In the Distillery - Coming Soon to a Store Near You

 
 cheers 5th edition extended tirage

It’s been almost ten years since we opened River Bend Winery and a little over two since we opened River Bend Distilling. I don’t think I remember exactly what it was like in the early days of the winery, but I do know the learning curve in the distillery has been steep. Distilling is completely different than wine-making, so we invested in new equipment and learned how to use it. We jumped through the hoops of new federal and state permits. We found new suppliers and designed new packaging. We opened a cocktail bar where we mix signature cocktails that change with the seasons. And now that we are standing on somewhat solid ground, we are taking our spirits “on the road”. By late October, our Bourbon, Gin, and Vodka will be sold in stores…hopefully stores near you!

 Sparkling wine aging at l mawby

The biggest challenge we have as a craft distiller is volume. Because we have a grain-to-glass business model and feel strongly about the “craft” aspect of distilling, we are extremely hands on in every facet of the process. For example, the corn for our Bourbon comes from a farmer we know personally in Sarona, Wisconsin which is an hour north of our distillery. We own a small hammer mill, and Al mills the grain each Monday for the batch of Bourbon he will start on Tuesday. We use 15-gallon oak barrels that are coopered in Avon, Minnesota specifically for the type of product we make. We filter and bottle in small batches which allows meticulous attention to the product and the process. Each step is time-consuming, and the yield is small. It has taken two years to produce and age enough product to put our spirits in stores. We are finally there, and it feels pretty good!

 make every day a celebration!

To begin with, our spirits will be available in retail stores that are geographically close to our distillery. Our local population has embraced our products from the beginning, and it just makes sense to put new products into a marketplace where we are recognized. But over time, just like our wine, our spirits will spread out across Wisconsin into stores that recognize and support local producers. And those stores will want to hear from you. If you have a favorite retail store where you buy wine and spirits, and you would like them to carry River Bend, just ask them. If a store knows there is real interest in a product, they feel less risk getting behind it. What separates the national brands and the national chains from the boutique brands and the mom-and-pop’s is you…your interest in supporting local producers. And for that support, we thank you!

Until next time...Cheers!

 

In the Winery - Drinking Pink

 
 cheers 5th edition extended tirage

This past Saturday, we released the second edition of a wine we call Drink Pink. October is breast cancer awareness month, and a few years ago, we decided to blend a new wine that we would sell exclusively in the Fall as a fund raiser for the American Cancer Society. Al and I got to work creating the wine, and Josh got to work creating the label. Once we had a blend we liked, we decided that each year the wine would stay the same, but the bottle and the label would change, thereby creating a “Collector’s Edition” that was unique each season. Our first edition was a hit and sold out by the end of October. We raised over $1000 for the American Cancer Society in 2017, and we hope to do the same this year. If you haven’t had a chance to try Drink Pink yet, let me describe it here…

 Sparkling wine aging at l mawby

Blush or rose’ wines can be made in a variety of ways and can take on a wide array of “pinkness”. Our Drink Pink is made predominantly from a grape called Vidal, which is a white wine grape that can be fashioned in many ways. Because we wanted this particular wine to stay very light in color, we added just enough Marquette and Frontenac to turn it what I would call baby pink. It is delicate and refreshing with notes of rose petal and strawberry. It is slightly sweet and best served chilled. It is lovely on its own or pairs with lighter fare like appetizers or seafood. We produce between 40 and 50 cases each year and sell it only in our tasting room. It is a passion project for us, and we hope people enjoy drinking it as much as we enjoy producing it.

 make every day a celebration!

At some point in our lives, it seems each of us gets touched by cancer, whether the disease hits us personally or inflicts someone we know and love. I rarely discuss my own family’s cancer story because it took years for me to talk about it without crying. My father passed away in July of 2009 due to complications of chemotherapy. We had just staged our grand opening of the winery in June, and the stress of getting the business open was multiplied ten fold when he was diagnosed and then was gone in a matter of weeks. My family cried and grieved, and then I did what my dad would have wanted. I got back to work. There was so much to do, and it was good therapy to throw myself into our new livelihood. Now here we are, nine years later, and I still miss my dad. But I like to think I have made him proud with what we have created here at River Bend. It’s been a lot of work, but he taught me that hard work pays off. He was right. So today, I lift my glass to him and to all of the families who have been touched by cancer.

Cheers to you, Dad!

 

In the Vineyard - That's a Wrap

 
 cheers 5th edition extended tirage

One of the best parts of operating an agriculturally based business is the change of seasons. From March through September, we spend a large amount of time in the vineyard. The season starts with pruning dormant vines in Spring, managing the canopy and the fruit load during Summer, and picking grapes come Fall as we keep a watchful eye on the forecast of frost. This past Saturday, we put a wrap on a bountiful but challenging season, and our attention for the remainder of the year will be in the wine cellar as we go from grapes to the glass. But first, here’s a wrap up of the 2018 season and harvest.

 Sparkling wine aging at l mawby

Grapevines in any climate thrive in a long, hot summer with just enough rain but not too much. Here in western Wisconsin, we rarely see this perfect scenario. The last time we had a truly hot and fairly dry summer was 2014. This season, we had a good amount of heat in June, but it was accompanied by a lot of rain. Green growth was explosive, and managing the canopy was a battle we waged most of the summer. And then it got dry…really dry. Too dry for the nearby corn, but not too dry for grapes. We were humming along just fine. And then it rained. And rained. And rained some more. In one ten day stretch we recorded twelve inches of rain. For corn, it was too late. For grapes, it could have been too much. Fortunately, our soil drains well in most areas, and with a strong disease management program, we entered the harvest season in good shape. The grapes looked a bit worse for wear, but the chemistries were great and we were able to pick around the rain and before the frost. I always breathe a huge sigh of relief when the fruit is off the vine and in the cellar. I hang up my farmer hat and put on my winemaker hat. One season ends, another begins.

 make every day a celebration!

