Friday, March 25, 2011

Wollersheim wines, French Marshals and the English wine industry

Even casual drinkers of wine are familiar with the major grape varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Gamay…

Looking at Wollersheim’s lineup of wines one finds a different heritage for many of their wines  ( 

Prairie Fume is Wollersheim’s most popular wine, accounting for one-third of their annual production of 240,000 gallons of wine (1.2 million bottles). It is 100% Seyval Blanc. The Seyval Blanc grape is also the major contributor to the blend in the Blushing Rose and River Gold wines. However, the major grape for many Wollersheim wines is the Marechal Foch (after the famed French marshal of World War I who said: "Hard pressed on my right. My center is yielding. Impossible to maneuver. Situation excellent. I attack.") which can be found in Domaine du Sac, Domaine Reserve, Prairie Sunburst Red, Prairie Blush, Blushing Rose, Port, Tawny Port, and Ruby Nouveau. The other grape varieties that are used, also usually as blends, are St. Pepin grapes in the Eagle White, Ice Wine and Late Harvest wines, the Lacrosse grapes in the Eagle White wine, and the Millot grapes in Domaine du Sac and the Domaine Reserve.

So what are Seyval Blanc, Marechal Foch, St. Pepin, Lacrosse and Millot?

Standard wine reference books, such as Hugh Johnson’s World Atlas of Wine, only have a passing reference to Seyval Blanc and do not even refer to the others.

The major European wine grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Gamay…. come from the Vitis Vinifera species. Most members of this species are considered tender, or very tender, with respect to cold weather. Grapes from the Vitis Vinifera species are used in some Wollersheim wines such as their Sangiovese, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Dry Riesling – these grapes being brought in to Wollersheim from Washington state -- and in their White Port (made from the Muscat grape from New York state). 

However, the grapes used in all the other Wollersheim wines – Seyval Blanc, Marechal Foch, St. Pepin, Lacrosse and Millot -- were developed by crossing Vitis Vinifera species with species native to North America such as Vitis Riparia (the “river bank grape” native to northeastern North America) and Vitis Rupestris (found in most parts of North America).
The Marechal Foch grape and the Millot grape – which are the two components of Wollersheim’s Domaine du Sac wine are considered “siblings”, and the Seyval Blanc grape was used to create the St. Pepin grape.

They are hybrid grapes that have been “designed” to withstand the cold winters, possibility of spring frosts, humid summers, and short growing seasons of the Upper Midwest and upstate New York. They also have a greater resistance to mildew and other fungal diseases that attack vines. Marechal Foch, St. Pepin, Lacrosse and Millot are considered very hardy with respect to cold weather, and are grown in the Lake Wisconsin Viticultural Area. Seyval Blanc is considered moderately hardy, and is custom-grown for Wollersheim in the Finger Lakes area of New York state.

Parenthetically, the table grapes commonly found in groceries and supermarkets are usually Concord grapes, from the Vitis Labrusca species, which is also native to northeastern North America. These grapes are also commonly used for juice, jams and jellies.

Elmer Swenson (1913 – 2004) of Osceola, Wisconsin was a pioneer in the development of many of these hybrids. Swenson began breeding grapes in 1943, at his own farm, starting a program of crossing French grapes with selections of local wild species – Vitis Riparia. He is credited with developing (and patenting) the St. Pepin and Lacrosse grapes that are used in some of the Wollersheim wines.

The use of hybrid grapes is not permitted for commercial wine production in the European Union, and thus wines from these hybrid grapes – such as many of those used in Wollersheim wines -- are almost exclusively a New World phenomenon. In Europe, the Seyval Blanc grape is grown mainly in England, and the illegality of the grape for commercial wines is a source of conflict between the EU and the English wine industry (who knew there was an English wine industry?).

Friday, March 18, 2011

Wollersheim – Wisconsin’s largest winery – Part III of III

MadisonWineScene (MWS) recently interviewed Julie Coquard, Vice-President and Marketing Director, of Wollersheim Winery in Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin (

The two previous posts described Wollersheim’s history and portfolio of labels. This post goes deeper into Wollersheim’s winemaking techniques and future plans.

MWS: Wollersheim’s winemaker, Philippe Coquard, has deep roots in France, especially the Beaujolais region.  The French have the concept of terroir.  Which Wollersheim wine does Philippe think best captures this terroir?
Julie: Probably the Wollersheim Domaine Reserve -- all the grapes for that come from the parcel on the hill right there. They are planted with Marechal Foch grapes. It is the first vineyard that my dad planted back in 1973. He travelled to France and Germany and also the East Coast  - since conditions are similar - and tried out a lot of different varieties since no one knew what would grow here. He saw what other people were doing and he planted it and tried to see what would grow here. People had told him that you could not grow vines in Wisconsin. Over the years we have tried different varieties and while they were winter-hardy enough, they had a tough time surviving our humid summers.  

