Wisconsin wineries tasting success despite regulatory pressure: The List – As seen in the Milwaukee Business Journal

Co-owner Jean McIlquham was quoted in the Milwaukee Business Journal’s The List: Largest Wisconsin Wineries.

While the winemaking industry is surging around the state of Wisconsin, vintners and business owners keep their eyes on a tough regulatory climate and the weather forecast as they keep their businesses afloat with the strength of family ties and commitment to their industry.

John Pedretti of Vernon Vineyards Ltd., Viroqua, said he finds challenges in the fact that many people are not yet familiar with cold-climate grapes.

“The flavor and chemistry of cold-climate grapes is somewhat different and is unfamiliar to locals so they do not always know what to expect in locally grown wines,” he said.

While some state winemakers count on grapes grown in other regions of the country, many are growing a large percentage or all of the grapes they use in the wines they make.

For these growers it is often a balancing act, the challenge of what works for them.

Julianne Dahlen of Villa Bellezza Winery & Vineyards in Pepin says simply, “It’s farming,” of the unpredictable climate, from early springs followed by late frosts and disease pressures from higher humidity levels.

The challenge for Steve Johnson, owner/winemaker at Parallel 44 Vineyard and Winery in Kewaunee, “It is to grow enough quality grapes that will allow us to develop the quality and quantity necessary to reach the rest of the nation with signature style much like Oregon, New York and Washington have done.”

And winemaker Matthew Scott of Chateau St. Croix Winery, St. Croix Falls, also talked of the challenges that Wisconsin winters pose.

“As we learn what grapes grow well in our cold-climate environment and micro-climates, more of our locally grown wines are earning international awards.”

Besides the farming and manufacturing aspects of the winemaking world, the retail and entertainment aspects of running a winery come into play as well.

Owners of wineries on The List and those smaller wineries sprinkled around the state beckon the public to come taste their wines in tasting rooms on scenic patios and at festivals and events on their grounds.

And the frustration with state restrictions on their businesses has many industry insiders bubbling over.

“By far, the largest challenge (besides being profitable, of course) are legislative and regulatory challenges and threats,” said Alwyn Fitzgerald, owner of Fisher King Winery in Verona.

He noted that wineries in Wisconsin are subject to “very archaic, inconsistent and harming” laws that other alcohol segments in the state do not have to contend with.

Vernon Vineyards’ Pedretti concurred. State regulations that require use of distributors for wholesale selling “greatly reduce revenue to the vineyard and winery that generate the products,” he said.

Pedretti also noted that regulations requiring wineries to discontinue sales and close at 9 p.m. interfere with hosting events such as evening wedding receptions.

Many respondents for this year’s list shared similar views on the topic.

“In the past and present, the House bill — wineries cannot stay open past 9 p.m. — has been tough for some (state) wineries,” said Jean McIlquham of Autumn Harvest Winery in Chippewa Falls.

Inequity, say winemakers, is evident in these regulations, putting a damper on aspects of their business.

“We have hour limitations compared to all other alcohol sectors in Wisconsin,” said Rob Lewis of Lewis Station Winery in Lake Mills. “Other alcohol industries have later hours.”

And getting more specific about an organization that she sees as putting up roadblocks to business is Gail Nordlof of Northleaf Winery in Milton.

“State laws and the Wisconsin Tavern League — we are constantly fighting for less regulation, and the Tavern League is always trying to limit our sales,” she said.

Fisher King’s Fitzgerald concluded that the growing wine industry in Wisconsin is one that generates more than $50 million in annual direct tourism revenue and an additional $100 million in tax revenue, wages and industrial purchases per year.

“We are nonetheless the target of large and politically influential special interests who seek to keep our independent craft beverage industry suppressed while increasing their own monopoly on the alcohol beverage marketplace,” said Fitzgerald.