Being a small producer, all of the grapes at River Bend are picked by hand…actually by a lot of hands. We picked on three separate weekends in September with three groups of fantastic volunteers. The first weekend, they patiently waited out the rain. The second weekend, it was perfect, cool but sunny. The third weekend, it was cloudy, clammy and cold. The thermometer read 32 degrees at 6am…and everyone still showed up to get the job done. We cannot thank our volunteers enough for another successful harvest. The grapes are on their way to becoming the next vintage of River Bend wine, and we can’t wait to share it with all of our supporters and friends.

Until next time...Cheers!

 

In the Vineyard - Frontenac Gris Harvest

 
 cheers 5th edition extended tirage

The majority of the River Bend vineyard is planted to the grapes Frontenac and Frontenac Gris. Because Frontenac Gris is actually a field mutation of Frontenac, the two varieties tend to ripen at the same rate. We have historically picked our Frontenac Gris first and our Frontenac last. By mid-September, we begin to worry about frost, and getting both varieties off the the vine by the end of the month is our goal. As expected, when we tested the fruit this past week, both varieties were ready and our plan to pick the Front Gris first and the Frontenac one week later was confirmed.

 Sparkling wine aging at l mawby

On Wednesday, we looked at the long range weather forecast and the size of our picking crews for each weekend, and I panicked just a little. We had 45 people coming to pick Frontenac Gris on Saturday and only half that many for Frontenac the next weekend. The long range forecast was dismal. So we decided to pick the Gris as planned, and some of the Frontenac on the same day. With a large picking crew, we knew the volume was manageable. But two things concerned me. First, it meant getting much more of the vineyard ready for picking, knowing we would be working non-stop in the rain. And second, the two varieties have a similar skin color, but Front Gris presses white and Frontenac presses rose’. Mixing the two in the picking bins would be disastrous. We have never picked these two varieties together for this reason, but this year we had no choice.

 make every day a celebration!

But as they tend to do, things worked out just fine. We do not melt in the rain, by Friday the nets were off, the vineyard floor was mowed, and the bins and buckets were in place by Saturday morning. Picking day dawned cold but beautifully sunny. Our fabulous crew of harvesters took my worries of “cross contamination” in the bins seriously, and the white wine producing Front Gris was not mixed with the rose’ producing Frontenac. All of the grapes were off the vine before eleven am, just in time to have a champagne toast in the field before heading in for a well-deserved lunch on the patio. With only one more weekend to go, I now believe we will survive another harvest season. To all of our volunteers, THANK YOU for a great day of friendship and harvest. The community that comes together every year to get our fruit off the vine is amazing, and we are extremely grateful.

To our volunteers, we raise our glass... Cheers to all of you!

 

In the Winery - My Love Affair with Pinot Noir

 
 cheers 5th edition extended tirage

Coming up this Saturday, we are releasing our first ever Pinot Noir.  I have wanted to make Pinot ever since Al and I made our first trip to the Willamette Valley in Oregon in 2008.  This part of Oregon is Pinot country, and most of the producers are boutique wineries that focus predominantly on this one variety.  I fell so hard for Pinot Noir that when we got a puppy in 2011, we named him Pino.  We changed the spelling a bit because I was afraid non-wine enthusiasts might think his name was pronounced Pie-not.  So here we are, ten years after our first trip to Oregon and seven years after we got our puppy, and we finally have our first Pinot Noir.

 Sparkling wine aging at l mawby

On the world wine stage, Cabernet Sauvignon always gets the starring role and Pinot Noir is forever the understudy.  Cab is known for being big and bold, and winos use words like "jammy" and "chewy" to describe its mouthfeel and "smoke" and "tobacco" to describe its aroma.  People love to gush about Cab, and if bigger is always better, then Cab is your wine.  Don't get me wrong...I love a good Cab.  And a good Merlot.  And a good Shiraz.  A bold red and a medium-rare filet mignon is about the best food pairing out there.  But if I had to pick one red wine to spend the rest of my dinners with, it would be Pinot Noir.  Why?  I have two main reasons...versatility and approachability.

Burgundian varieties like Pinot Noir tend to be lighter and more delicate than Bordeaux varieties like Cab and Merlot.  Grown in cooler climates, Pinot Noir grapes do not develop as much tannin as Cab, and therefore do not come across as dry.  Pinot is most often finished with little to no residual sugar, but its softer tannin structure gives it a different mouthfeel...what I refer to above as approachability.  Young Cabs are often harsh due to their high tannin content and are best consumed after extended aging.  Pinot Noirs age very well, but are drinkable much younger due to their soft tannin structure.  And when it comes to food pairing, Pinot Noir is incredibly versatile.  A big, bold Cab can overpower a lighter meal, but Pinot plays nicely with a large variety of food.  Steak and Pinot Noir?  For sure.  Mushroom Risotto?  You bet.  Crab cakes?  Yes, please.  Chicken Cordon Bleu?  Yes, even chicken pairs with Pinot Noir.  A hard day at work?  A glass of Pinot pairs well with that too.

 make every day a celebration!

