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.


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