Wisconsin wine festivals, fall winery tours

Fruit of the vine, makes me feel fine … so take a tour and sip chardonnay to dandelion wine.

California, home to about 2,700 of the nation’s 5,900 wineries, easily dominates U.S. wine production, but Wisconsin quietly is widening its own product lines, tours and events for wine lovers. Autumn is a prime time to visit, because of fall color changes and new fruit harvests.

Membership in the Wisconsin Winery Association has doubled in the past five years, thanks to the improvement of cold climate grapes and heightened consumer interest in wine. The 34 members represent more than 90 percent of state’s wineries, says Susan Rees, the association’s executive director.

Other indications of growth: establishment of the Wisconsin Grape Growers Association two years ago, and increased offerings at the Wine Pavilion during the Wisconsin State Fair.

“Wine has become much more of a sophisticated product” here and elsewhere, Susan observes, and much of the variety is the result of vintners buying grapes and juices from other states – or countries – to supplement or enhance what is done with fruits grown locally.

“So now we have good cabernets and chardonnays in addition to our longtime specialty, regional wines,” she says. It is like this throughout the U.S.: Wine is produced in all 50 states, and our nation ranks as the world’s fourth largest wine producing country (behind Italy, France and Spain).

For Vernon Vineyards, near Viroqua, the advent of tasty cold-climate grapes made it possible to successfully transform 68 acres of a former tobacco farm. The winery opened in 2006; tours and tastings occur Friday to Sunday.

Even newer is Bauer-Kearns Winery, near Platteville, not yet a winery association member. Ted and Helen Kearns operate their business on high ground where visitors – on a clear day – see parts of three states.

At the opposite extreme, regarding longevity: Wollersheim Winery this year celebrates the 20th year of producing Prairie Fume, one of Wisconsin’s most acclaimed and popular wines (having earned gold medals in five international competitions). Prairie du Sac vintners Philippe and Julie Coquard release a new ice wine Oct. 14, and the annual ruby nouveau tasting is Nov. 21.

Vineyards were planted on Wollersheim property in 1840, making it one of the nation’s oldest winery estates.

On the National Register of Historic Places is Von Stiehl Winery in downtown Algoma, whose limestone caverns and headquarters were constructed as a brewery five years after the Civil War. Stomp grapes and taste wine at the annual Wet Whistle Wine Fest, Sept. 19-20.

In Door County, a part of doing business is about adding a personal touch. One example: Lautenbach’s Orchard Country Winery has named products after the owner’s grandchildren, and wine labels include baby pictures.

Who is the king of both wine and cheese in Wisconsin? You could make a strong case for Troy Landwehr of Kerrigan Brothers Winery, near Kaukauna.

Troy makes more than a dozen fruit-based wines – plum to pear, Dutch Apple to Cranberry White – and he carves cheese. Troy has turned a 700-pound chunk of cheddar into a carving of Mount Rushmore, as a marketing tool for Cheez-It crackers. Other blocks have been chiseled to look like the prime minister of Ireland, comedian Tom Arnold and David Letterman’s “Late Show” sidekick, Biff Henderson.

At the winery, expect free tastings daily, and staffers share ideas about how to make products more versatile. Use the blackberry wine as a marinade or rub on wild game, for example, or mix it with sour soda – for a spritzer.

Diversity, here and elsewhere, spells prosperity and character.

For more about Wisconsin wineries and events, consult the Wisconsin Winery Association at www.wiswine.com and 866-947-9463. The group divides the state into five wine regions and suggests itineraries for travelers.

For more about grape growing in Wisconsin, consult the Wisconsin Grape Growers Association at www.wigrapes.org.

For more about businesses mentioned in this column:

Vernon Vineyards, S3457 Dahl Rd., Viroqua: www.vernonvineyards.com, 608-634-6734

Bauer-Kearns Winery, 19245 W. Mound Rd., Platteville: www.platteville.com, 608-348-7700.

Wollersheim Winery, 7876 Hwy. 188, Prairie du Sac: www.wollersheim.com, 800-847-9463

Von Stiehl Winery, 115 Navarino St., Algoma: www.vonstiehl.com, 800-955-5208.

Lautenbach’s Orchard Country Winery, 9197 Hwy. 42, Fish Creek: www.orchardcountry.com, 920-868-3479.

Kerrigan Brothers Winery, N2797 Hwy. 55, Freedom: www.kerriganbrothers.com, 920-788-1423.

Many wine harvest events occur this month. Here are examples.

Sept. 19: Harvest Festival, Greenleaf, www.troutspringswinery.com, 866-687-9463.

Sept. 19-20: Wine and Harvest Festival, Cedarburg, www.cedarburgfestivals.org, 800-237-2874; Wet Whistle Festival, Algoma, www.vonstiehl.com, 800-955-5208; and Fall Harvest Festival, St. Croix Falls, www.chateaustcroix.com, 715-483-2556.

Sept. 25: Bountiful Harvest wine dinner, Chateau St. Croix Winery, www.chateaustcroix.com, 715-483-2556.

Sept. 26: Lake Pepin Food, Wine and Cider Festival, Maiden Rock, www.maidenrockwinerycidery.com; Fall Harvest Wine Fest, Fish Creek, www.orchardcountry.com, 920-868-3479; and Vino Fest, Pewaukee, www.masoncreekwinery.com, 262-367-6494.

Sept. 27: Winemaker dinner, Door Peninsula Winery, Sturgeon Bay www.dcwine.com, 800-551-5049.

Three major wine events in October involve dozens of vendors per event, food and beverage samplings, workshops and culinary demos.

Wine and Dine Wisconsin, Oct. 10-11 at the Midwest Airlines Center, Milwaukee. Tickets: $32 in advance, $42 at the door. www.wineanddinewisconsin.com, 414-224-2039.

Kohler Food and Wine Experience, Oct. 22-25, several Kohler locations. Ticket cost depends upon the events selected. Some events are free. www.destinationkohler.com, 800-344-2838.

Madison Food and Wine Show, Oct. 23-25 at the Alliant Energy Center. Tickets: $37 in advance, $42 at the door. www.madisonfoodandwineshow.com, 608-270-3600.

Cyber connections: Follow me on Twitter (look for maryinmadison) and Facebook (or, in this case, feet-book: Look for the feet when searching for Mary Bergin).