Wisconsin is known best for its beer and cheese. The state offers wineries, too, and I took a tour of the most productive facility this past week. Wollersheim Winery sits on the banks of the Wisconsin River in Prairie du Sac, just north of Madison, Wis.
The winery first came to my attention a handful of years ago when I attended a retirement party. At the bar, I decided to be adventurous and try a white wine I had never heard of before, a Prairie Fumé. When the fruity, citrusy wine hit my tongue, the heavens opened wide and I heard angels sing.
I knew I had found a new favorite. I asked the bartender who made the wine, and she told me about Wollersheim Winery. I made a mental note to visit it someday.
A Fumé wine is a close relative of a Sauvignon Blanc. They’re basically the same thing, both made with the same type of grapes and semi-dry, just with different names for marketing purposes. (For the curious, see the story here.) But to me, a Fumé is a bit mellower and melon-y.
Apparently, my taste buds have a lot of company because the Prairie Fumé is Wollersheim’s most popular wine and one of the most popular in the state.
The land the winery sits on has grown grapes on and off since the 1840s, whenever the weather has allowed. The vines on the property now were planted in 1972 when the Wollersheims bought it.
I found the winery easily and parked in the lot below. The winery’s website says it takes 10 minutes to walk the path from the lot to the winery (which is uphill, BTW), but I estimate it would only take any relatively able-bodied person a couple of minutes. However, I suppose if you stop to read the historical sign along the way that would add more time.
I entered the winery, and to my delight, discovered I was the only one signed up for a tour. My private session commenced with a video that described the history of the winery. Then the tour guide took me to a window overlooking the huge wine vats, where we spoke more and had plenty of time for questions and discussion.
I watched another short video that featured Phililppe Coquard, a Frenchman who married into the Wollersheim Family and now co-owns the business. I had the fleeting thought that it would be fun to meet him while I was here, similar to the chance encounter my friend and I had with the master distiller of Glendronach scotch when we took a distillery tour in Scotland. Although I thought I glimpsed Philippe in the distance during my time on the grounds, I did not get to meet him.
I learned that the Prairie Fumé is made from grapes not grown on the property. The grapes come from the Finger Lakes region of New York and are trucked in juice form to the winery, where Philippe works his magic on them.
Another thing I learned is that the term “reserve” on a wine label means the wine is grown from the oldest vines in the vineyard.
After the tour came the tasting. I sampled a flight of whites since I have a problem with reds. I asked to try varieties I hadn’t already experienced, so that left out the Prairie Fumé and the River Gold White, which is also quite good.
I sampled their White Port, Dry Riesling, White Riesling, and Eagle White. Notable about the Eagle White is that it is grown on the property, and that part of the sales go toward habitat protection for bald eagles that frequent the area.
Of these, my favorites were the White Riesling and the Eagle White, so I bought a few bottles to bring home. Although I’ve found a source for Prairie Fumé in my area (President Bar and Liquor in Superior), I bought a bottle just because, despite exposure to these new wines, it’s still my fave.
Before returning to my car, I meandered around the property. There’s an old cave dug into the hillside where wine used to be stored, which the current owners have preserved and filled with historical placards and implements. I also took a peek into the wine bar on the second floor of the main building, which used to be a ballroom back in the day.
There’s also a distillery on the property, and I made a note to visit that next time I’m in the area.
Alas, it was time for me to continue onto my ultimate destination, which was Madison. I was expecting to eat dinner alone there, but things worked out so that a friend from high school was able to meet me. Plus, it was her birthday, so I brought along the bottle of Prairie Fumé for her.
We met at Lombardino’s, an Italian restaurant that’s one of my favorites. As I waited for my friend and for seating, I noticed someone who looked suspiciously like Phililppe Coquard at a table near the back. As fate would have it, the host seated me and my bottle of Wollersheim wine right next to the Philippe look-alike.
While I waited for my friend, I snuck some glances and determined that fate was smiling upon me this day. It was indeed Philippe and part of his family dining at the table next to mine. What are the chances of that?! (I guess I could figure it out if I knew how many restaurants are in Madison and what the population is, multiplied by how many days are in a year.) But I guess it’s a one-hundred-percent chance when you’re following your bliss . . . .
Anyway, I knew I HAD to take advantage of this opportunity. So I mustered my introverted courage and stepped over to their table. They were gracious at my interruption. I let them know I had just visited their winery and then I gushed about how much I love their wine. Philippe mentioned he is giving a presentation at a Minneapolis wine convention soon.
It was all good, and I was so tickled and amazed by meeting them. Soon my friend arrived, and I pointed out who our dining neighbors were. She can vouch that this really did happen!
I look forward to visiting the Wollersheim Distillery in the future, but after this experience, my expectations are probably entirely too high for a fateful experience afterward.