Wisconsin and the Lure of the Grape




The Wollersheim Estate

Many people give up lucrative jobs and stable careers to get into winemaking. The lure of working the land, creating beauty, and sharing it with enthusiasts in an atmosphere of good cheer colludes with the hope, sometimes vain, of earning a living at it. The romance is just too much to resist, and so wineries have been popping up like spring flowers across the U.S.

But it’s one thing to find the attractions of winemaking compelling in a part of the country conducive to growing grapes. It’s quite another to try to make wine in the Upper Midwest where cold winters and short summers make growing wine grapes a perilous enterprise. First, you have to find varietals that will survive the winters. There are about 10,000 identified species of wine grapes growing some place in the world. Almost all of them have fruit buds and wood cells that will rupture in sub-zero temperatures thus killing the plant. Fortunately, when the Americans were helping the French re-engineer their rootstock after the 19th Century phylloxera epidemic, the French were unwittingly helping the Americans as well. They crossed fine-tasting French varieties with phylloxera-resistant American varieties, a few of which just happened to be better able to withstand cold winters. These French/American hybrid grape varietals, especially Marechal Foch and Leon Millot, now form the backbone of the locally-grown offerings at some of the older, established Wisconsin wineries.

But these French hybrids are only moderately cold hardy with crop loss and winter kill always a threat. Thus, independent grape breeders such as Wisconsin’s Elmer Swenson, and more recently the University of Minnesota, have gotten into the grape breeding act, developing varieties specifically designed to survive temperatures below –20 degrees, resist mildew, and ripen early before the fall frost arrives. St. Pepin, La Crescent, La Crosse, and Frontenac Gris are some of the white wine products of these breeding programs. Newly bred reds include St. Croix, Frontenac Red, and Marquette. There is a lot of excitement about these grapes among newer producers in Wisconsin, although some of the old hands remain skeptical and prefer the French hybrids. Nevertheless, wine grape growers in the Upper Midwest now have many options in deciding what to plant. But that’s a lot of effort put into a product with 10,000 varieties already flourishing around the world in better situated climates. Is it worth the effort?wisconsin-wollersheim

Despite the disease resistance bred into these grapes it’s still a struggle to stay ahead of the moisture and resulting disease pressure in this wet climate. Once the grapes are in the winery, there are more challenges to overcome.  As Alywn Fitzgerald, owner and winemaker at Fisher King winery in Madison told me, even at peak harvest Marechal Foch has green flavors with astringent seeds that lack the nutty flavors typical of mature, conventional, wine grape seeds. To prevent these green flavors finding their way into the wine, seeds have to be removed as quickly as possible and fermentation must proceed at higher temperatures requiring careful monitoring to make sure the character of the wine survives the heat.

But the most important challenge is probably getting acidity down to acceptable levels. Acid reduction techniques must be employed, but carefully, to avoid spiking the PH to levels that various wine-loving critters would find palatable. In cool years, chaptalization (adding sugar) is common to bring wines into balance.

With all these challenges, one might be justified in asking “what were they thinking” of the pioneers of Wisconsin winemaking. Yet, growth has been rapid. In 2001 there were 13 wineries in the state. Today there are about 135 permitted wineries contributing 200 million dollars per year to the state’s economy. People like having wineries in their backyard. They are destinations, event centers, and part of the mix of tourist options that enliven local culture as well a place to drink locally, meet the people who make your wine, and support local businesses. The steady growth in customers seems to be answering the “is it worth it” question.

As wine lovers we should welcome all this activity in unlikely places. These grape varieties are distinctly different from the familiar Chardonnay/ Cabernet/Pinot Noir wines made from v. vinifera, and that diversity is at the heart of what makes wine compelling. The fact that fermented grape juice can find so many different expressions makes the wine world inexhaustibly fascinating.

But with regard to wine quality, are these grapes on a par with the more familiar varietals such as Cabernet and Chardonnay from California?  That in part depends on what you mean by “wine quality” but I think they have some catching up to do. The whites such as La Crescent and St. Pepin are very aromatic and round in the mouth. La Crescent has many of Gewurztraminer’s considerable charms. Because the acidity is high, and local tastes being what they are, the white wines tend to be off-dry to medium sweet although I occasionally came across an impressive, dry white wine. Frontenac gris with its explosive flavors and long finish is especially interesting although it is usually made with some residual sugar to balance the acidity. Coming up with a grape that will make a highly aromatic, rich, yet dry, white wine is a work in progress.

