California wine country, meet Prairie du Sac wine country.
Located on the Wisconsin River about 25 miles northwest of Madison, Wollersheim Winery could give those in California a run for their money. In fact, it already has — in 2012, Wollersheim beat out 1,700 wineries to win Winery of the Year at the San Diego International Wine Competition. In 2013, the winery's Dry Reisling took home Wine of the Year honors. This year, it won Small Winery of the Year at the Riverside International Wine Competition.
The winery dates back to the 1840s, when Hungarian Agoston Haraszthy planted grapes on the property's hillside. Haraszthy's grape varieties were not suited for Wisconsin's brutal winters, however, and after a few years he moved to California, where he would become the founder of the state's wine industry.
Peter Kehl took over the property and planted hardier vines, and his family operated the winery until 1899, when the property was converted to conventional farm crops.
In 1972, Bob and JoAnn Wollersheim bought the property from Peter Kehl's great-grandson and transformed it back into a winery. Twelve years later, Phillipe Coquard came to Wollersheim as part of an agricultural exchange program from France's Beaujolais region. Coquard came from a multi-generational family of winemakers and began making wine at Wollersheim as he had learned in France. He eventually married the Wollersheims' oldest daughter, Julie, and the two now operate the winery together.
The winery, a National Historic Site, has grown significantly under the Wollersheim and Coquard's ownership, and now features 27 acres of hardy hybrid grapes on the surrounding hillside, new and historic buildings for tours and tastings — including the winery's original building, which included a dance hall, carriage house and aging cellars — and two wine gardens.
Following a state law change in 2009 that allows wineries to distill wine for brandy, Wollersheim fired up a copper Portuguese pot in 2010 and began making the liquor, which was then aged for two years in oak barrels.
The first batch of the much-anticipated brandy was released in April 2013, fulfilling a longtime dream of Phillipe Coquard.
"It's even better than I expected," Coquard said at the brandy release party. "And the next two batches are even better."
The first batch, which produced 5,100 bottles, sold out in less than a month. The winery opened its distillery for tastings of brandy, absinthe, gin and mor in August.
Don't miss: An official tour of the winery's grounds is a must and includes a short video explaining the winery's history; stops in the vineyard, fermentation rooms and aging cellar; and a tasting of five wines.
One of the highlights of the tour is a look at the aging cellar, underneath the winery's original building, which features two-foot-thick walls made from limestone quarried on the property. The thick walls help keep the rooms at a near-constant 60 degrees and 80% humidity, ideal for aging wine in oak barrels.
After the tour, explore the newly restored hillside cave, originally dug by Haraszthy. Kehl lived in the cave with his family for more than a year while building his home. It was then used for making and aging wine, but fell into disrepair when invading tree roots damaged the cave's rear. The cave features plaques explaining its history and two original chimneys that provide natural light.
Purchase a chilled bottle of Prairie Fumé, the winery's most popular wine, and a bag of squeaky Wisconsin cheese curds in the store, and enjoy your spoils on one of two wine gardens near the vineyard.
Go now because: The secret is pretty much out on Wollersheim, with people traveling from across the state and region for a visit.
Even with the increase in popularity of Wollersheim, it still feels small and local. On every visit I've made to the winery (at least three), I've seen both Coquard and Julie Wollersheim in the store and the vineyard, interacting with customers (some they know by first name) and working the vineyard.
When to go: Summer is the ideal time for seeing the vineyards in bloom and enjoying a glass of wine in the wine garden.
The winery is open year-round from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; tours are given at least once an hour at quarter past the hour with more on busy days. The cave is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, closed in the winter and after heavy rains. The wine gardens are open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily spring through fall.
The winery hosts a number of events throughout the year, including a port release party the last Saturday in January, an open house the first Saturday in March, a Ruby Nouveau release day the third Thursday of November and a Christmas event the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Note that guided tours and regular flight tastings are not offered during events.
While you're there: Head about 20 miles west to Plain and pick up cheese to go with your wine at Cedar Grove Cheese Factory. E5904 Mill Road, (800) 200-6020
Cross the Wisconsin River and work off your cheese and wine calories with a hike up the bluffs at Devil's Lake State Park. S5975 Park Road, (608) 356-8301
On your way back to Milwaukee, stop in Madison for the final pairing for your wine: delectable chocolate from Gail Ambrosius. 2086 Atwood Ave., (877) 412-2462
How much it will set you back: Tours are $5 for those ages 12 and over and include a complimentary featured wine tasting. Additional red and white flight tastings are available for a small fee.
Getting there: Wollersheim Winery is at 7876 State Road 188 in Prairie du Sac, about an hour and 45-minute drive west of Milwaukee via I-94 and State Highway 60.
More info: (800) 847-9463, wollersheim.com
Day Out features day trips within a two-hour drive of the Milwaukee area.
Updated: Nov. 17, 2015
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