You might be surprised to learn that the Midwest has a long history of winemaking. In truth, the person who is often credited with establishing European grapevines in California (in the mid-19th century) first planted those same grapevines in the Midwest. This pioneer viticulturalist and vintner was a Hungarian immigrant named Agoston Haraszthy. In the 1840s, he established a vineyard, winery, and wine cellars overlooking the Wisconsin River in Sauk City, Wisconsin. Today, at that same site is the largest winery in the state, Wollersheim Winery, and Haraszthy’s original wine cellars are still in use.
The reason Haraszthy’s winemaking efforts in Wisconsin were not successful was because the European grapevines could not survive the harsh Midwestern winters. Today, the vast majority of grapevines in the Midwest that are grown for winemaking are cold-hardy hybrids.
In the Midwest, a fair share of winemakers produce wine not only from grapes but also from other fruits, such as apples, pears, strawberries, blueberries, and cherries. Some people do not recognize these non-grape fruit wines as “true” wines.
In the Midwest, those people are sometimes referred to as “wine snobs” by the usually polite fruit winemakers.
Six years ago, Wisconsin had 41 wineries and about 480 acres of grapes, but now the acreage is closer to 1,000 and the number of wineries is near 100. The growth in grape acreage and in wineries is even greater in some of Wisconsin’s neighboring states, partly because these states have provided more support and funding for their fledgling commercial grape-growing and wine-producing industries. One reason the Midwest is witnessing a growing consumer interest in locally produced wines is because regionally produced wines meet the desire of local residents who have embraced the “eat and drink local” movement. In the future, this demand for Midwest wines will be met by the opening of additional wineries and by increased acreage being used to cultivate grapes throughout this region of the country.
Dr. Dean Volenberg, Agricultural Educator with the University of Wisconsin Extension-Door County, made a prediction regarding Midwest winemaking when I interviewed him two years ago. As he gazed over some of his experimental grapevines at the Peninsular Agricultural Research Station located just north of Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, Dean smiled and said,
“Many people have the perception that Midwest wines are different compared to West Coast vinifera varietals. Yes they are. The younger generations understand this, but when they travel, most of them want to experience what is locally produced. Imagine just for a moment that at some point the West Coast may someday be importing grape juice from Wisconsin. I know it is hard to comprehend, but you need to dream!”
Amazingly, in 2009, the world’s largest viticultural area (a wine-grape growing region) was established as the Upper Mississippi River Valley AVA, which includes four states: southwest Wisconsin, southeast Minnesota, northeast Iowa and northwest Illinois. This new American Viticultural Area (AVA) covers 29,914 square miles and is 120 miles east to west and 225 miles north to south.
I think Midwest winemaking is here to stay!