So this coming weekend, after ten years of being Pinot Noir lovers, we are now Pinot Noir producers.  Stylistically, it is lighter and more delicate than most reds.  It is fruit forward with a structured mid-palate and a smooth finish.  There is a hint of oak but not too much.  And it is versatile with food.  Since bottling, I've tried it with most of the meals mentioned above (as well as the hard day).  But don't take my word for it...stop in this weekend and try it yourself.  We look forward to seeing you!

Until next time...Cheers!

 

In the Vineyard - Brianna Harvest

 
 cheers 5th edition extended tirage

Harvest season at River Bend officially kicked off on Saturday with our Brianna grapes coming off the vine.  After patiently waiting out the morning rain, our volunteer picking crew got after it and by 10:30 Saturday morning, all of the Brianna was in the bins, ready to press.  The harvest was a bit smaller than anticipated and the birds decided they liked Brianna quite a bit this year.  But today we have juice in the tank and by week's end, the juice will technically be wine.  Once fermentation is complete, it will take several months for this wine to actually be bottle ready, but the first few steps of taking grapes to the glass are complete, and all is right with the world.

 Sparkling wine aging at l mawby

Most small producers harvest grapes by hand.  Most large producers harvest grapes by machine.  Harvesting by hand has two distinct advantages.  The first is that we are able to do some sorting of the berries, both in the field and at the press.  As I mentioned, the birds found our Brianna earlier than normal this year, so there was a bit more "bird strike" than we have seen in the past.  Birds are quite finicky about their grapes, so they test them by pecking holes in them, and when they are not ripe enough, they leave them on the vine that way.  After a few days, these berries dry up, and if you have been vigilant with your disease management program, they cause few problems.   With all of the rain we saw in the past few weeks, we are fortunate that Al is the vigilant type and that his disease management has been solid all summer.

The second advantage to harvesting by hand is that the majority of the clusters remain intact.  Grapes that are intact do not start fermenting on their own.  Berries harvested by machine, however, get pretty beat up and will start juicing before you can get them to the press.  Juice in the bottom of the bin can start fermenting on its own due to wild yeast that is present in the air.  Machine harvested grapes must be pressed immediately to avoid wild fermentation.  Large producers are able to pull this off because they have a large labor force.  Small producers do most processing with just a few people, so having intact fruit on the way to the press buys time.

 make every day a celebration!

The one disadvantage to harvesting grapes by hand is the number of hands that are needed.  With just the two of us, Al and I can press four tons of fruit per day once it has been picked.  However, harvesting four tons requires forty pickers minimum if you want it picked in one day...and preferably in one morning.  And that is where our awesome volunteers come in.  Each year, we put the word out through social media and our email newsletter when picking time is drawing near.  And our customers never disappoint.  I hope and believe they actually enjoy coming out to help us bring in the harvest.  We have several people who come every year...sometimes on every picking weekend...and we always have new folks who want to share in the experience.  If we plan it right...and mother nature cooperates...we are in the field by 8:30 on a Saturday morning and back having lunch and wine before noon.  Having a hand in harvesting the fruit provides a "grapes to the glass" perspective that people otherwise do not have.  I like to think it helps connect them to us and the wine in a more personal way.  So to all of the volunteers that came out this past weekend and to all who have signed up for later in September, we offer a heartfelt Thank You!  We truly could not do it without you.

Until next time...Cheers!

 

In the Distillery - Showcasing the Spirits

 
 cheers 5th edition extended tirage

For the past few weeks, we have spent the majority of our time in the vineyard.  Harvest is fast approaching, and there is always much work to be done as we near the end of the growing season.  But that does not mean we can put all other tasks on hold.  Wine processing and distilling continue, and we just accomplished a milestone in the distillery that we have been working toward for two years.  Being a craft distiller, our batches are small and up until very recently, all finished spirits were bottled in 375ml bottles.  We now have enough volume to go into 750ml bottles which is the industry standard. The high quality of the spirits is the same, and we can offer more bang for the buck in the larger format bottles.

 Sparkling wine aging at l mawby

So we can talk all day about our spirits being "hand crafted" and "small batch" and "high quality" when compared with other spirits on the market.  And while we believe it to be true, what really matters is what our customers believe.  So when we opened our distillery tasting room, our philosophy was to showcase our spirits by having a limited but well thought out cocktail menu.  While people often sample spirits straight, vodka, gin and whiskey are by definition quite strong...each is federally mandated to be at least 40% alcohol by volume.  And so we create what we feel are "signature" cocktails for each of our spirits for people to enjoy in the tasting room.  Enter Josh, our tasting room manager, marketing coordinator, and mixologist extrodinaire.  Every two weeks, Josh creates a featured cocktail, "showcasing" one of our main spirits.  And he is good at it!

 make every day a celebration!

If you follow River Bend on Facebook, you have no doubt seen our cocktail features.  Each is sampled ahead of time by our management team (yes, it is a tough job), tweaked if needed, and carefully photographed.  I hope if you have tried any of them, you will agree they are as tasty as they are beautiful.  The spirit itself is neither overwhelming nor covered up, the citrus is always fresh squeezed, and the mixes are most often hand made.  This week the featured cocktail is a Singapore Sling, and you will feel as though you are in the tropics.  As we head into fall, features like the Craftsman Caramel Apple reflect the cooler weather.  Come December, you will see cocktails that are creamy and warm like the White Christmas.  A few our our recipes are so special we keep them proprietary, but most often if you try a featured cocktail you really love, Josh will tell you just how to make it at home.  With Craftsman spirits of course!

Until next time...Cheers!