Because the growing season is short, the red wine grapes do not enjoy long hang-time on the vines and thus don’t have the sugar or phenolic development required for “big reds”. Thus, they are lighter in body than their warm weather counterparts. Moreover,  not only are these red varietals naturally high in acidity, since the growing season is short, they can’t depend on additional ripening to reduce acid in the vineyard. The result is often a wine that feels hard, angular, and unyielding in the mouth.  They have generous fruit power but can be a bit grapey, one-dimensional, and lack finesse. Yet the best winemakers succeed in making interesting, elegant wines from Marquette, Marechal Foch, and Leon Millot. When learning to appreciate them you have to make an effort to focus on something other than the acidity. But isn’t that how we learn to taste? By bracketing the obvious and focusing on what else is there?

Most importantly, Wisconsin wines are  a far cry from the standardized, homogeneous product we find at the supermarket. It’s wine in all its rambunctious glory with tragic stories and serendipitous success, surprising flavors and new taste sensations on every tasting menu, and lots of people dedicated to producing the best wine they can with what they have available.


Wine Tasting in Wisconsin

wisconsin-red-barnThere are several wine regions in Wisconsin but the two main regions are the Driftless region near Madison and the Door County region east/northeast of Green Bay. For the most part we focused on those two regions. Wineries in Wisconsin tend to be spread out so trying to hit the best ones involves some road time. But even that is time well spent—Wisconsin has fine-tuned the quaint, rural charm thing, especially if you find happy cows and red barns attractive. (I do)

Almost all wineries here make some wines from imported grapes. In fact some wineries use exclusively grapes shipped in from California. To be honest, we aren’t interested in tasting California grapes in Wisconsin. Thus, we visited only wineries committed to using 100% local grapes in a least some of their products and we largely ignored the wines made from imported grapes. Wisconsin wine lovers also have a sweet tooth. Off-dry and semi-sweet wines, as well as dessert wines, always appear on tasting menus. But some of these varietals are so high in acidity that, when well made, the sweetness is not cloying. Some wines labeled semi-sweet have a crisp and refreshing finish. While we typically didn’t taste all the sweet wines, we did taste a representative sample and found some gems.

Here are the best wineries we visited on our 3 week tour of Wisconsin.

Wineries in the Driftless Region (esp. the Madison Area)

Wollersheim Winery

The oldest winery in the state having opened their doors in 1973, 13th generation French winemaker Phillipe Coquard married into the family in 1984, and with his wife Julie, has built this winery into a Midwestern powerhouse with an annual case production over 100,000. It’s a gorgeous property with a lot of history and some very good wines anchored by several bottlings of Marechal Foch (see my review here) and an award winning Seyval Blanc called Prairie Fumé, which is their largest seller. Several of their wines, including the Seyval, are made from grapes imported from New York or California, but they have a full lineup of Wisconsin wines from their Estate vineyards as well. Wollersheim was the first commercial winery to plant the Swenson grape St. Pepin in 1980, which still graces their tasting menu.

Botham Vineyards and Winery

In 1989 Peter Botham began transforming his family’s dairy farm into a winery. Today he makes some of the best wine in Wisconsin. In fact his Field 3 Leon Millot is hands down the best wine we tasted in the state. (See my review here.) Occupying the hilliest part of the state which is good for microclimates, his vineyards are uniquely well situated to get Leon Millot ripe in the best years, and only then is Field 3 made. For wine lovers who like a little sweetness in their wines, Botham’s Big Stuff Red, a semi-dry Marechal Foch, had lovely texture and big flavors. And because it’s unusual, seek out their Vin 10, made from Geisenheim grapes, a relative of Riesling grown in New York. It’s crisp and fresh with citrus and melon notes, a very nice wine.

Fisher King Winery

An urban winery in Madison, Fisher King’s Alwyn Fitzgerald is enthusiastic about the future of Wisconsin wines and is dedicated to revealing their full potential. His Troll Town Red made from Marechal Foch was fresh and inviting (see my review here) . All the white wines were fresh and aromatic with White Whisper, a semi-sweet Frontenac Gris, a standout. But the show-stopper is “Perfection”, a port-style desert wine made from Frontenac Red, with complex orange and spice aromas and scintillating acidity. Frontenac makes an outstanding port-style wine and this one is particularly well made.

Milwaukee Area

Cedar Creek Winery

This is the only Milwaukee area winery I could find using Wisconsin grapes. Located in the charming destination town of Cedarburg, just north of Milwaukee, this is the sister winery of Wollersheim with wines made at Wollersheim’s production facility by Phillipe Coquard. Most of the wines sold in their tasting room in Cedarburg use imported grapes, but there are several bottlings produced from Wisconsin grapes that are not sold at the Wollersheim winery. A pleasant and surprisingly complex Beaujolais-style Marechal Foch called Bon Vivant and the elegant, aromatic Marquette 2015 were worth seeking out. But for sheer originality try the Port Rosé. This is Foch and Edelweiss fermented as a rosé before brandy is added to stop the fermentation. Fresh and fruity but with the brandy kick, it starts sweet but finishes dry, an interesting wine.

