BAYFIELD - On a hillside not far from Lake Superior, members of the Hauser family are venturing into what one expert calls “pioneer” territory: an attempt to grow grapes that will not only withstand Northwestern Wisconsin weather, but produce enough quality fruit to make wine and a profit.
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“Northern Wisconsin and northern Minnesota are very difficult places to try and grow grapes,” said Mark Hart, a longtime private grape breeder in Bayfield. “From a winery’s perspective, you are a pioneer if you are trying to grow grapes up here in a commercial sense.”
The Hauser family is no stranger to winemaking, having started Bayfield Winery more than 20 years ago and All Sisters Winery - which has been renamed Seven Ponds - in 2012. But grape-growing of this magnitude on its 142-acre historic Betzold Farm property is new.
So far, 1,500 vines have been planted on three acres. The hope is that in 10 years, 30 acres of vines will yield 35,000 bottles of red, white and rose. Ian Hauser - 26 years old and part of five generations of Bayfield farmers - knows what he’s doing is risky.
“No one has really tried it here on a large scale,” he said. “But I want to push new concepts in winemaking.”
Ian Hauser, with the help of his mother, Renate Hauser, has taken over his sister Caitlin’s All Sisters Winery operations in Bayfield. Ian was stationed on a U.S. Navy missile cruiser when his sister started the winery. She made wine from southern Wisconsin grapes, but never completed her mission to begin growing on site before starting another business venture in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Ian always planned to get into wine production and farming post-Navy, with a goal to help revitalize the agricultural industry in the area.
The three grape varietals planted this year are bred to withstand not only winter temperatures, but also dangerous spring frost.
Cold winters are obvious, Hart said, but having enough heat in the summer to ripen can be a challenge. The right varieties, soil and site are most important, he said, and Bayfield, with its unusual microclimate, can be the right site. He pointed to the success of the area’s apple orchards as an example. The elevation of the hillsides around town means good air drainage, and Bayfield’s layout next to Lake Superior and several islands helps moderate temperatures. That can mean earlier springs and later falls, both good for grape-growing.
But a spring frost or not enough snow cover can be deadly for a vineyard.
“This is absolutely a complete risk,” said Scott Hauser, Ian’s father. “We are banking we are going to be able to do this. But we are looking at somewhere between $5,000 and $15,000 an acre that could end up being plowed under.”
The family has studied the models of other northern vineyard operations in Traverse City, Mich., and Door County, Wis., and knows it can be done. Ian and Renate will continue to make the same All Sisters wines under the new label until they are able to harvest the first crop, which will take three to five years.
Ian has planted the white French-hybrid grapes Adalmiina and Brianna, bred by the late Elmer Swenson of Osceola, Wis., a well-known name in the Midwestern grape breeding world. The red grape planted - Marquette - comes from the University of Minnesota, which has one of the top wine grape research programs in the country.
To make cold-hardy and disease-resistant grapes, researchers rely on grape species native to Minnesota and Canada, for example, that already have the genetics for cold weather, said Matt Clark, an assistant professor in the U of M’s Department of Horticultural Science.
“We can literally go to a backyard and find native grape vines growing there,” he said.
Researchers use those as parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, and take their offspring to combine with good fruit- and wine-quality grapes like a cabernet sauvignon. But that native vine also makes a high-acid grape - and sugar often is added to tame the tartness, which is why so many wines in the region are sweet, Clark said.
That tartness - and subsequent added sugar - also sometimes happens when grapes are harvested before they are ready, which farmers might do instead of risking an entire crop to frost in the fall, Renate Hauser said. But the Midwestern palate can tend toward sweet, because it’s approachable, Clark said, and such wines are popular.
“Most of our wineries sell a lot of that wine, so there is definitely a market for it,” he said, but researchers at the U of M have been working to make even lower-acid cold-hardy grapes for dry blended wines. It’s done that with its newest release - the Itasca - available in 2017.
Winemaking in Wisconsin and Minnesota continues to grow, with more than 100 wineries in Wisconsin and about 70 in Minnesota, although they are mostly located in the southern portions of each state. A 2012 USDA study of the economic impact of the winery and vineyard industry on Wisconsin showed that it generated more than 700 jobs and $151 million in industrial sales.
“People are interested in local foods that have a regionality to them,” Clark said. “Something they can’t get someplace else.”
The Hausers are hoping to continue to tap into that interest. The Seven Ponds Winery produces a mix of both dry and sweet wine, and with its new varieties will be making wines similar to pinot noir, pinot grigio and muscadet.
The farm also grows hazelnuts, apples, raspberries, blueberries, pears and table grapes, with much of the fruit going to the Bayfield Winery, which is sold out of relative Jim Hauser’s Superior View Farm.
Recognizing the need for contingency plans, Ian is considering a distillery on site, using unripe grapes to make cognac. Mostly, he’s excited to be a young person in Bayfield continuing on the old tradition of farming.
“It’s a great business, controlling the product from the vine to the consumer,” Scott Hauser said. “And if something isn’t done, these farms will be gone.”
Ian, who planted each vine by hand - a three-day process - plans to distribute wine throughout the Lake Superior region. He hopes his efforts bring more wineries to the area.
“If we could be the Napa of the north, that’d be great,” he said.