For a state rooted in adult beverages that are hops and barley born, the grape is finding its fair share of fans in a burgeoning wine industry.
Arrow signs indicating a nearby winery are popping up along several rural roads across the Chippewa Valley.
River Bend, Chippewa Falls
Both sides of the entry road to River Bend Vineyard & Winery outside Chippewa Falls are flanked by rows of grape vines. But this still might be a soybean field if a researcher from the University of Minnesota hadn’t developed “cold hardy” grapes that develop more quickly than those in Napa Valley and other traditional wine regions.
“That’s why we have wineries now in places like Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan,” says owner, Donna Sachs. “These grapes can mature during our short growing season.”
Donna and her husband, Al, left the fast pace of the Twin Cities to pursue their dream of opening a winery. After clearing land and planting the vineyard in 2006, River Bend opened to the public three years later. Today it is one of the largest wineries in the region, producing 60,000 bottles of wine annually.
It’s a Northwoods-meets-Tuscany décor inside, where visitors watch the bottling process from the tasting bar. One of the draws of a local winery is that it offers an experience unlike other places where folks order a glass, says Sachs. “People can see the bottling and brewing room. They can walk through the vineyard with a glass, or enjoy the patio. It’s nothing but nature all around outside.”
A perfect harvest is never guaranteed, so the Sachs rely on other vineyards in the area. “We’re proud to support local farmers.”
Although the winery does not have a restaurant, food is sometimes available. “We have food trucks from Marigold Café and Firewoods Pizza out here during the summer and fall,” Sachs says. “We also invite local musicians to play on our patio.”
For Sachs, she’s exchanged a computer screen for sunscreen, and couldn’t be happier. “I worked in IT for Musicland, all the way from its early days to its bankruptcy, but now, I’m outside almost all the time working in the vineyard. I can’t imagine going back to sitting at a desk all day.”
Al was a cabinet maker and crafted the winery shop’s woodwork. He continued his business when they moved to Chippewa Falls, but now dedicates all his time to the winery, and a distillery he started this year.
“Sometimes the guy is not a wine drinker, so Al started experimenting with a distillery, and we just started bottling our own gin, vodka and a white whiskey,” Sachs says. “Our gin is very unique, as it’s made with grapes.” So now the road in front of the vineyard is bordered by a field of golden rye.
River Bend produces 17 labels, including several award-winning reds and whites, and even two sparkling wines. “We combine the classic French method of in-bottle fermentation and Wisconsin grapes to produce a semi-sweet and dry brut.” Their wines have won Silver, Gold and Best of Show at a number of Wisconsin State Fair Professional Wine Competitions.
Their wines are available at many grocery stores and wine shops across the Chippewa Valley and throughout greater Wisconsin.
Cottage Winery, Menomonie
The people who built Cottage Winery & Vineyard three miles north of I-94 near Menomonie also envisioned a place that offers more than just a place to drink wine.
Tom Jorgensen was a contractor who toured wineries across the state with his wife before embarking on making Cottage Winery & Vineyard a reality during his retirement. Opening in 2012, he was able to enjoy seeing its success before passing away in March.
“My father’s dream was to re-create a small English village that people could stroll through, take their time … really feel like they’ve gotten away from it all,” says Teresa Jorgensen, who left her job planning events for the Eau Claire Convention Center to help make her father’s winery an event destination. She now runs it with her mother.
The Old English village theme — complete with hobbit house — might make visitors forget they’re just minutes from downtown Menomonie. “We wanted to provide a venue where people can sit outside and enjoy the view, not a parking lot,” Jorgensen says.
Cottage Winery has a vineyard, but it contracts out the wine-making process. “We harvest our grapes and take them to our winemaker an hour south of us,” Jorgensen says.
Similar to other local wineries, Cottage Winery keeps guests happy with food trucks featuring Captain PJs BBQ and The Hub from Menomonie, and has private event space for bridal showers, birthday parties, business meetings, etc. Unlike most other local wineries, Cottage has a full liquor license, so it has wines from around the world.