 

In the Vineyard - Prepping for Harvest: Netting Edition

 
 cheers 5th edition extended tirage

This past week, Al and I spent nearly every waking moment in the vineyard.  Somehow it is late August, and that means the grapes are adding on sugar and the birds all know it.  We have a telephone wire that runs the length of the vineyard, and at this time of year I swear I can hear the birds on that wire taunting us.  "Are they ripe yet?  Let me check.  Oh, not yet, but I'll take some and drop them on the ground anyway.  And then I will test them again tomorrow.  If they are ready tomorrow, I'll be sure to call all my little bird friends!"  I used to really like birds.  Now, not so much.  If we did not net the vineyard, they would pick it clean before we could even say the word harvest.  And so we net.

 Sparkling wine aging at l mawby

Before we can apply the nets, the vineyard needs to be hedged and all of the prunings that come off must be cleared from the vineyard floor.  This is a job that takes two of us two solid days.  After hedging, the aisles must be mowed, because once the nets go on, you can no longer get a tractor down the row.  Once it is mowed, we apply the nets.  This job takes four of us a full day.  The nets are seventeen feet wide and a quarter mile long.  We have a nifty contraption called a Netter Getter that attaches to the back of the tractor and runs the net along the tops of the rows.  One person drives, one feeds netting out of the basket, and two walk along and pull the netting down to the ground.  In all, we put on about five miles of netting.  By the end of the day, I am exhausted.  And the birds are mad.

And now our attention turns to harvest, which will start in just a couple of weeks.  Brianna comes off first, this year on Labor Day weekend.  Then we wait a few weeks and tackle the Frontenac and the Frontenac Gris.  We harvest by hand with volunteers, and if you've never done it, the grape harvest is actually very fun.  You can sign up to help us by calling the winery for all of the details.  If you're a River Bend wine enthusiast, it's a great way to see how your favorite wine goes from the grape to the glass.  We'd love to have you join us!

Until next time...Cheers!

 

In the Vineyard - Frontenac and a wine called Magenta

 
 cheers 5th edition extended tirage

Back in 2006, the first grapes were planted on what would become River Bend Vineyard.  Exactly one hundred Frontenac vines were put in a very long row, and over the course of that summer, Al and I doted on our one hundred Frontenac like they were our children.  We both had full-time, off-the-farm jobs back then, so we'd go out early in the morning and pull weeds or green prune.  Fast forward to today, and there are eight hundred Frontenac vines among the three thousand that make up our six acre vineyard.  I wish there were more, because this grape is the backbone of our rose' wine Magenta, a signature River Bend wine since the beginning.  Before the beginning actually.  Let me explain...

 Sparkling wine aging at l mawby

By the time Al and I moved to Chippewa Falls, we had been home winemakers for quite awhile.  While attending a weekend grape growing seminar, we had discovered a "pick your own" vineyard in Lake City, Minnesota, and the first wine we made from local fruit was a rose' we produced from Frontenac.  By that time, Frontenac had been around for awhile, and most commercial producers were making it into dry red.  The problem was, we didn't really care for any of them.  Fermented on the skins, Frontenac takes on an earthy characteristic that we just did not find appealing.  But with moderate sugar levels and acidity to spare, we thought maybe rose' was its calling.  So we pressed the juice off the skins before fermentation and were in awe of the color.  It was beautiful, almost iridescent, and from that day forward this wine would be known as Magenta.  A few months later, we entered a national amateur wine competition, and Magenta won a gold medal.  Maybe we were on to something.

 make every day a celebration!

So here we are, about fifteen years since that very first batch of Magenta, and the "recipe" really hasn't changed.  The batches are bigger and the press is larger, but we still follow the same basic procedure...press the grapes off the skins before fermentation and watch the beautiful juice flow into the press pan.  We have since won gold and best-of-class medals in professional wine competitions, and we occasionally get snubbed by a wine judge for Magenta having "too much color" for a rose'.  But that's ok...it's a lovely color and a lovely wine that our customers truly enjoy.  And that's really the only accolades we need.

Until next time...Cheers!

 

In the Vineyard - Spotlight on Frontenac Gris

 
 cheers 5th edition extended tirage

This past weekend, we released a special version of our sparkling wine Cheers.  This edition...our 5th...aged on the yeast for seven years, which in wine-making circles is called extended tirage (tuh-raj).  Not all grapes are suitable for sparkling wine production, and we are fortunate that Frontenac Gris is not only suitable, but darn close to ideal.  Moderate sugar levels and high acidity at harvest make for a balanced bubbly, and Frontenac Gris has both. Last year, our 4th edition Cheers won a gold medal in a professional wine competition...and promptly sold out.  Because Frontenac Gris is a versatile grape, we use it in several different wines.  For that reason, our batches of bubbly are usually quite limited.

 Sparkling wine aging at l mawby

Frontenac Gris is a Univeristy of Minnesota grape that became available for planting in the early 2000's.  It is technically a field mutation of Frontenac, and it is therefore just as cold hardy and disease resistant.  As a northern grower, this is just what we are looking for.

What we didn't realize early on was how versatile this grape would become in the wine cellar.  One of the first wines we produced with it was Bliss, a dessert-style wine that is pleasantly sweet but retains a nice clean finish.  High acidity at harvest is what keeps a sweet wine from becoming cloying, and Frontenac Gris has acidity to spare.  With tropical fruit notes we like to call "pineapply-pear", Bliss is lovely on its own and also pairs well with a dark chocolate brownie or truffle.  Yum.

 make every day a celebration!