Door County

Parallel 44 and Door 44

wisconsin-lakeUsing 90% Wisconsin grapes, and with estate vineyards just minutes from Lake Michigan, Parallel 44 is a real success story. They opened their doors in 2007 and have grown to an annual production of 10,000 cases, growth that has required two winery expansions and a 2nd tasting room in Door County (Door 44) Proximity to the lake is key as it moderates frigid temperatures in the winter and keeps heat in the vineyards in the summer. Both their St. Pepin (called Blue Moon) and La Crescent  are off-dry flavor explosions, some of the better white wines we tasted in Wisconsin. Their Door County Marquette is fruity, cheerful and easy to drink. Surprisingly, they make a lovely Baco Noir, the only one in Wisconsin, with grapes sourced from a nearby vineyard with an unusual microclimate. Their ice wine made from Frontenac Gris is lovely as well.


Cold Country Vines and Wines

Another winery taking advantage of the Lake Michigan’s size and airflow to provide warmth in the vineyards, Cold Country is a relative newcomer having opened their doors in 2014. Dedicated to using primarily Wisconsin grapes, they make a wonderful La Crescent and an off-dry Frontenac Gris called Summer Mornings (blended with some Seyval Blanc) both bursting with flavor. With high energy acidity in the reds, wines with some sweetness were the most successful.The semi-sweet Red Sunset, a blend of Marquette, Pearl, and Frontenac, was complex with nicely structured tannins. But the show stopper was the Frontenac 2013 Dessert wine. Great complexity, a very intense nose, and scintillating acidity—this wine alone worth the trip to Cold Country.


Von Stiehl Winery

Housed in an historic building built in 1868, this is Wisconsin’s oldest licensed winery having opened their doors in 1967 producing, at the time, all fruit wine. The current owners, the Schmiling family, purchased the business in 1981 and gradually added grape wine. They have an extensive list of fruit wines, traditional vinifera varieties grown in California and several wines made with Wisconsin grapes. The wines from local grapes were all impressive. The Marechal Foch 2013, called Sylvester, has an expressive nose and a soft approachable palate with good structure. The Stony Creek Red Marquette is elegant, soft and round, with a lovely evolution on the palate. And finally I don’t devote much attention to fruit (non-grape) wines but we’re near Door County where they’re known for the distinctive Montmorency cherry. So I couldn’t resist Von Stiehl’s oak-aged Kirsch, a really lovely dessert wine.

Lautenbach’s Orchard Country and Market

This is a busy tourist stop that sells specialty foods, kitchen gadgets and other sundries along with a full lineup of fruit and grape wines. The wine in such places is usually disappointing but I was pleasantly surprised here. The Ashlyn Sophia Marquette and a Marechal Foch/Frontenac blend called Nathan John were standouts. But the whole lineup was well made in a lighter bodied, elegant style. Door County has plenty of tourist traps with dreadful wines. But this was not one of them. And tastings are free.


The End of the World! What’s on Your Plate?

end of the worldHere we go again. Bible beaters are proclaiming September 23rd to be the end of time as foretold in the book of Revelations. They do this periodically. They’re never right. Evaluation of evidence is not their strong suit.

But Master Somm Tim Gaiser used the occasion to post his menu of the meal he would want to eat if he knew ahead of time that the end times were upon us. Which got me thinking what my menu would be.

So here it is. What’s on your plate?

Appetizer:  Oysters on the half shell

6 Kumamotos with just a spritz of a simple mignonette.

Wine Pairing: Bollinger Brut Cuvee, with at least 5 years on the lees for structure

Pasta Course: My Macaroni and Cheese

Very traditional, baked in a bechamel with sharp cheddar and fontina, prepared with sodium citrate to prevent curdling. My innovation is to add apples that give the dish a sweet note.

Wine Pairing: A Riesling such as a 10 yr. old  Dönnhoff Nahe Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle Spätlese   to bring out the sweetness of the apples.

Fish course: Fresh Grilled Anchovies dressed with lemon, parsley, and a few olives

ala Portugal, Greece, or Sicily, a light refresher after the heavy mac and cheese

Wine Pairing: A Condrieu Viognier from Michel Ogier, on the light side for Viognier but very crisp and perfumy.


Meat Course: Bistecca Alla Fiorentina

A simple preparation of tenderloin steak with lemon and olive oil. It’s heavenly with a high quality olive oil

Wine Pairing: Haut Brion  Pessac 2009  I’m cellaring a few bottles I intend to sell. But under the circumstances, drink up.


