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Wisconsin: America’s next Napa.

It could be a catchy slogan for Wisconsin wine tourism if tourists keep flocking to local wineries.

In 2015, there were nearly 1.8 million visits to wine tasting rooms in the state and almost $50 million in estimated direct spending for tourism, according to a recent study.

We can raise a glass to that.

The good news? Wine tourism in Wisconsin is growing, according to a Michigan State University Wine Tourism Research Group  study for the Wisconsin Wine Association  in 2015 and 2016.

Industry has catching up to do.

Wisconsin is behind Michigan but ahead of Minnesota in wine tourism and in the number of wineries, according to Don Holecek,  an author of the study.

"(Wisconsin wineries are) seeing some really significant growth over the last 17 years," said Ryan Prellwitz, owner of Vines & Rushes Winery in Ripon.

The study was conducted in two parts — a winery owner survey and a visitor survey.

Winery owners were asked to take a survey and track visit numbers or provide estimates.

More than a year ago, the study’s authors started analyzing survey responses from 66  Wisconsin wineries. Of those, 59  provided visitor counts or estimates.

To fill in the gaps for wineries that didn’t respond, the group used results from comparable wineries.

They researched similar-sized wineries to get estimated visitor numbers for those that didn’t respond. If a winery had more visitors than average, the group tried to determine if nearby attractions, the winery’s reputation, geography or other factors helped spike visitor rates.

They also applied the same factors to see why some visitor numbers varied between wineries of similar size.

If you have wine, they will come

It's estimated that wine tourism generated nearly $50 million  in direct spending in 2015, according to the report. However, direct spending was only part of the nearly $150  million estimated spending overall in Wisconsin through lodging or shopping, which also can be attributed to wine tasting trips.

Wineries played a crucial role in trips, according to the tasting room survey findings. About 20 percent of people said visiting a winery was the primary reason for the trip, Holecek said.
Tourists seeking wineries help drive traffic to rural areas where the winery may be the only destination, Holecek said.

"We're having a pretty significant impact on communities that otherwise would not see those dollars," Prellwitz said. "We're giving people really good reasons to come to more rural Wisconsin."

Prellwitz said he uses the study to attract legislators and marketing boards to help get Wisconsin wine on tourists' radars.

Not many wine snobs here

The study revealed another aspect about Wisconsin wine drinkers. A winery visit is more about an experience or something fun to do for the weekend. Visitors tend to be relatively new to wine, so there aren’t many wine snobs among them.

“It’s the experience that’s really getting them through the door rather than the wine itself,’” said Dan McCole, an author of the study.

But that’s also an opportunity to open someone to the world of wine, he said. A winery might attract people looking for something fun instead of hard-core oenophiles interested in learning about cold-hardy grapes. And that fun experience could lead into a greater interest in local wine.

“We have a relaxing environment that people can come to and get a feel for or maybe a slice of the Napa Valley without having to spend the money to go there,” Prellwitz said

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