Frontenac Gris is also part of two of our most popular wines, Moonlight and Summer White.  Moonlight has been in our wine line-up since 2009 and is loved by the Moscato drinker.  Summer White came a few years later, and is a blend of estate-grown Brianna and Front Gris.  If you have been a River Bend enthusiast for awhile, you may remember a wine called Jasmine that was created for and sold exclusively by a local grocery store chain.  That chain is no longer in business, but Jasmine lives on...it is now Summer White and is sold exclusively in our tasting room in Chippewa Falls.

I mentioned that Frontenac Gris is a field mutation.  It's close sibling Frontenac is also a cold hardy variety that we use in multiple wines.  We'll highlight Frontenac next time, and talk about a wine called Magenta that holds a special place in our history.

Until then...Cheers!

 

In the Vineyard - Veraison

 
 cheers 5th edition extended tirage

In grape growing, the onset of veraison signals the beginning of ripening.  As many of the terms in viticulture and wine-making are, the term veraison is French, and it's the fancy way to say "color change" in grapes or berries.  All wine grapes start out as light green berries, and as they mature, their skin color changes and we can see the difference in what are called red varieties and white varieties.  In truth, grapes never become red or white in color.  Red and white are actually better descriptors of wine color.  For example...

 Sparkling wine aging at l mawby

Frontenac grapes when ripe are a very deep purple.  At the onset of veraison, the berries will change from green to light purple to dark purple.  When pressed to juice, the color of the skins is the dominant factor in the color of the wine...and young red wine is indeed almost purple in color.  Aging, especially over a long period of time in oak barrels, will turn the wine from purple to red.  Color in red wine is a good indicator of age.  The more vibrant the color, the younger the wine.  The more brick red the color, the older the wine.  And older is good, right?  Maybe, maybe not.  But that's a whole 'nother story.  In the case of Frontenac grapes, we can also minimize the color by removing the juice from the skins early in the process.  We make a wine called Magenta that is a brilliant...wait for it...magenta color.  We accomplish this by separating the dark skins from the juice early on, thereby lightening and brightening the color.

 make every day a celebration!

Veraison in white wine varieties is much harder to see.  The berries stay green for a long time, and the first sign of ripening is what I like to call freckles.  Tiny brown dots begin to appear on the skins, and after a few weeks, subtle color change occurs.  The ripe grapes never become white...they are golden in color.  Inside, the juice is very light in color, and when pressed immediately off the skins, white or almost clear juice is produced.  Age and barrel time also affect white wine, and an older wine may begin to take on a straw color.  Good or bad?  Hard to say.  Some white wines age very well, and more color simply indicates a white wine that has likely aged for a few years.  What really matters is taste...your taste and no one else's.  We always like to say the first rule in wine drinking is that there are no rules.  Just drink what you like!

Until next time...Cheers!

 

In the Vineyard - Elmer Swenson and a grape called Brianna

 
 cheers 5th edition extended tirage

Each year on the first official weekend of summer, we release a wine called Summer White.  But we begin thinking about Summer White almost a year ahead of time when we are prepping to pick the grape Brianna.  When harvested at the right time, Brianna has a lovely tropical aroma and flavor reminiscent of fresh pineapple.  To retain this fresh pineapple characteristic, Brianna must be picked with low sugar and a pH below 3.2.  Because it will hit these marks by early September, Brianna is always the first grape off the vine here at River Bend.

 Sparkling wine aging at l mawby

The Brianna grape was developed by a man named Elmer Swenson.  Starting in 1943, decades before the University of Minnesota's fruit breeding program would release it's first grape variety, Elmer Swenson was busy breeding grapes at his farm in Osceola, Wisconsin.  He began by crossing French hybrid grapes with selections of Vitis Riparia which were grapes native to Wisconsin.  His hope was to generate seedlings capable of producing high quality fruit in a northern climate, something few if any cultivars could do consistently at the time.  Beginning in 1969, Swenson took a job caring for fruit crops at the University of Minnesota.  He conducted some of his work there, but the bulk of his breeding program remained at his farm in Osceola. His first two hybrids were Swenson Red and Edelweiss.  Many more would follow including the wine grape Brianna.

 make every day a celebration!

When we first planted Brianna, we were a bit skeptical of its hardiness.  We had heard it was not as cold hardy as U of M varieites Frontenac and Frontenac Gris, which thankfully has turned out not to be the case.  We have 300 vines that are in their tenth year, and they have reliably produced a crop every year since we allowed them to set fruit.  They are somewhat disease prone...which we learned the hard way a few years ago...but once you know what they demand, you have won most of the battle.  Going into late summer, Brianna likes a lot of heat and not much rain, which is typical of August in our neck of the woods.  We will begin testing sugar and pH in a few weeks with a plan to harvest in early September.  This year's crop is heavier than usual, and the fruit is beautiful.  With a little luck, we'll have an outstanding Summer White release coming in June of 2019.

Until next time...Cheers!

 

In the Distillery - Whiskey that is 100% Wisconsin, 100% of the Time

 
 cheers 5th edition extended tirage

Tennessee and Kentucky have been the epicenter of American distilling for decades.  The brands Jim Beam and Jack Daniels are household names, and a Jack and Coke can be ordered in any bar that hocks whiskey.  But there are now craft distilleries in every state that allows them, and distillery trails...while not as common as wine trails...are becoming popular in areas where tourism is important to the local economy.  So how does a distillery in an up-and-coming region distinguish itself from the big boys?  To me, there are two distinct ways.  The first is craftsmanship, and the second is local sourcing.

