On a sunny Saturday I’m seated with a girlfriend next to the gleaming stainless steel tanks at the two-year-old Vines & Rushes Winery in rural Ripon. A singer-songwriter’s raw vocals fill the space, packed with wine sippers and music fans alike. This was meant to be a stop on our way home to Milwaukee but a few minutes into a flight of wine samples we quickly realize there is reason to stay.
Outside, past the tasting room where wines are poured in small samples, against a backdrop of furniture, walls and flooring all salvaged from barns, and beyond shelves filled with edible souvenirs of Wisconsin (from cheese to chocolate), farmland buffers the winery’s four-acre vineyards. This is where cold-hardy wine grapes like St. Pepin, Marquette and Petite Pearl flourish. It’s a sweet story about coming home. Co-owner Ryan Prellwitz grew up on the farm with his family and, with wife Megan, transformed the land into a vineyard. Just down the road, the Prellwitz family continues its homesteading today with Prellwitz Produce, a strawberry farm and Al n Rae Farms, specializing in soybeans and corn.
Every Wednesday night during summer and through the end of September, this winery adopts a modern vibe: visitors can do sun salutations and downward dogs between the vines. After shavasana, participants can taste wine for free and kick back with snacks (cheese and crackers, plus popcorn and chocolates). During some classes, Dennis Hawk — a singer-songwriter who refers to himself as a yoga musician — provides soul-stirring tunage.
At many dairy state wineries, the main focus is not solely the grapes. Activities and events designed to stimulate the senses, whether it’s yoga, listening to live music or painting, also entice visitors. Just like at vines & rushes, Elmaro Vineyard in Trempealeau hosts a packed roster of non-wine events, including jazz sessions and Easter egg-dying, painting and various yoga classes (from candlelight to sunset yoga, plus yoga & brunch). And at Staller Estate Winery’s vineyard and tasting room in Delavan, a young couple with a science background have followed their dream to launch a winery. By 2013, six years into their endeavor, they had garnered 50 awards for their wines, mostly crafted from Wisconsin- and Illinois-grown grapes. Just a few rely upon wine grapes sourced from New York’s Finger Lakes region. Visitors are treated to more than a wine tasting. They can dig into a picnic platter to enjoy on the grounds, and activities such as creating a trivet from recycled wine corks, for example. All of this happens inside a former dairy barn that’s cute as a button.
That said, wine doesn’t always take a backseat. Plenty of Wisconsin wineries offer immersive experiences to get wine geeks knee-deep in viticulture or oenology. One can stomp grapes and tour the vineyard at Parallel 44 vineyard & Winery in Kewaunee during its Fall Harvest Fest on September 12. (Curious what Parallel 44 means? It’s a reference to the 44 degrees north latitude in this region, which is the same as in Tuscany, Italy and Bordeaux, France.) Located 15 miles east of Green Bay and just south of the Bateway City to Door County (Sturgeon Bay), the 10-year-old winery has a coveted spot in Wisconsin’s newest American viticultural area, the Wisconsin ledge, and grows five cold-climate wine grapes.
If sub-zero temps don’t keep you indoors, consider visiting the winery in late February for another annual event: the Frozen Tundra Wine Fest. Wines are uncorked and poured at a chilly ice bar, you can hop on a sleigh ride and there is food for purchase, along with the rare chance to tour the vineyards during a month when people rarely do.
For lovers of leaf peeping in the autumn, there’s no better place to point your car than a country road in Door County. A nice complement to that road trip is the Door County Wine Trail. Eight wineries are on the trail, including a sister winery to Parallel 44 (Door 44, inside a cute little red house in Sturgeon Bay). Near Egg Harbor at Stone’s Throw Winery — which sources its grapes from outside of Wisconsin but makes the wines inside the 90-year-old stone barn — are three different tours: the Essence of Wines (sip through a flight of five wines), daily tour (visit the barrel room and taste wines) and barrel tasting tour (an in-depth look at the wine making process, including barrel tastings). All tours include a logo wine glass to keep as a souvenir.
One unique angle to touring Door County wineries is the food. Right next door — 20 feet away, in fact — to Harbor Ridge Winery in Egg Harbor is a carefully curated cheese shop. All the fixings for pairing wine and food are in the same space, so close that you need not repark your car or bicycle (Door County’s winding country roads are the perfect spot for a two-wheeled winery tour). Tucked into a log cabin at Wisconsin Cheese Masters are 90-some different artisan cheeses made in Wisconsin. Many have earned awards and the variety spans selections such as Gouda, Cheddar, Havarti and Blue.
At the winery, each label features an artsy twist. Call Me a Cab is a Cabernet franc red wine with a rotary-dial image on each bottle and naughty Girl promises a taste on the palate that’s “racy” and with “curvaceous tannins,” just like the label’s silhouette of a woman.
On a visit to Harbor Ridge Winery you can walk up to the five-year-old vines, flush with Marquette grapes, or simply belly up to the bar and taste for yourself how unique Wisconsin’s wines are. In a state more recognized for its beer and cheese, it’s a refreshing angle to sampling just how rich the region’s terroir (wine-speak for the characteristics in soil and climate that contribute to overall taste) can be.
Perched along the Wisconsin river, just outside of Sauk City, is Wollersheim Winery, one of the state’s most well-known wineries, particularly for its Prairie Fumé, a semi-dry white wine crafted from seyval blanc grapes from New Hork. Owners Julie and Philippe Coquard — his roots go back to a wine making family in France’s beaujolais region while she is the Wollersheims’ oldest daughter — hit upon the idea for this wine in the late 1980s while dining out in Madison and craving a light, fruity white to drink with their meal. It’s also the state’s oldest winery dating back to the 1840s when Agoston Haraszthy planted wine grapes here.
Year-round, the winery’s event calendar is filled with events, including a vintage Christmas celebration the Saturday after thanksgiving and ruby Nouveau release day the third Thursday of November, inspired by the release of Beaujolais Nouveau on this date too. There are also daily opportunities to get an intimate glimpse at what it’s like to run a winery. You can sip through the winery’s portfolio under an umbrella while gazing out at the vineyards; tour the winery’s hillside caves; or experience the Wine sensory Garden that the late founder, Bob Wollersheim, planted. (Each of the plants is linked to an aroma found in wine.)
At this winery, and at others across the state, whether your palate screams for white or red, fruity or savory, or dry or sweet, there are plenty of options — complete with a look at the newest angle to Wisconsin’s burgeoning beverage industry.
This article originally appeared in the 2015 fall/winter issue of Experience Wisconsin magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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