Vegetable Course: A salad of heirloom tomatoes and assorted olives

Need a break from wine at this point


Cheese Course: Eppoise for stink, Rennards 10 yr. aged cheddar for concentrated flavor, an aged Gouda for nutty complexity

Wine Pairing: La Tache   By reputation the best Pinot Noir from Bourgogne.  I’ve never had it. This is my last chance.


Dessert: Bread Pudding

Preferably shipped in from Commander’s Palace, New Orleans

Wine Pairing: Domaine de Durban Muscat Beaumes de Venise   Not a classic pairing but I just adore Beaumes de Venise



Wine Review: Marechal Foch Three Ways



Among the cold-hardy grapes grown in the Upper Midwest and Northeast, Marechal Foch is probably the most popular and is developing a cult following among some somms. Known affectionately as “fosh”, it was developed in Alsace in the early 20th Century,  and later was named after a prominent French General from WW1. Widely planted in France until it was replaced with the “noble” varieties, it has found a home in Canada and the colder parts of the U.S. It is moderately cold-hardy, produces reliable yields, ripens early in the vineyard and also makes a charming wine. Fruit-forward, with gentle tannins and high acidity, it kinda sorta resembles Pinot Noir although it has its own distinctive characteristics, namely an inky color, hi-toned acidity, at times a charred wheat aroma note, and prominent coffee or chocolate notes. It’s a versatile grape that takes oak well but can also  receive the whole cluster, carbonic maceration treatment and make a light, fruity “Beaujolais”-style wine.

Here are three of the best Wisconsin has to offer:

wollersheim domaine reserve

Wollersheim Domaine Reserve Marechal Foch Lake Wisconsin 2015  $25   Alc: 13.6

Wollersheim has been making wine in Wisconsin since the early 1970’s. Throughout the decades they’ve experimented with many varietals but for winemaker Phillipe Coquard, it always comes back to Marechal Foch as the grape that best expresses his vision. The Reserve is their best bottling that sees 12 months in their distinctive French/American hybrid barrels. And it is a lovely wine that keeps growing on me. The nose achieves some depth with berry, raisin undercurrents, hints of coffee, musk, and wet autumn leaves. It’s black cherry on the palate and, as the acidity gathers strength  midpalate, it develops the sprightly feel of cherry cola before closing with sour cherry. Wonderfully soft and supple under that layer of acidity, the finish is long and lifted without being too forceful, with soft tannins providing a gentle anchor.


wollersheim domaine du sac

Wollersheim Domain Du Sac Marechal Foch Lake Wisconsin, 2015    $13   Alc. 13%

A different expression of Foch, blended with 10% of another French hybrid Leon Millot, it shows black cherry, hints of charred wheat, coffee and some reticent vanilla. This is a lighter but also a more rustic wine, more linear in its development and less supple than the Reserve. The whole cluster fermentation process gives this wine ebullient fruit up front and a very fresh tasting midpalate. An excellent table wine, easy drinking with soft refined tannins, it sees 5 months in oak.


fisher kingFisher King Winery  Troll Town Red Marechal Foch Dane County 2015   $19   Alc. 11%

This is a wine so cheerful it would make Pollyanna blush. Light and fruity with cranberry and bright cherry fighting for supremacy, this wine is bursting with flavor and full of charm. A fun everyday pizza wine, the acidity is becalmed and it has just enough tannic structure to provide length on the peppery finish. There is nothing deep or complex here, just unadorned joy.

For a music pairing, the Wollersheim Domain Reserve pairs well with music that is soft yet electric such as Massive Attack’s Better Things

Is the Decline of California as a Wine Region Upon Us?


desert wineJon Bonné takes to the pages of Punch to lament the passing of the current generation of California winemakers and sees little hope for the future. Using the occasion of the increasingly corporate Duckhorn’s purchase of the storied Calera Winery, he writes:

While the financial motives all make sense, it felt like a final signpost for an important generation of pioneers, much like last year’s retirement of Ridge’s Paul Draper. And it resurfaced an uncertainty that I’ve been feeling for a while: that the initial rush of energy that defined the New California has passed. For the first time in a long time, I’m struggling to see how California wine’s next chapter will take shape.

The great California winemaking pioneers are reaching retirement age and their kids are often interested in other pursuits. The only thing that financially makes sense is to sell to Big Wine. But while you might expect these retirements to create room for new talent to emerge, Bonné isn’t seeing it. The problem of course is land prices.

This brings us, inevitably, to the most complicated of topics in California wine: owning land, which is also the most important, in that any generation of winemakers ultimately needs to control their own vines if they want to do their greatest work. In California, that dream is probably farther out of reach than ever—not only in Napa, where top vineyards are now approaching $400,000 per acre, but also in places like Mendocino’s Anderson Valley, and even in Lodi, where the ratio of land value to wine prices isn’t that appealing. (“The land values here are so disheartening,” Petroski continues. “It sucks the soul out of you as a young winemaker.”)