 Sparkling wine aging at l mawby

When Al told me he wanted to start a distillery, I was skeptical.  After all, we were already operating a vineyard and a winery, and neither of us was sitting around twiddling our thumbs.  But Al is a craftsman.  From his days as an amateur boat builder to his career as a professional cabinet maker, he has always been able to take raw materials like fiberglass or rough cut lumber and turn them into sailing vessels or kitchen islands.  Even though we share the production responsibilities of wine making, he has always considered wine to be "my thing."  Distilling would be "his thing".  So he researched the distilling process and the equipment, went to seminars, and made test batches.  His recipes are all his own.  And while there are legal requirements regarding what grains can be used to make Bourbon or Rye or Single Malt whiskey, the mash bill and the process by which our whiskies are created are all uniquely Al.  And if you know Al, you know that quality is his middle name.  Actually it's Rolland, but that doesn't fit the story.

 make every day a celebration!

So how best to go about making high quality whiskies?  Of course one must have good distilling equipment, well constructed barrels, and good sanitation practices.  But first, one must have high quality raw materials from a consistent supplier.  Since the majority of our farm is planted to grapes, and we wanted to produce our whiskies from 100% Wisconsin grain 100% of the time, Al contacted Perlick Farms in Sarona.  Perlick Farms also happens to be the home of Perlick Distillery, and it was evident from the beginning that the Perlick family shared our philosophy on local sourcing and quality distilling.  Sourcing any product locally beats having it shipped in from Timbuktu, and being able to source our grain from a reliable local supplier is an important part of our brand.  Craftsmanship and local soucing allow us to produce a high quality product, and it is something we commit to every day, whether its in the wine cellar or the distillery.   As we like to say, "Quality is not an act, it is a habit," which is a quote from the Greek philosopher Aristotle, as true today as it was in the 4th century BC. 

Until next time...Cheers!

 

In the Winery - Chilling in the Cellar

 
 cheers 5th edition extended tirage

Have you ever heard of or encountered "wine diamonds?"  I hope you haven't, because wine diamonds are the result of a short cut sometimes taken in wine making.  Wine diamonds are actually crystals that form when tartaric acid, which is the primary acid found in wine, binds with potassium to form a compound known as potassium bitartrate.  I know, I know...I am wine-geeking on you.  I bring up the topic because we are getting ready to bottle Sunset and Moonlight, our two most poplular wines.  Both go through a cold stability process shortly before bottling that is intended to keep the wine diamonds in our tank and not in your glass.  Let me explain...

 Sparkling wine aging at l mawby

When wine is cooled, some of its chemical components bind with others and become insoluble.  This is what happens when tartaric acid combines with potassium, forming potassium bitartrate.  As the temperature of the wine drops, its ability to keep this combo in solution drops as well.  In temperatures around 40 degrees...which is likely what your refrigerator is set to...tartrate crystals form.  No one likes to take a sip of wine and get a mouthful of crystals.  To ensure this does not happen with a wine you are likely to chill, we put our wine through a cold stability process meant to force the crystal formation while the wine is still in the tank.  We chill the wine to approximately 30 degrees, saturate it with potassium bitartrate (the same stuff we are trying to take out), and circulate the wine for two hours.  The addition of the potassium bitartrate draws out and binds the crystals that are forming naturally, and after a settling period of a few days, the heavy crystals drop to the bottom of the tank.  We rack the clear wine off into another tank, and voila'...the tartrate crystals stay behind.  Now you can put Sunset or Moonlight in your fridge and not worry about wine diamonds in your glass.

 make every day a celebration!

While the presence of tartrate crystals in wine does not alter the taste, the industry considers crystal formation in white wines to be a flaw.  A white wine entered into a professional competition with wine diamonds will never receive a medal, no matter how good the wine tastes.  Red wines, however, are not intended to be chilled.  Because of this, most reds are not put through a cold stability process prior to bottling.  If you prefer your reds with a bit of a chill, crystal formation may very well occur.

Whew...thanks for hanging with me on that incredibly interesting topic.  I do love being a wine geek! 

Until next time...Cheers!

 

In the Vineyard - Baby, it's hot outside!

 
 cheers 5th edition extended tirage

Every summer, the 4th of July creeps up on me.  It seems we were just  dealing with a late spring snowstorm, and this past weekend, everyone is lamenting the heat wave.  Except the grapevines.  Grapevines never complain about too much heat.  The hotter the better.  Ninety five degrees at the end of June...bring it on!  Five inches of rain in one night...you bet!  Have a seat and watch us grow!  If you were to show me a picture of the River Bend vineyard as it looks today, I would be inclined to believe it was mid-August by how much foliage the heat and rain have produced so far.

 Sparkling wine aging at l mawby

It is not every year that we experience a truly hot summer here in Wisconsin.  In fact, it's pretty rare.  The last one I remember was 2014.  The past few years, we have reached 90 degrees just a handful of times all summer.  So far this season, River Bend has recorded 90+ degrees on five distinct days...that's pretty impressive for the end of June.  Because we have a short growing season...relative to grape growing areas like California or Washington...packing as much heat as possible into the summer is favorable to grape development.  One of the key components of grape chemistry is organic acid, and in a cool or wet year, acids do not drop as much as we would like.  To get organic acids to drop, the vines basically need to sweat them out, so a hot year generally means lower acidity when it comes time to harvest.

 make every day a celebration!

