St. Pepin, Petite Pearl, Marquette, Marechal Foch – the names of the grape varieties roll off the tongue of Ryan Prellwitz, owner of one of Wisconsin’s newest wineries.
He just opened his "Vines & Rushes" winery over the weekend, inviting customers into his new winemaking/wine tasting building on his family farm north of Ripon.
The Prellwitz farm has been known for years for its strawberry patch that lies across the road from the new winery. Ryan’s father Chuck Prellwitz grew up on this farm and started the strawberry business 20 years ago to help make up for the income when the family’s dairy herd was sold.
That turned out well for them, with 12-18 acres on the farm devoted to strawberry production and crops that rotate in and out of the berry crop.
The strawberry patch draws as many as 10,000 people during the three-four weeks when the berries are ripe.
"For our 20th anniversary I guess we’re celebrating by opening a winery," says Chuck with a smile.
Ryan’s first wine was made from strawberries back in 2006, the same year he decided to plant some grape vines.
His father said Ryan just started playing with it a few years ago, trying some grape vines to see what would work.
The rolling field of silty clay loam with a gravel base had been used for corn and soybean production "but it was so rocky I didn’t mind it," says Chuck. "Not everybody gets to have a vineyard in their backyard."
Ryan began with two rows of grapes with trellises. "Dad said why don’t you put it right behind the house," he recalled.
He started with two rows; then it was eight and now the vineyard covers several rolling acres.
Some years have been good for the grapes and others haven’t. Since the Prellwitzes don’t water, last year’s drought was tough and so was the year before. Last year for the first time they didn’t plant any vines.
"It was just too hot and dry," Ryan said. "But it was great for building." Where the new building is located used to be a gravel pit, he adds.
Ryan comes from an information technology background and still does independent consulting on computer problems. "I’m always fixing some one else’s problem."
But his days are also spent weeding his vineyard and keeping an eye out for pests and diseases that have the potential to destroy his grape production. Having a good location is one of the keys to grape production.
"We don’t have a lot of pressure here because of good site selection," said Ryan, adding that the vineyard has good drainage and air flow through it, which helps the grapes avoid some of the fungal problems they might have on other sites.
Because of last year’s drought the grapes were all brought in three weeks ahead of normal and everything was picked between Aug. 25 and Sept. 2. "The picking is based on sugar content, acidity and pH."
As his interest grew Ryan got huge support from UW-Extension personnel and other grape growers. He went to conferences and learned from talking to experts and hobbyists in the wine business.
A few years ago Ryan brought together a group of nine growers and organized the Wisconsin Grape Growers Association, serving as its founding president. Within five years the group had grown to 75 members.
Today that group of growers includes 165 members and they help each other by communicating about problems they might be seeing in their vineyards. Exposure and access to other growers has been one key to his success, Ryan said.
Not every winemaking grape grower in the state is part of the organization, he adds. "There are probably closer to 300 grape growers with a thousand acres of grapes in the state."
An economic impact study of this growing industry was commissioned by the association. Done by the Wisconsin Agricultural Statistics Service, the survey found that the industry was more significant than many had thought with $9 million in taxes paid and $200 million in direct economic benefit to the state.
There were a dozen licensed wineries in 2000 and now there are 100, he said.
"We can make quality wine and grow quality grapes here in Wisconsin. We can do it.
"I always have a plan for the moment and an idea for the future. This idea kind of grew from the first few rows of vines and I worked with a winemaking consultant on scaling it up and quality.
"There’s a lot of difference between making wine in your basement and a scaled up model, but both require a lot of attention to detail."
Attention to detail is also a hallmark of the new wine facility on the Prellwitz farm. The 40-by-100-foot building includes winemaking facilities in the back and a tasting room and porch up front.
Old barns were purchased for their wood and it was used to put an antique floor down in the tasting room, build doors, window frames, wine racks and tables.
The family purchased a sawmill to turn the old barn boards and beams into usable lumber – even discovering that some of it was chestnut.
Many of the state’s wineries are a retrofit of older buildings but the Prellwitz farm didn’t have anything that fit that bill, so Ryan did research and brought some sense of place into his new building with the old wood, all gathered from local buildings.
Ryan’s father-in-law, a retired military pilot, is also a skilled carpenter and he helped put the old wood to use in the new building.
It all starts with the grapes outside the doors of the new building.
Petite Pearl is a really new grape and makes up 20 percent of Ryan’s production. Depending on the weather and condition of the vines, an acre of land can be expected to produce anywhere from two to 10 tons of grapes.
"I’ll be happy with four tons per acre," he said.
Last year 80 percent of his production was brought in from other Wisconsin growers.
The new winery had about 700 cases of the potent potable on hand for the opening and Ryan was polishing his barn-board wine tasting tables and getting ready to pour. He fears his only problem may be running out of wine.
The Mascoutin Trail, a county-owned and managed recreational trail passes within sight of the new winery building. Ryan is hoping that the location of the trail will help draw in new customers.
Both of the Prellwitz men are involved in their specialty crop organizations.
Chuck is currently president of the Wisconsin Berry Growers Association and enjoys the experience of farming and growing a specialty crop. "I like learning. It’s good for the mind."
He also grows 500-600 acres of corn and soybeans and has been active in state and national soybean growers associations. But most people know him as "the strawberry guy," he said.
Strawberry crops can stay in a field for three years but then must be rotated out because of diseases. He generally keeps 12 acres of strawberries in but the patch has been a large as 18 acres.
"Strawberries will grow anywhere but they like sandy loam the best. Clay soils are bad for them."