Young winemakers can’t afford to set up shop. Only the mega-rich looking for a new toy can buy in, and that isn’t always a prescription for good wine or innovative approaches.

Bonné sees little to cheer about, but the solution it seems to me is obvious. Go north, go south, go east. There is absolutely no reason to think we’ve already discovered the best locations to grow wine grapes. Emerging regions such as Southern Oregon, Idaho, Arizona, Texas, even the Midwest have cheap land and developing wine cultures. With climate change already transforming traditional grape-growing regions, and the burgeoning ability to breed new grape varietals or clone existing varietals adapted to local conditions, we should probably give up our fixed ideas about what grows where.

What these new wine regions need is talent and experience which the California refugees can supply.

So leave California to the dilettantes and the survivors who already have a stake. If you’re a young winemaker desert and prairie wine might be in your future.

Smoke Gets in Your Wine


fires in oregonWine is interesting in part because grapes are like sponges soaking up the influence of the local soils and weather conditions that shape the flavors in the finished product. But that can have a down side. Smoke from the unusually persistent fires in the west threatens to damage the grape crop in Washington, Oregon and parts of California. Not only does smoke block the sun thus preventing grapes from ripening properly; it also permeates the grape causing what is known as “smoke taint”—an ashy aroma that when too prominent can be unpleasant.

Dealing with smoke taint is difficult because it often doesn’t emerge until well into the winemaking process and to my knowledge there is no foolproof way of getting rid of it. I’ve been in the Midwest for several weeks far from the activity surrounding harvest on the West coast. But from what I hear, attempts to deal with smoke taint will dominate the conversation about the 2017 vintage.

And get ready for a slew of wines that will remind you of barbecue—after the fire is out.

The Cold Hardy Grapes from Minnesota



minnesota-1This year I’ve taken the plunge, a deep dive into non-vinifera grape varieties. The wines we are all familiar with—Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay—almost every wine you find on the shelf in the supermarket or wine shop are made from the grape species vitis vinifera. This is the grape that grows well between the 50 degree and 30 degree latitudes and accounts for most of the global wine trade. The reason vitis vinifera is hard to find outside those coordinates is because winters are too cold, or summers are too hot, or the climate is too humid to produce healthy grapes. Frigid winters are especially damaging to vinifera which will not survive in extended sub-zero temperatures. Sustained hard freezes rupture cells in the roots and trunk leaking fluid and causing the plant to die.

But people who live outside those coordinates or who live in regions that experience exceptionally cold winters would like to make grape wine as well—it seems everyone wants in on the act. And so for many years researchers, both amateur and professional, have been searching for new cultivars that can survive the harsh winters of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and other states in the Upper Midwest and Northeast.

The History

Two names have been essential to the development of grape cultivars that will survive in the cold: Elmer Swenson and the University of Minnesota.

Inspired by an early grape breeder, a Texan by the name of T.V. Munsun, Elmer Swenson began experimenting with grape varieties in 1943on his family’s Wisconsin dairy farm by crossing French hybrid grapes with the local species called vitis riparia. Vitis riparia would survive the cold winters but made bad wine. By crossing the hardy riparia vines with French species known for their capacity to make drinkable wine, Swenson hoped to be able to produce reliable, high-quality fruit. In addition to the breeding program on his own farm, Swenson began caring for the fruit crops at the University of Minnesota where he was able to use their facilities to conduct his research.  His work at the University resulted in two hybrids, Edelweiss and Swenson Red, both of which he jointly released with the University. Other hybrids were independently released; Swenson was generous with his cuttings giving them to almost anyone who asked. Here’s a list of the Swenson varietals.

Swenson died in 2004 but The University of Minnesota has remained at the forefront of this search for cold-hardy varietals. Prior to 1978, the university’s program was largely dependent on Swenson’s efforts. But in 1978 they formally launched their wine-grape breeding program with a state-of-the-art enology lab coming online in 2000. Their 12 acres of vineyards are planted with about 12,000 vines with various genetic characteristics, the product of which will go through rigorous testing to discover how they will perform in the field. It takes about 15 years to bring a new variety to the market.