So why does the level of acidity matter?  Lower organic acids at harvest give a winemaker flexibility in the style of wine they can produce in a given year.  Grapes grown in a northern climate like ours are often too high in acid to produce a quality dry red wine.  Acidity is balanced by sweetness, and a dry wine that is too high in acid will be tart...and not desirable.  A dry wine with lower acid will be smoother and more approachable.  As I mentioned, the last year I would categorize as hot here in our neck of the woods was 2014.  That year we produced a dry red wine from Marquette grapes that won a gold medal in a professional competition.  The heat reduced the acidity, allowing us to make a nicely balanced dry Marquette.  It's too early to tell if this season is shaping up to be dry red wine producing, but we are off to a good start.  Stay tuned, and we will see what happens come late September.

Cheers!

 

In the Winery - Popping the cork on a special batch of bubbly

 
 cheers 5th edition extended tirage

cheers 5th edition extended tirage

Ever since planting our first vines in 2006, we have had a philosophy about the wine we would produce from them.  Growing grapes in a cold climate is far different from growing them in a warm climate, and we have always said we would not try to make our grapes into something they were not.  As an example, we only produce dry red wine from Marquette grapes in the hottest and driest of seasons...to do so in a cool or wet year just does not produce a good dry Marquette.  However, grapes grown in our micro climate will produce excellent bubbly in almost any year, which is why we ventured into the sparkling wine niche soon after opening the winery.

I have always wanted to produce sparkling wine the way the French do, which is to produce carbonation naturally with a second fermentation that happens in the very bottle from which the wine will be consumed.  Grapes we grow in Wisconsin, and Frontenac Gris specifically, are ideally suited to this style of sparkling wine.  At peak maturity, we have relatively low sugar and high acidity, both of which make for good bubbly.  So first we produce a still wine, and then we bottle it down with additional yeast and sugar.  The wine re-ferments in the bottle, producing a bit of additional alcohol and a whole lot of carbonation.  The wine is then "laid down" to age.  The batch we are releasing this year was laid down in 2011...an "extended tirage" or extended aging period of seven years.  I am not a patient person by nature, so for me, this has been excruciating.  But it was the plan all along, so we have waited.  And waited.  And waited some more.  Finally, the time has come to release our first...and possibly only...extended tirage sparkling wine.   

 Sparkling wine aging at l mawby

Sparkling wine aging at l mawby

But before we can release this wine, we have to remove the yeast from the bottle, and for this procedure, we need help.  So we pack up the bottles in a metal cage and ship it to L Mawby Winery in Suttons Bay, Michigan.  Larry Mawby planted his vineyard in the early 70's, and before long recognized the climate of northern Michigan was ideally suited to making sparkling wine.  He has since become nationally recognized for his bubbly, but yet remains extremely approachable and helpful to new producers.  We have been making the trek to Suttons Bay every other year since 2010 to have our sparkling wine disgorged at the one and only L Mawby Winery.

 make every day a celebration!

make every day a celebration!

Seven years aging sur lees (on the yeast) has made for a beautifully complex sparkling wine.  The fruit-iness of Frontenac Gris has been muted a bit, and there is a toasty characteristic not found in batches released at a younger age.  If you are a true Champagne enthusiast, this is a sparkling wine you must try.

It would be remiss of me if I did not recognize the crew at L Mawby, so many thanks go out to Tony, Bill, and the rest of the production team who took such good care of us on our trip to Michigan this year.  If you find yourself anywhere near Traverse City, definitely work in a side trip to Suttons Bay and L Mawby.  I promise you will not be disappointed.

Cheers!

 

In the Winery - Come quickly, I am tasting the stars!

 
Cork Blog.jpg

People who know me well know I have a passion for sparkling wine.  To me, sparkling wine is not something you only drink on New Year's Eve or at your best friend's wedding.  Every day can and should be celebrated, and sparkling wine deserves a place at the proverbial and literal table.  So back in 2010, we set out to make sparkling wine from Wisconsin grown fruit by the traditional method...methode champenoise...which is the way all true French Champagne is made.  But first, a bit of folklore...  

The French monk Dom Pierre Perignon is often given credit for the invention of Champagne.  Whether or not the story rings true, it is still a good story.  Legend has it the monk was having a problem with bubbles forming in wine that was supposed to be still.  On a whim, he tried the bubbly wine and exclaimed "Come quickly, I am tasting the stars!" ...which is one of my all-time favorite wine quotes.  If this did indeed happen, what was occurring was a re-fermentation after the wine had been bottled.  The process of fermentation converts sugar into alcohol and as a by-product you also get carbon dioxide.  Trapped inside a bottle, carbon dioxide creates bubbles or fizz, just like a can of soda.  Trapped carbon dioxide gives wine it's stars...or as we say today, it's sparkle.

 Frontenac gris grapes at peak ripeness

There are several ways to add carbon dioxide to wine, but the traditional French method is the oldest and the best.  After juice is fermented into wine, the still wine is bottled and yeast and sugar are added...to each and every bottle individually.  The result is a second fermentation where the yeast converts the sugar to a small amount of additional alcohol and creates carbon dioxide, which...you guessed it...is now trapped in the bottle.  Producing sparkling wine by this method provides a high level of carbonation and the tiniest of bubbles, both of which are desired for a well-balanced sparkling wine.

Mawby.jpg

But at some point, the yeast that's in the bottle needs to be removed.  This is a process that requires specialized equipment that not many wineries in the Midwest possess.  So, every two years, Al and I make a trip to a winery in Suttons Bay, Michigan.  There, under the guidance of sparkling guru Larry Mawby, our wine is disgorged.  This is the process by which the yeast is removed from the bottle, but the carbon dioxide is retained.  We'll talk more about this process in next week's blog, and we'll have some photos from the Mawby winery to show as well.

