Wollersheim Celebrates 40th Anniversary
It’s 1972. An electrical engineer moves his family to an abandoned Wisconsin farm, planning to produce estate wines in the property’s Civil War-era winery, despite being told repeatedly that grapes won’t grow there.
While this storyline sounds more like a TV pilot than the founding of a large regional winery, this is how Bob and JoAnn Wollersheim started their business near Prairie du Sac, Wis. Forty years later, with annual production of approximately 220,000 gallons and distribution in the Chicago market and throughout Wisconsin, Wollersheim Winery is a leader in the Midwest wine industry.
Philippe Coquard, a native of the Beaujolais region of France who started working at the winery in 1984, married the Wollersheim’s daughter Julie in 1986. Philippe and Julie now run the business. Julie heads the in-house marketing department and Philippe is the winemaker for the 17 wines produced at Wollersheim. Bob, who is regarded as a pioneer in Wisconsin winemaking, died in 2005, and JoAnn retired in 2010.
‘In the 1970s, no one knew what grapes would grow here, so Dad had to experiment,” Julie said. Marechal Foch proved to be the first success, and an estate wine was produced in 1976. Today Marechal Foch grapes are used in five Wollersheim wines; some of the vines planted 40 years ago produce the fruit for their Domaine Reserve.
Marechal Foch, Leon Millot, LaCrosse, and St. Pepin now grow in the 27 acres of vineyards, which are part of the Lake Wisconsin Viticultural Area Appellation, a designation Bob petitioned for and received in 1994. The vineyards produce approximately 264,000 pounds of grapes annually; about 14 percent of Wollersheim’s production is with estate-grown grapes. Ten wines are made with grapes from Washington and New York.
The Coquards say that attention to quality is key to their business’s growth, starting with the quality of the grapes. To successfully operate a quality winery, Philippe believes it comes down to controlling four factors: oxidation, pH, sulfites, and cleanliness. (Regarding cleanliness, he has used ozone machines for about five years, citing the time saved compared to steam.)
Distribution in Chicago and Wisconsin
In October 2009, Midwest Wine Selections began distributing Wollersheim wines in the Chicago area, including to Whole Foods and Binny’s. ‘My intention is to build up a Midwest portfolio,” said Donna Goodwin, owner of Midwest Wine Selections. ‘I asked [the late] Fred Koehler of Lynfred Winery in Roselle, Ill., who I should pick up in Wisconsin and he recommended Wollersheim. They have a phenomenal reputation.” Each year the Wollersheim wines have had an increase in sales according to Goodwin. The top sellers are Prairie Fumé, White Riesling, Dry Riesling, and Pinot Noir.
To further expand the Wollersheim brand and more aggressively enter the Milwaukee market, in 1990, they purchased the Cedar Creek Winery in Cedarburg, Wisconsin. Jeff Calder, vice president of sales for General Beverage, the Wisconsin distributor for Wollersheim and Cedar Creek wines, reports that Prairie Fumé, River Gold and White Riesling are the best sellers. ‘The Madison area market, their home base, shows moderate growth rates now, after explosive growth in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Wollersheim is now showing their best trends in Milwaukee and the Fox River Valley,” he noted.
Prairie Fumé Success leads to expansion
At 70,000 gallons a year, Prairie Fumé, made from Seyval Blanc grapes grown in the Finger Lakes and introduced in l989, comprises about a third of the winery’s production. Wollershiem experimented with growing Seyval in Wisconsin but was not able to consistently produce quality fruit. ‘We might not have survived without Prairue Fumé,” Philippe said.
Praire Fume is not a vintage year, terroir type wine. ‘It can’t vary. Customers expect it to always be the same,” Coquard said. To maintain the all-important consistency of Prairie Fumé, Coquard personally tastes every batch of the wine as he experiments with different yeasts in 5,000 gallon stainless tanks. Using different yeasts each year compensates for changes in the chemistry of the grapes and for other effects of the growing season. Brix of 19 to 20 is perfect for Prairie Fumé, but 22 is too high. Titratable acidity of the finished wine is .7 or .8 g/l and the pH is around 3.2. Alcohol is also consistently maintained each year at about 10%.
Coquard is understandably guarded with the exact details of how Prairie Fumé is made, but much of his wine making technique is not “by the numbers.” For example, Coquard stops fermentation when the Prairie Fumé “tastes right.” His goal is a barely perceptable sweetness that balances the acidity of the wine. Coquard said Prairie Fumé is normally racked three times. The wine undergoes a aggressive cold stabilization, but there is no sterile filtering. Coquard said he also uses bentonite fining for Prairie Fumé.
In response to the success of Prairie Fumé, a 9,000-square-foot addition for a fermentation room, bottling room and storage was built on the property in 1994. An expansion eight years later included a warehouse and temperature-control system. New tanks and updated bottling line were purchased in 2006. On a typical bottling day, 20,000 bottles are filled. (Wollersheim does not do any custom bottling.)
The winery’s largest expansion, completed in 2008, was a 15,000-square-foot project that included retail space and an event room. ‘We wanted to enhance the visitor’s experience. With more space, people don’t have to wait in lines for tastings,” Julie said. Near the new building, the property’s historic winery remains part of the visitors’ tour. Although tasting featured wines is complimentary, visitors can pay $3 to taste red or white wine flights. ‘The response to the wine flights has been very good,” she added.
The Coquards do not plan to expand to other businesses such as bed-and-breakfasts or weddings. They prefer to concentrate on the winemaking. However, they have begun distilling brandy, and the first release date is April 2013.
Looking to the future, the couple expects the winery to continue as a family enterprise. Their daughter, Celine, graduates from the viticulture and enology program at Cornell University this May, and their eldest son is studying food science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Their youngest son is in high school.
‘We work six days a week; seven during harvest,” Philippe said. ‘And when you know the kids are interested, it’s worth it.”