The Grapes


Frontenac Gris

Thus far, this breeding program has produced these 5 varietals that can be found on tasting menus throughout the Midwest, Northeast, and Canada:

Frontenac was introduced in 1996, a hybrid of V. Riparia and an obscure French hybrid called Landot 4511. This vine survives temperatures as low as –33 degrees, produces good yields and is largely disease resistant. The University of Minnesota might not welcome my assessment, but Frontenac makes a dreadful red dry wine. It’s acidity is off the charts and should you venture to imbibe, your mouth will feel like a battleground featuring sour cherry and lemon. Talk to winemakers about Frontenac and you will get a discourse on acid-reducing techniques. But with added sugar the wine achieves some balance and it makes an truly outstanding port-style dessert wine. Hint: If you want wine lovers to leave your tasting room impressed, don’t serve dry, red Frontenac. (Although see my review of Alexis Bailey below)

Frontenac Gris was introduced in 2003. This varietal started out as a mutation of Frontenac, producing gray fruit (hence the name gris, which means gray in French) which creates a light amber-colored wine. It has all the good-making qualities of Frontenac but also happens to make a really flavorful wine with explosive tropical and peach aromas. The high acidity is a virtue creating a powerful, long, refreshing finish. This is not a subtle wine but its rich flavors and aromas make this a promising grape.

La Crescent, introduced in 2002, is probably the most popular of the cold hardy white grapes. A hybrid of two Swenson varietals (which were themselves hybrids), this is a hardy grape which produces an intensely aromatic wine reminiscent of Gewurztraminer or Riesling. It shows peach, citrus, and some tropical fruit aromas. It is usually made with some residual sugar to balance the acidity giving the wine a fleshy, medium body. I’ve found these wines to be generally interesting and refreshing.

Marquette is the most recent addition having been introduced in 2006. This is a complex hybrid from many species some of which are related to Frontenac and Pinot Noir. Wine growers love this grape because it’s easy to handle and produces great yields. Winemakers like it because of its high sugar and relatively low acidity. It has bright cherry flavors, black pepper, and spice notes and handles oak reasonably well. I wouldn’t call it a “big red” but it has some weight to it and achieves elegance when handled properly. I get the impression winemakers are still experimenting with this grape but the results are promising.

Frontenac Blanc is a mutation of Frontenac and Frontenac Gris. (This Frontenac family seems to be as genetically unstable as Pinot Noir). It has a peach and citrus nose with a dry, crisp finish. I found this wine to be austere when fermented dry but refreshing and a wine that will pair well with seafood.

The latest release from Minnesota is Itasca. Since 2017 is the first year it has been released to vineyards, I haven’t tasted wines made from it yet.

Wine made from Swenson and University of Minnesota varietals are not the only  wines found in Minnesota. Some of the French hybrids such as Marechal Foch and Leon Millot are moderately cold hardy and play a prominent role on tasting menus.

The Wineries

Our stay in Minnesota was brief and we had time to visit only 5 wineries in the Minneapolis area, two of which deserve mention.

Alexis Bailey Vineyard

Alexis Bailey’s family planted the first vineyard in Minnesota in 1973 and were the first to produce wines made of 100% Minnesota grapes. Their strategy today is to guarantee that in each wine 51% of the grapes are Minnesota grown. They create many interesting blends using California, New York, and Minnesota grapes but their 100% Minnesota wines, which were our focus, were also outstanding. I noted above that Frontenac seldom makes a good dry red. But this one actually had some finesse despite the high acidity, showing an attractive lifted midpalate and some grain on the tannins to stand up to the acidity. Their Voyager, a blend of Marachal Foch, Leon Millot, and Frontenac had prominent berry and vanilla notes, a soft, round midpalate and an electric finish with refined tannins. With 1 year in New American oak, this is the best wine we tasted in Minnesota. Their hybrids survive the winter because they lay the vines down on the frozen turf and cover them with straw to preserve heat.

Winehaven Winery and Vineyard

Winehaven was founded in 1995 but the Peterson family has been growing fruit for 4 generations. Winehaven occupies a favorable microclimate on a hillside surrounded by three lakes keeping some heat in the vineyard. They can actually grow Riesling here although it’s risky and takes lots of care. I was especially impressed with their Frontenac Gris and La Crescent—each with explosive aromas and a richly textured mouthfeel. Among the reds, the Marquette Reserve was intense and complex, full bodied yet refined. But the show stopper was a grape unique to Winehaven. Called Nokomis, it was developed and patented by the Petersons. The black cherry, spice and elegant medium body was reminiscent of Pinot Noir—very well made Pinot Noir. I certainly want to find out more about this grape and watch it’s development.

With the resources of the University pumping out new varietals adapted to the climate here, Minnesota is edging its way onto the wine map although it will take years to figure out the best methods of growing grapes and making wine from these varietals. As of now, quality is spotty but these two wineries give us a glimpse of what is possible.

