I have never been to the Wollersheim Winery. In what is quickly becoming a week of events built around wine and beer, my first experience with Wollersheim actually came about as the result of the last minute cancellation of another “I have never...” event. When I received word this morning that my original plans to ride in a hot air balloon were cancelled due to weather, I found myself scrambling to pinpoint another new experience that could keep the “I have never...” year rolling. Fortunately, my encounters with some unfamiliar artisan brewers and winemakers at the Isthmus Food and Wine Show two days prior kept some potential ideas fresh in my mind. Of those, the Wollersheim Winery stood out as the most appealing, given I was unable to experience their products as a result of the long lines at their booth during the show. After checking Rachael’s interest this morning, I decided a trip to the winery would be an acceptable replacement for today’s “I have never...” event. In turn, Rachael and I backfilled our previously scheduled balloon ride time this afternoon with a trip north to the banks of the Wisconsin River, where Wollersheim Winery makes its home.
|The winery entrance|
I was pleased to find our trip to the Wollersheim Winery was a brief 45 minutes after leaving our house today. As a result, Rachael and I found ourselves pulling into the winery entrance earlier than expected. Pulling in, I immediately took note of the landscape surrounding the property. Nestled among a ring of forest alive with the colors of autumn, the winery sat midway up a hill overlooking the Wisconsin River. Brick walkways weaved back and forth across the hill leading up the winery, which was covered in layers of vines transitioning from green to a deep red in response to the changing seasons. The beauty of the place was readily apparent and overwhelmingly abundant from our first moments on the Wollersheim property. It was clear the place was steeped in a history kept alive by the Wollersheim family through their craft, which made me happy we had taken time to visit the winery before we even set foot in the interior of the complex.
Following the paved pathways, Rachael and I walked over a sprawling terrace and entered the Wollersheim Winery’s visitors’ center. The interior of the space looked very similar to that of a typical wine store, with employees helping customers sample and make purchases of wine. Of course, the noticeable difference was the store at was connected directly to a functioning winery, which made it presence known through the smell of fermenting fruit rolling through the air. Acting on our plans to experience the winery, Rachael and I first moved to the counter nearest the entrance and picked up two tickets for the next tour of the space. With 45 minutes to spare until the tour began, the two of us decided to do a wine flight before taking to the winery grounds to explore the space.
|The visitors' center|
As we walked to the wine tasting counter, I looked over the selection of wines made available by Wollersheim. I was stunned to see a wide array of wines normally rooted in locations far outside of Wisconsin’s borders. Unlike many of the wineries in Wisconsin, Wollersheim’s products didn’t focus on making more common sweet fruit wines and were instead wines that focused on the varietal of grape in the vein of traditional wine making. As a result, I approached the wine tasting counter in anticipation of the forthcoming experience. In a matter of moments I made up my mind to try the red wine flight, which Rachael decided to join me in doing when one of the Wollersheim employees offered to serve us.
Over the next few minutes Rachael and I sampled a variety of the red wines produced by the Wollersheim Winery. As the wines oscillated between light and dry, I took time to take in the independent flavors offered by each. To my surprise, the wines were distinct in their flavor but maintained a core of familiar tastes of Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, and other varietals. Although I’ll be the first to state all wineries offer something unique, the notes in the wines we were sampling were different in a way that made them stand out among my previous experiences with wineries. They were different, but they were good. That discovery made me curious about Wollersheim’s processes and technique, which made me look forward to the tour more with each sip of my glass.
After finishing our wine flight, Rachael and I walked back out to the winery grounds to explore the areas we had yet to see. Our path took us up to a newly developed feature of the Wollersheim property, the wine cave, which is a recently restored feature of the property. Although its presence was an unexplained oddity at first, we found a bounty of information related to the history surrounding the wine cave and the winery history laid out on a series of displays upon entering the cave door. Originally intended to be a wine cellar, the wine cave was a hand carved tunnel chiseled into the limestone foundation of the winery terrain. Expanded in its early years and later abandoned to the elements, the wine cave sat unused for decades until the Wollersheim Winery restored in over the past few years. As we gathered the history behind the winery and the wine cave, my earlier inclination of the winery’s history proved true. That stated, the history of the winery was far deeper than I had expected, which left some questions as we exited the wine cave and walked back to the winery to start our tour.
