There is something about the idea of “local” that seems to attract an increasing number of people.
It could be fruits and vegetables grown on a nearby farm or milk and cheese produced at a dairy just outside of town. Or, in the case of an industry that has seen incredible growth within the last couple of decades, it’s the grapes and hops of wineries and breweries.
For a variety of reasons – not the least of which is the local connection – the wine and beer industries are quite appealing for consumers, tourists and, perhaps most importantly, the economy.
“Our industry presents an economic engine that has sometimes been unrealized by a lot of people in the state,” says Bo Lélanger, owner of South Shore Brewery in Ashland and president of the Wisconsin Brewers Guild. “A lot of us use a vast majority of our ingredients from Wisconsin agriculture. A lot of our packaging material comes from the state as well. Tourism is a great foundation piece to our industry, and the taxes we pay are considerable. Every time a craft brewery opens up, there really is an economic growth seen.”
Lélanger points out how much the craft brewery industry has grown in the past 15 to 20 years. South Shore Brewery was the state’s seventh such brewery when it was founded in 1995, according to Lélanger, and today there are around 70.
Even hops, necessary for brewing beer, are making a comeback of sorts in Wisconsin. The state was the country’s leader in hop production in the mid-1800s, but diseases and pests forced the crop elsewhere by the latter part of the century. In the last few years, however, farmers here are growing what is the key ingredient for beer.
“We have built more hop yards here in the last three years than were available since 1870,” Lélanger says.
From Vines to Wines
The number of wineries is increasing as well. Within the state’s five wine regions – Door County, Driftless Region, Fox Valley, Glacial Hills and Northwoods – there are 58 wineries listed as members of the Wisconsin Winery Association.
Wollersheim Winery in Prairie du Sac and Cedar Creek Winery in Cedarburg, which are owned by Philippe and Julie Coquard, have experienced significant increases in production over the past 25 years or so. Annual production of wines at both places rose from 15,000 gallons in 1987 to 220,000 gallons in 2011.
“Our production has grown substantially, and likewise the number of wineries in Wisconsin has really grown in the last several years,” says Julie, whose parents, Robert and JoAnn Wollersheim, opened the winery in 1972. “That’s happening all across the country. I think there’s more interest in locally grown products, and just more interest in wines in general.”
Many of the wines from Wisconsin are made from grapes that are grown on the properties. Recent research on cold-climate grapes has led to more vineyards producing a fruit suitable for winemaking.
“Many varieties have been developed that can withstand subzero temperatures and yet also produce high quality wine,” says Steve Johnson, owner and winemaker at Parallel 44 Winery in Kewaunee. Parallel 44 is named for its location at 44 degrees north latitude, the same latitude of premium wine-growing regions such as Tuscany in Italy and Bordeaux in France.
He adds, “This was the result of crossing multiple generations of vinifera varieties with wild or riparia varieties found growing in the upper Midwest. Some of these varieties are named Frontenac, LaCrescent, Marquette and Petite Pearl.”