Wine Review: Botham Vineyards “Field 3”Leon Millot Wisconsin 2016



bothamIf you’re going to make wine  in Wisconsin, after gaining your sanity certification from a licensed psychiatrist, you will have to plant varietals bred to withstand sustained, subzero temperatures. Leon Millot is one of those varietals although it’s integrity is dicey below –10 degrees. It’s a French hybrid grape created in 1911 by crossing a vitis riparia/ vitis rupestris varietal with Goldriesling, a white vinifera variety. It makes a dark, almost purple colored, age worthy red wine that is occasionally still planted in Switzerland but has become popular in Midwestern United States and Canada. It ripens very early which makes it attractive in cold climate regions where fall comes a callin’ in September.

If you’re used to tasting vinifera varietals (the standard varietals we are all familiar with), tasting wine made from cold-hardy, non-vinifera varietals can be challenging, largely because their acidity is off the charts. As we made our way through North Dakota, Minnesota, and the early days in our Wisconsin sojourn, despair was beginning to mount, as most of the red wines were disappointing—until we visited Botham Vineyards. After tasting hundreds of wines I still think this is the best wine in Wisconsin.

The aromas are gorgeous, like plunging your nose into a bed of roses. There are aromas of dried cherry and freshly turned earth, but it’s that smell of spring that captivates. Spare and delicate on the palate, it gently caresses with a slight glycerin mouthfeel at midpalate and then finishes with bright, almost lemony acidity, tactile but fresh as morning air. With fine gossamer tannins, a wine gentle yet stinging as a line in a Dickinson poem, it evokes a brittle, fragile sensibility. Not unlike very delicate Pinot Noir.

Available only in good vintages, it’s very lightly oaked and would be lovely with pork, veal and certainly mushrooms, and paired with the intimate vulnerability of Novo Amor’s Carry You

Price: $20

Alc: 13%

Can Wine Writing Avoid Fruits and Flowers?


friut descriptorsJay McInerney, author of novels such as Bright Lights, Big City, is also a wine writer, with a current gig at Town and Country Magazine. In an Eater interview, part of which Eater’s editors helpfully paraphrased, McInerney gets to the heart of something I’ve thought about quite a bit.

Being relatable is key to making a wine column interesting, according to McInerney. Wine writing often falls into two traps: describing the technical — focusing on malolactic fermentation and the like — or describing the horticultural. “It was all about wine smelling like certain flowers, and I knew nothing about horticulture,” McInerney says of the wine writing that inspired him to do better. “I thought it was more instructive to compare wine to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ or a Ferrari than to a certain kind of rose or gardenia.”

McInerney’s experience as a novelist also helps in this respect: “One of the best ways to describe the aesthetic experience of wine is with metaphors and similes,” he adds.

I think this is exactly right. Since the 1980’s when the UC Davis oenology department went all in on finding allegedly objective descriptions for wine via Anne Noble’s aroma wheel, wine writing has been preoccupied with accuracy. Wines are to be described using only descriptors that can be plausibly traced back to chemical compounds in the wine that cause us to smell blackberry, vanilla or earth. That’s all well and good—wine does exhibit aromas best described as resembling other edible or aromatic plants.

But we don’t drink wine to smell blackberries just as we don’t view paintings to experience a shade of blue. A wine leaves an overall aesthetic impression, it evokes feelings, moves us, stimulates the imagination, invokes memories, even makes us think. And different wines have different ways of doing so. If wine writing is to reach a higher level it must capture a broader aesthetic experience.

For me, and apparently for McInerney, music helps capture this broader aesthetic experience that wine makes possible.

The problem is that we, not just wine writers but our audience, get set in our ways and resist change. But more importantly, we are afraid that if metaphor, musical or otherwise, becomes a prominent means of communication we will stumble into a sea of subjectivity losing our grip on the goal of accuracy that the technicians have persuaded us to strive for.

We pay lip service to the idea of wine as bottled poetry but can’t escape the idea of wine as bottled chemistry.

Chemistry is important but if it throttles experience what has been gained?

In Wine and Food There’s No Such Thing as Flyover Country


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I have no historical attachment to the Midwest, but the term “flyover country” has always struck me as insulting. It not only ignores the Midwest’s great natural beauty but fails to acknowledge the cultural mix that enlivens these communities. In fact, when it comes to food and wine, there are experiences to be had in the Midwest that cannot be found elsewhere. The population of many Midwestern states is an amalgam of German, Scandinavian, and Irish ancestry among others, and they all had to marry their cuisines to the local ingredients creating unique food traditions that survive today. There is a reason why lefse, the Scandinavian flatbread, is popular in North Dakota and Minnesota, while beer and brats make Wisconsinites proud of their German heritage.

Truth be told some of these dishes are lovely only to the people who grew up with them; others deserve wider recognition. Nevertheless, they survive not as pillars of aesthetic beauty but as ceremonial icons richly evocative of the past, reinforcing attachments to one’s home but also as markers of distinctiveness, as a kind of resistance to the colonization of the global food culture.