When we entered back into the Wollersheim Visitors’ Center Rachael and I promptly followed a series of signs guiding us to a rustic room that served as the start of the tour. Among a group of a few dozen people, we grabbed two of the only available seats left in rows of chairs resting near the far wall of the building. There a Wollersheim employee introduced herself and started the tour. Initially, she explained the building around us was the original structure used in the first winemaking that took place on the property in the early 1840s. Now restored, she explained the building was the processing and fermentation facility for the winery of Agoston Haraszthy, who would cement his name as the father of American viticulture in his later travels to California. As someone unaware of Wisconsin’s role in the history of American winemaking, the facts were stunning to me. Given Wisconsin’s limited role in the modern mass production of American wines, it was simply hard to believe we were in a location that was one of the foundational components of viticulture’s spread across the United States. In response to the information, I found myself fully engaged in the tour. I was hungry to learn more about the winery, and, luckily, Wollersheim Winery was happy to help.
|A view of the winery from the vineyard|
After her brief introduction, the tour guide played us a short video that provided a deeper explanation of the winery’s history and of the rise of Wollersheim wines. As we listened, we learned about the property’s periodic use as a winery as it transitioned through four families over the period of 170 years. Although the property fell out of favor for winemaking for some time, the video explained the Wollersheim family revived the winery and began the process of growing, harvesting, and processing heartier grapes that were capable of surviving Wisconsin winters in the 1970s.
Following this explanation, the introduction concluded with a final comment from founder Robert Wollersheim’s apprentice and son-in-law, Phillipe Coquard, who now serves as the president and winemaker at Wollersheim. In his remarks Phillipe expressed the passion and commitment the family maintains in their efforts, explaining the background that led the winery to adapt traditional French winemaking techniques to make unique wines straight from uncommon Wisconsin soil. As I listened, I couldn’t help but notice the undertones in Phillipe’s message. His heart and mind were clearly in his craft, and he wanted everyone to have the opportunity to experience the world of winemaking. Stated simply, he spoke like an artist, not as a simple winemaker. It was an uncommon moment of seeing a man committed to his craft in a way that is rare among even the most successful people in the world, which made me realize Wollersheim winery was a true winery in every sense of the word.
With the introduction video complete, our tour guide explained Phillipe Coquard’s perspective, drive, and expertise had served as the winery’s driving force in its development and expansion. Continuing the tour guide stated Phillipe’s efforts ultimately resulted in the winery winning the 2012 “Winery of the Year” and the 2013 “Wine of the Year” awards in the San Diego International Wine Competition. In a state of disbelief at the information we were receiving, I sat back in my chair and tried to wrap my head around Wollersheim Winery’s place in history. The story behind the location and the accomplishments of the modern operation were almost unbelievable, which left me wondering why I had never taken time to experience Wollersheim Winery before today.
Our tour guide wrapped up her introduction before leading our tour group near the vineyard and through the production area of the winery. As we walked, we learned more about the specific characteristics in the soil, the grapes, and the production methods that make Wollersheim wines taste unlike those produced in other areas of the world. Although the interior of the facility looked much like any other winery in operation, the openness with which the tour guide and subsequent tour video discussed Wollersheim’s processes was surprising. Near the end of the tour I found myself taking stock of all of the information we were presented and realizing I had learned more about the winemaking process during our few hours at Wollersheim than I had learned in my previous 30 years. Needless to say, the experience was well worth the trip.
|Casks and a brandy distillery|
Eventually, our tour came to a conclusion in the top story of the winery’s original structure. Surrounded by wide, open cathedral ceilings of aged white pine, our group gathered around a series of tables and worked through a flight of Wollersheim’s wines. With our tour guide explaining the sources and finer details of each wine, we sipped away at one delicious pour after another, which led me to another amazing discovery in today’s “I have never...” experience. After receiving a sample of Wollersheim’s Prairie Fumé, I found myself enjoying a white wine for the first time in my life. It wasn’t too sweet. It wasn’t too dry. It was a delicious white wine, which I had written off as impossible before today.
Rachael and I worked through the rest of our samples before heading back down to the visitor’s center lobby and taking one last look around. After trying a sample of Wollersheim’s ice wine, we decided to wrap up our experience and start the journey back home. The trip seemed short as Rachael and I recapped our experience at Wollersheim and talked about the more surprising aspects of the winery. Still struggling to wrap my head around the quality of the wines we encountered on our journey, I quickly concluded Wollersheim products will definitely find a place on our wine rack in the near future. I figure that’s the least I can do to support a family that clearly puts their heart and soul into their craft. That amount of devotion to a craft simply isn’t that common, and when it is put into making wine it is likely the outcome will always be something worth drinking. That discovery alone made today’s “I have never...” experience worth it. I just thank Wollersheim for doing what they do. This is an event I won’t soon forget.