“I learned the palette around here was not used to wine,” Jorgensen says. “Many people didn’t think they liked it, because they had one glass of red, dry wine and said, ‘That’s awful.’”
Jorgensen’s goal is to make her customers wine fans, so she often first introduces them to sweeter wines from Italy, followed by the locally produced wines. “It’s true they enjoy the sweet ones more, but that’s OK. I just want them to understand the variety of tastes wine has to offer.” Local wines made exclusively for Cottage Winery & Vineyard include two whites, three reds, a rose and Cranberry Harvest.
Given the business’s setting, some events are a natural, says Jorgensen, who wanted to make the place a destination for weddings. “We’ve had a lot of UW-Stout grads who’ve moved away, and wanted to get married here, looking for someplace special. Almost every Saturday is booked from May to October.”
Bemis Bluff, Eleva
The response to the opening of both River Bend and Cottage Winery was nothing short of phenomenal, their owners report, given their marketing is primarily word-of-mouth. Smaller wineries, often located in people’s country homes, have had to expand quickly to meet demand.
Within a year of opening in July 2015, Bemis Bluff Winery, located just north of Eleva, had to double its seating space. “I was very surprised,” says owner Jeff Bemis. “I was expecting three to four people to come in every half hour, but we’re usually at capacity until closing.”
Bemis estimates about 70 percent of the winery’s clientele is women, but adds that his wines also appeal to men. “A lot of beer drinkers like the fruitier wines,” Bemis says.
Bemis Bluff’s selection represents a veritable farmers market, with pomegranate, cherry, blackberry, lemon, strawberry, rhubarb and apple as just some of the fruits finding their way into bottles. Growing up on a cranberry marsh where his father worked inspired Bemis Bluff’s first and most popular flavor, Cranbernet.
Nestled into the Eleva ridge about 15 miles south of Eau Claire and adjacent to a blueberry farm (which supplies all the berries for its blueberry wines). Bemis Bluff provides outside seating like other local wineries. Unlike others, every table is a sampling table.
“We don’t have a designated sampling bar,” says Bemis. “There’s just not enough room, so our staff brings the selections to people at their table.”
The winery hosts a variety of events, mostly targeted to its female customer base. These events include sip and paint, scrapbook and birthday parties, and book clubs. But a beer license helps bring in the menfolk, and Bemis Bluff hosted a few Packers parties last winter. Bemis also features local musicians occasionally throughout the summer and fall.
People who are busy brewing, bottling, labeling, pruning and weeding rarely have time for politics, and it appears a few lobbyists know it. A proposal said to be supported by the Tavern League and major distributors want to make it illegal for wineries and brew pubs to sell their own product for off-sale.
“It would shut us down,” says Bemis. “We would have to buy our wine back from a distributor and that would just cost us too much.”
Proponents of the bill claim wineries and brew pubs have an unfair advantage, because they do not have to purchase their product from a distributor. “But that doesn’t make any sense, because we have to pay state and federal excise taxes that a bar doesn’t,” Bemis says.
The latest effort to tag this proposal onto the state budget failed, but it is the second time it has been floated in recent years.
According to the Wisconsin Winery Association, there are more than 100 wineries in the state. The owners of those in our region report people have driven from as far as the Twin Cities, Duluth and Chicago to visit. But it’s the local crowd that is vital to survival.
“We refer people to restaurants in town, and they refer folks back to us,” Bemis says.
“We are always recommending restaurants in Chippewa Falls to our customers,” Sachs says. “And the local business community has welcomed us with open arms by sending people out here.”
It’s unlikely wine will steal beer’s crown as king of Wisconsin’s happy hour, but judging by the success of local wineries, their customers seem to be enjoying a place of their own. “Wineries are so great, because you can spend 10 minutes or two hours,” Jorgensen says. “People just like having another option when they want to go out.”