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

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