The Marechal Foch grapes are grown elsewhere, like in New York, but I think we have really developed that grape and brought it to a new level here and brought out its best. There are a lot of little subtleties like when you pick it, and the kind of yeast that you use – Philippe has found a number of different ways to make different wines from the same grape – we use it in the Wollersheim Prairie Blush and our White Port. The Foch also goes into the Wollersheim Ruby Nouveau.

MWS: What distribution channels do you use to sell Wollersheim wines?
Julie: We do about half our sales through distributors  - we work with General Beverage.  We followed a typical growth pattern.  When we were a startup winery – we started in 1972 – we started out by teaching customers coming here, doing tastings here, working with local restaurants, grocery stores, liquor stores – focusing on Madison and an area where we could drive the wine ourselves. We didn’t make that much wine then, but as our production grew it was no longer feasible for us to be making the wine, and also servicing the accounts, so we started working with a distributor.

MWS: How does Wollersheim use the Internet in marketing it’s wines, and what percentage of Wollersheim’s wine sales is done over the Internet?
Julie: We mainly use the Internet for marketing our website and our Facebook page. 

We do almost no sales over the Internet. We do have a couple people that answer the phone in person and can take orders to be shipped. A very small amount of our sales are done by "mail order".

MWS: How many members in the Wollersheim Caseclub?
Julie: We have about 10,000 members in the Wollersheim Caseclub. It was started in the early 1980's.

MWS: I noticed your TV ads in the week before the Super Bowl when Wollersheim was a major advertiser on the Path to Glory.
Julie: We haven’t done a lot of TV advertising but that was a concentrated week. Lot of people have heard of our Prairie Fume but they don’t know where we are so this was an opportunity to use a lot of visuals – so we could show how unique this location is.

MWS: Wollersheim appears to get about 90% of its grapes from elsewhere – mostly New York and Washington. How involved do you get with your grape-growers i.e. with issues such as fertilization, pruning, harvesting?
Julie: We have growers in New York and Washington – we have developed a relationship with them.  Philippe has gone out to see them, they are constantly back and forth on the phone: What is the weather out there? What are the sugar levels looking like?  Especially with the harvest timing -- we leave the fertilizing and the pruning up to them -- but harvesting is our call, because Philippe has certain parameters such as sugar levels and he will be the one who makes the decision – like “Is it supposed to be raining? – Let’s pull it off the vines right now.”

Washington is more of a fit for us than California where it is hotter, higher-alcohol –– the really big wines are not really our style.

We get whole red grapes from Washington by the refrigerated truckload; the white comes from New York as juice in a tanker.

MWS:  When does a wine become a Wisconsin wine?
Julie: There is a legal definition of produced wine and since we are fermenting the grape juice here, it can be considered as being produced here. Fermentation is the key step in the winemaking process – where the most risks are and where lots of things can go wrong - and that is being done here.

Most consumers do not understand the difference between “produced”, “vinted” and “made” – lots of wineries buy finished wine, maybe from South America, hold it and do something superficial to it like some blending, or adding flavoring and then use the term “made” or “vinted” at their winery.  

With us, our Sangiovese, where the grapes come from Washington, the bottle says American Dry Red Wine, Produced and Bottled by Wollersheim Winery. Our Domaine Reserve, where all the grapes come from this hillside, say Lake Wisconsin Viticultural Area, Grown, Produced & Bottled by Wollersheim Winery.

MWS: What is the Lake Wisconsin Viticultural Area?
Julie: It is fairly small basically encompassing this area that we are in. My dad was ahead of his time because he had seen such designations in France, and he recognized the importance of the designation, and petitioned for it, and we got it in 1994.

MWS:  With your ice wine and also brandy you are venturing into products that are at a higher price level.  Do you see an expansion of those products?
Julie:  Philippe would like to sell the ice wine throughout the US. However, right now we are operating at our maximum physical capacity. We just don’t have the space. Expanding our offerings with specialty wine will probably mean that we will have to look at our physical production facilities. We will probably do something specific for brandy.

