Sip & Savor Driftless Wisconsin Wine and Cheese Trail

By Clay Riness  

“Agritourism” is something many may never have heard of. However, if you’ve ever visited a roadside vegetable stand, picked your own apples or strawberries at an orchard or farm, enjoyed a corn maze, stayed at a dude ranch, cut and purchased your Christmas tree, spent a weekend at a bed-and-breakfast, taken a hay ride or garden tour, or visited an estate vineyard followed by a wine tasting … well, you’re an agritourist!

Agritourism combines aspects of the tourism and agriculture industries, thus providing financial, educational and social benefits to tourists, producers and communities. From the pumpkin patch to the living history farm, everyone benefits.

Since the introduction of cold-hardy grapes not many years ago, Wisconsin has seen an explosion of wineries.

According to www.wiswine.com, there are now over 100 throughout the state. One thing that pairs beautifully with wines, of course, is Wisconsin’s official dairy product, cheese, and we all know that Wisconsin is rich with creameries. That’s part of the impetus behind Branches Winery owner Therese Bergholz’s idea to create a wine and cheese trail. Such a trail, she imagined, could reach from Madison to La Crosse and include estate wineries and creameries, pouring tourism into smaller communities as well as benefiting participating businesses. 

Bergholz and her husband, Gene, who is Branches’ resident vintner, began planting grapes in 2007 and opened Branches’ doors for business outside Westby in 2013. “Considering my own experience in collaborating with Nordic Creamery, Westby Creamery and Vernon Vineyards, that showed us the power of working together. Every day we send customers to these businesses and they reciprocate. For us, having two wineries in close proximity is a reason to drop down from I-90, whereas one may not be. Add the creameries, and you have six reasons to visit. That’s the basis of the trail … we succeed together,” she explains. 

After some research, she began calling prospective businesses she hoped would be favorable to the idea. “Fourteen of the 17 I called jumped on it, and that was fun … these businesses, large and small, in one call from a stranger, saw value in this,” she admits.

Bergholz then spearheaded a grant proposal on behalf of seven estate wineries and seven dairy/cheese producers through the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection’s “Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin” grant program. It worked. Thus, the Sip & Savor Driftless Wisconsin Wine and Cheese Trail was awarded an 18-month matching grant that will help with marketing programs most of the smaller businesses could not afford on their own. With each business agreeing to invest $1800 of matching expenses to market the trail in larger markets such as Madison, Milwaukee and Green Bay, and host special event weekends, each of them will, in turn, benefit from roughly $60,000 in combined efforts. 

Bergholz, using very conservative numbers, easily convinced the state that the money invested in the trail would certainly be made back in a short time. “That’s the beauty of this,” she says. “The grant is helping get us started, and then there’s no reason, with success, that these 14 businesses can’t sustain it going forward.” 

“There are a number of reasons I applied for the grant,” she says. “First, because local wineries are about as local as you can get. ‘Food miles’ from crop to retail outlet equals about 30 yards. It’s much the same with creameries. Pastured dairy cows are often within view of the creamery where their milk is being made into cheese. We also want to draw attention to wineries being farmers, growers and producers … and create partnerships between wineries and creameries. On the tourism side of things, our goals are to bring people from major metros into the Driftless Region and increase awareness of the area’s natural beauty. In turn, all along the trail there will be increased tourism and consumerism. Restaurants, hotels, B&Bs, gift shops and destination businesses will all benefit.”

She also believes that the Driftless Wisconsin Trail is unique for more than one reason. It’s a collaboration of two industries, making it a broader experience than a wine-only or cheese-only trail. Further, it’s an easily drivable 200-mile round trip mapped through the region’s gorgeous rolling hills. It could be a day trip or weekend vacation. Finally, the scope of the participating businesses is from very large to very small, making for variety. “Of course, you don’t have to do the entire trail at once,” she explains. “We’re going to have a passport system so that if you make a purchase at each of these businesses over 18 months from launch, you’ll be able to send something to us so we can send you a thank you gift for having supported us all.”

The group has also selected three special event (three-day) weekends (see below) during which each business will offer something special for visitors, such as factory and vineyard tours, special presentations, product samplings, special discounts and perhaps even the opportunity to meet the winemaker, or in the case of the creameries, meet the “big cheese.”

For more information, visit www.driftlesswinecheesetrail.com or email therese@brancheswinery.com. 

Wine in a Can?

Canned wine has been on the market for a couple of years, but it’s far from ubiquitous. There may be less than 100 wineries in the U.S. currently offering it. Branches is the first in the Midwest to take advantage of its potential.

“The wine in a can is all Gene,” Bergholz admits. “One hundred percent credit to him. He read about it a few years ago and thought it was just fantastic. It presents so many opportunities to wineries. What jumped out at us is that you now have the chance to have wine where you can have beer but not wine … because it’s in a bottle. You now have wine welcomed where bottles are not—wilderness camping, golf courses, sporting events. Or maybe someone wants to enjoy a small glass of wine but not commit to opening a whole bottle.”

Each and every can is just as fresh as if you’d opened a bottle, she says. If someone is rattled because the can offends their sensibilities, then it’s easy enough to simply pour the wine into a glass or plastic cup.

“We see tremendous potential for this product,” she adds. “Sales at the winery are excellent and the grocery stores just picked it up. So, hats off to winemaker Gene.”

Interestingly, the canned single-serving concept of 8.4 ounces, or 250 milliliters to be precise, is an odd amount for a reason. There are government-approved measures of fill for wine. Wine can be sold in 375-, 750- or 1000-milliliter amounts (the latter being one liter). Since 375 milliliters is a rather aggressive single serving, Branches chose to go with 250-milliliter cans, which could then be packaged in a four-pack, equaling one liter of wine.