the way we support Wisconsin breweries and cheesemakers.

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