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The thriving Wisconsin winery industry that almost wasn’t, By Kevin Struck and Samantha Nash, UW-Extension

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By Kevin Struck and Samantha Nash, UW-Extension:
he very first winery in Wisconsin was established back in 1846 by Hungarian immigrant Agoston Haraszthy at the current site of what is now Wollershiem Winery in Prairie du Sac. Unaware of the types of grapes it would take to withstand Wisconsin winters, Haraszthy gave up after three years and moved west to California where he later became known as the father of California winemaking.

Despite this inauspicious beginning, today Wisconsin has about 140 permitted wineries. In 2015, the most recent year for which data is currently available, the nearly two million visits to wineries in Wisconsin generated an estimated $50 million in direct spending on wine tourism.

So how did Wisconsin, with an average of only 80 to 180 frost-free days a year in various parts of the state and generally unsuitable soil pH, recover from an unpromising start and eventually develop a thriving wine industry, which includes not only wineries but numerous vineyards too?

According to Amaya Atucha, a fruit crop specialist with the University of Wisconsin-Extension and assistant professor of horticulture at UW-Madison, “It’s very challenging to grow grapes here … a lot of science and a lot of discoveries and accidents have taken us through this journey to be able to have Wisconsin wine.”

Because of the state’s climate, only cold hardy grape varieties, which are the result of centuries of selection, cultivation, and hybridization can survive here.

Vitis vinifera, a variant of a grape species first cultivated in western Asia thousands of years ago, today produces the vast majority of the world’s wine. Wine production began on our side of the Atlantic when Spanish explorers and missionaries planted vineyards in the 1500’s. They used cuttings of Vitis vinifera, which worked so well in Asia and Europe. Much of North America, however, was inhospitable to Vitis vinifera, which resulted in lower fruit yields and unsatisfactory flavors, greatly limiting further cultivation.

It was not until the discovery of the Alexander grape in 1740 in Philadelphia that wine production in North America became feasible. A natural hybrid, this variety combined the hermaphroditic flowering traits of Vitis vinifera with the hardiness of a native species. Several other North American wild grape species contributed to the hybridization of Vitis vinifera, including Vitis labrusca — the Concord grape the most well-known of its cold hardy variants.

“So the solution to the problem was actually not to try to make the vinifera grow, but to find a grape that would survive, that would yield enough, and that would make wine decent enough that they could sell and that people could drink,” Atucha said. Although, it must be added, the Concord grape was better suited to producing jams, jellies, and juices.

Nevertheless, this modestly successful wine grape cultivation in the United States led to the export of hybrids to Europe in the mid-1800’s. European botanists, who wanted to collect and study these varieties unintentionally introduced diseases and pests, devastating grape vines on the other side of the Atlantic. Ironically, the hybrids that were the source of the invasive species were also the key in ending the die-off; Vitis vinifera was grafted on to North American root stock, preserving the characteristics of European varieties while adding the resistance of imported hybrids.

Fast forward to today, where new varieties and growing techniques that work well in colder climates are being developed by the Northern Grapes Project, a collaboration between a dozen Midwestern and Northeastern universities. Prior to that, Wisconsin native Elmer Swenson developed a number of cold resistant varieties while working for a University of Minnesota grape breeding program, releasing many to the public after his retirement in 1980.

Atucha acknowledged that “Here in Wisconsin — from the 1970[s] all the way to 2010 — the number of commercial vineyards … have grown exponentially due to all of these new varieties.”

Wisconsin grapes have qualities different from typical wine grapes that give Wisconsin wines a particular flavor. According to Alwyn Fitzgerald, president of the Wisconsin Winery Association and winemaker at Fisher King Winery in Verona, Wisconsin-grown grapes tend to have fruity, berry-like flavors, a light body, and higher acidity than grapes grown in more temperate climates.

“People are doing very interesting and different things,” Atucha said. “There’s a lot of variety. They taste different, but they’re good….”

(Editor’s note: The Amaya Atucha quotes are courtesy of WisContext.)

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