MWS: Screwcaps or corks?
Julie: Screwcaps for our ready-to-drink, non-ageable wines. We don’t want those wines to change in the bottle. The ageable wines go with the traditional corks.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Wollersheim – Wisconsin’s largest winery – Part II of III

MadisonWineScene (MWS) recently interviewed Julie Coquard, Vice-President and Marketing Director of Wollersheim Winery in Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin (

The previous post described Wollersheim’s history and background.  This post describes their portfolio of labels.

MWS: Who do you see as the typical Wollersheim wine buyer?
Julie: That has changed over time.  Back in the 70s people usually bought our wine for special occasions. Back then our most popular wine was probably the Wollersheim River Gold, which my dad started in 1978, and which is the sweetest of our regular table wines.  That really was the dominant taste at that time.  Because people didn’t drink that often they tended to drink sweeter wines and so River Gold really fit that market.  But now, especially with Prairie Fume, which is Wollersheim’s flagship wine introduced in 1989 – it accounts for about a third of our sales -- that really has introduced people to making wine part of their everyday lives, so our typical consumer probably has wine a couple of times a week.  

MWS: What is it about Wollersheim’s Prairie Fume that appeals to your customers and makes it your most popular wine?
Julie: They like Prairie Fume because of the balance.  It is right in the middle – not too dry, not too sweet.  So it appeals to people who like dry wine, and also to those who are new to wine, and maybe not drink a lot of wine. It is low-alcohol, semi-dry, right in the middle.

MWS: There are several wines in which Wollersheim has created its own distinctive categories –most notably the Wollersheim Prairie Fume. How do you develop these wines?
Julie: We are trying to achieve a style that is well-balanced. Semi-dry, natural residual sweetness, not high alcohol, easier to drink.  We are not constantly experimenting and we are not looking to add a lot of new wines.  Of course, Philippe is constantly trying to improve what we do, and then playing with whatever the vintage gave us.

We came up with Prairie Fume – we tasted a wine about 22 years ago at Peppino’s in Madison when the owner gave us a bottle of wine to try at dinner and we tried it and said “Wow!  This is really appealing – wonder whether we can do something like this.” It was during wine making season and so we decided to experiment by stopping the fermentation and leaving some natural residual sweetness and having a lower alcohol wine.  We tried it with a small batch – obviously we didn’t do 100,000 gallons right away! -- and we then slowly increased our production, as it proved successful.  

Very much like our Wollersheim White Port – our newest product which we just released a month ago - and that for instance is a wine made after a style that we have always enjoyed drinking ourselves in going to the South of France. It has been in the works for several years and Philippe was waiting for the right style of grapes, and deciding what grapes to make it from. We started with 13 barrels and that will be gone in a few weeks – we introduced it just a few weeks ago on January 29.  

Wine is such an annual thing – it is not like bread where we can just make another batch.  We have to wait a year for our next release. Our next release – the 2010 - will be 25 barrels – it is already made -- but even that will not be enough for a whole year.  Our goal eventually is to not run out, and have it available year-round, and so we will slowly expand production.

MWS: At the same time Wollersheim produces conventional wine varietals such as Sangiovese, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Riesling.  What do you produce those wines as well?
Julie: We do that because people will often come in and say I really love your wines, but don’t you have something like a Cabernet or such and such…….

MWS: You have about 20 different Wollersheim wines listed on your website including the sparkling grape juice but excluding the imported family wines.  That may be at the high end of the number of wines produced by a single winemaker – do you see that as a problem or an opportunity from a winemaking and a marketing point of view for Wollersheim?
Julie: Newer wineries, those established in the last 20 years, for example in the Finger Lakes region of New York, also tend to have a lot of different styles of wine.  It does make it more difficult because there are different bottle styles, different labels, different corks and caps.  We used to have different capsules for different wines but we decided to simplify that.  It also makes the winemaking more complicated to make sure that Philippe catches the fermentation at the right time so that the residual sweetness is at the right level.  It is challenging.  On the other hand, it gives us a wide variety for a wide variety of tastes, and it gives us the excitement of having something new.

MWS:  What are some of the distinctive features of Wollersheim prize-wining wines?
Julie:  One wine that has won Best Blush in the US is the Wollersheim Prairie Blush.  We don’t make a lot of it and it is not sold through our distributor, it is one of the few wines that are only sold here, so it kind of gets hidden. Estate-grown, of course, and it is just a very classy blush wine.  The colors are really unique; it has all the natural colors from the grapes, an iridescent pink. It is not as sweet as the typical blush – our Wollersheim Blushing Rose is really more like what Americans think of as a blush wine– this is really semi-dry, more like our Prairie Fume – kind of a crisper blush.

The next post will discuss Wollersheim’s winemaking techniques