I’ve spent several weeks in the upper Midwest, mostly in Wisconsin but with forays into North Dakota and Minnesota. Wisconsin will get a post of it’s own, but here are some of the regional dishes that distinguish North Dakota and Minnesota.



This is apparently a closely guarded secret—I haven’t seen Lefse in the rest of the U.S. This potato-based flatbread is so good only an intentional strategy of silence would explain their lack of prominence. Lefse is of Norwegian origin and is made by ricing potatoes or using leftover mashed potatoes. Lefse looks like a flour tortilla but has  a more delicate, sweeter flavor and a lighter, thinner, more supple texture. They are typically served with melted butter dusted with sugar and cinnamon. Fargo North Dakota has its very own Lefse supplier where you can get a dozen for about $5. But don’t just buy one bag—they are addicting.



Knoephla Soup

This is a thick soup of German origins made with chicken broth, potatoes and dumplings.  It has the flavor of the sauce in a chicken pot pie; the thickness of the sauce will vary according to personal taste. It is satisfying comfort food available at the iconic Kroll’s Diner in Bismarck. It’s rich and satisfying, worth seeking out on a cold winter night.


This is bound and seasoned ground beef wrapped in a deep fried, thinly layered, turnover crust. Served with gravy and mashed potatoes at Kroll’s in Bismarck, this is another dish of German origin worth seeking out if you’re hankering for fried food. With the thin, layered, crispy crust, It’s head and shoulders more tasty than the pasties found in Montana, Wisconsin and Michigan.


Hot dish

Minnesota and North Dakota loves them some hot dish. The basic idea is a one dish, inexpensive casserole containing meat, a starch, and a canned vegetable all held together with mushroom soup, perfect for reunions, church suppers, and potluck meals. Since the 1950’s, the hot dish has been covered with tater tots. Yes. You heard that right. That greasy, salty staple of the school lunch cafeteria is now a delicacy. In Minnesota they have competitions to decide the best amalgam of cheap meat, canned soup, overcooked vegetables, and tater tots. Go figure. In the U.S. we like to compete for “Top Tacky”. But truth be told, the hot dish is pretty good—you can’t go wrong with salt and fat. I tracked down an authentic version at The Mason Jar near Minneapolis.

One current trend is to update the hot dish. At Fargo’s The Boiler Room, the vegetable was caramelized onions, with lightly breaded sweet potato fingers in the shape of “tater tots” playing the role of starch, all bound together with sausage gravy, bacon and some quality cheddar cheese. I’m sure the traditionalists disapprove but this was a casserole I can get behind. It’s still a homogeneous mass of salt and fat but this one had lots of bright flavor with the sweet potato providing the anchor.


When you’re a thousand miles from an ocean, you don’t expect seafood to be a regional specialty, but Minnesota has lots of lakes which at one time were teeming with Walleye, a member of the Pike family and Minnesota’s state fish. It has become so popular and overfished that the state has outlawed commercial fishing of walleye although private anglers can still legally fish for it if they don’t sell it. Most of the restaurant walleye comes from Canada. At any rate, you can hardly find a restaurant serving American cuisine in Minnesota or North Dakota that does not serve walleye. It has a mild, slightly sweet flavor with some earth notes, lean and moist but will firm up when deep fried. It’s best served with sauces that are not too assertive.



The Jucy Lucy


No discussion of Minnesota food should be without the contribution Minneapolis makes to burger lore. That would be the Jucy Lucy from Matt’s Bar and Grill. Back in 1954 one Matt Bristol had the brilliant idea of placing American cheese inside two burger patties, and sealing the edges–the Jucy Lucy was born. (the misspelling was a mistake carried forward intentionally) Matt’s bar is still there, a shabby little building in one of Minneapolis’s older neighborhoods. It was packed on a Thursday evening serving as many burgers as would fit on a tiny griddle at the end of the bar. It’s just burger meat but the melted cheese is piping hot and flows like lava when you bite into it. It’s an experience burger hounds should not miss.

Rhubarb Wine

I’ll have more to say about Minnesota grape wines in a future post. But in our brief stay near Fargo I couldn’t resist venturing into North Dakota’s wine country. We visited 4 Elements winery, a relatively new operation making wine from cold hardy grape varietals that will survive the frigid temperatures here. While we enjoyed their lineup of grape wines, especially an aromatic La Crescent, I was particularly enamored with their rhubarb wine, of which they make both a dry and sweet version. The aroma is flinty and slightly herbacious. On the palate its crisp with round rhubarb notes and citrus accents, with balanced acidity. Exotic fruit wines have left the root cellar at the farm and are being made by serious, professional winemakers. They can be quite delicious.