Have I mentioned yet that this is a very special version of our sparkling wine?  This particular batch is what we call an "extended tirage".  I'll explain that in more detail next week too, so please stay tuned.  Here's a hint...we've been waiting for this for seven years.

Cheers!

 

In the Winery - A Reserve or not a Reserve...That is the Question

 
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This past Saturday we released a new red wine under our Reserve label, an American Shiraz that was aged in a Bourbon barrel.  Our Reserve label differs tremendously from what we call our "mainline" label, and it takes a pretty special wine for us to deem it a "Reserve".  In fact, River Bend has not released a Reserve wine since 2014.  But what does the word Reserve actually mean in the world of wine?  Turns out, it can mean almost anything.  Let me explain...

The federal government of the United States has jurisdiction over wine labels, and each label has to go through an approval process by the federal Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) before it can be used.  TTB has agreements with other countries regarding certain reserved words, the word "Reserve" not actually being one of them.  For example, a US sparkling wine producer is not allowed to use the word Champagne.  Only sparkling wines made in the Champagne region of France can be labelled Champagne.  The same thing applies to the word Port.  Port only comes from the Douro Valley of Portugal.  There are many port-style wines made around the world, but true Port only comes from Portugal.

 Frontenac gris grapes at peak ripeness

So what about this word "Reserve?"  In some countries, such as Spain and Italy, the word Riserva is highly regulated and is mainly an aging requirement.  For example, an Italian Barolo must be aged for a minimum of five years to be considered a Riserva.  But the US has no real regulations regarding the word Reserve.  TTB considers it a brand name, which basically means its just a title.  I would like to think that most winemakers only use the word Reserve when a wine is truly special, be it because of quality, aging, limited availability or some combination thereof.

Barrel Club.jpg

So let's get back to River Bend's latest Reserve wine, the Shiraz.  As I mentioned, we have not released a Reserve wine in four years.  There is a simple reason for this.  Reserve wines must be special.  Each time we pull reds from barrel, we HOPE one stands out as a Reserve.  Truth is...in my opinion as a winemaker...this is rare.  Does that mean I don't think our red wines are good?  Quite the contrary.  We would never pull a barrel if we didn't think it was good.  However, it is not that often that I think we have a barrel that is EXCEPTIONAL.  When we tasted this Shiraz, I was blown away.  Not by its bigness or its boldness...no single characteristic jumped out at me.  This Shiraz was balanced...and smooth...and subtle.  And special.  That's what makes it a Reserve to me.  So if you have a chance, stop in a give it a try.  I'd be happy to hear what you think.

Join us again next week as we talk about sparkling wine.  Every other year, Al and I make a trip to Michigan to have our traditional method sparkling wine finished at the LMawby Winery in Suttons Bay.  River Bend sparkling wine is one of my passions, and I am excited to share it's story with you.

Cheers!

 

In the Distillery - We're pretty Old Fashioned

 
Whiskey+Release+Party.jpg

This past weekend in the distillery we released two craft whiskies...batch number three of our coveted Craftsman Bourbon and a brand new whiskey blend we've dubbed Wisconsin Whiskey.  Here in Wisconsin, we like our whiskies smooth and our cocktails strong, and we have a drinking heritage that is not always something for which we are proud.  But we are extremely proud of two facets of our current cocktail culture...one quite new and one quite old...the first being the emergence of high quality craft distilling, and the second being the tradition of the Wisconsin Supper Club.

Somewhat hard to describe but easy to love, if you are not from the upper Midwest, the supper club may not be something you have had the pleasure to experience.  Today's supper clubs are a gem in the landscape of Wisconsin's dining culture.  Maybe it's the coziness during a long winter, maybe it's the fish fry, or maybe it's the tradition of being family-owned for decades.  There's just something about the supper club that we Wisconsinites can't get enough of.  Oh wait...maybe it's the Old Fashioned.

 Frontenac gris grapes at peak ripeness

If Wisconsin had a state cocktail, it would undoubtedtly be the Old Fashioned.  While the Old Fashioned largely fell out of favor years ago in other parts of the country, here in the Badger State our love for it has continued unabashed and unabated.  Traditionally, Old Fashioneds were crafted from whiskey, but in Wisconsin, it has long been a brandy concoction.  We are, after all, the state which consumes roughly one third of all the brandy Korbel makes.  But now that we are seeing a home grown boom in the craft distilling scene...much of which is being led by whiskey production...our mixologists are going back to their Old Fashioned roots and blending this signature cocktail with Bourbon.

Shutterstock Old Fashioned.jpg

Bourbon at its finest is strong but smooth, and connoisseurs drink it neat or on the rocks.  Being a relatively new whiskey enthusiast, my taste for Bourbon pairs well with the style of Old Fashioned most often poured in Wisconsin.  A nice bold spirit is complemented by a dash of bitters and a muddle of orange and cherry...just the right balance of boozy sweetness.  This is how we pour an Old Fashioned in the River Bend distillery, and I think our Wisconsin supper clubs would approve.  Now if we only had a Friday night fish fry...

Join us again next week as we head back inside the winery.  We'll be talking about our newly released reserve wine, a Bourbon barrel-aged Shiraz, and what the term "reserve" does...and does not...mean when it comes to wine.

Cheers!

 

In the Vineyard - Summertime...and the livin' is easy

 
Vineyard Row.jpg

George Gershwin composed the song Summertime in the 1930's for the opera Porgy and Bess, and one of my favorite versions was recorded in 1968...the year I was born...by the late great Ella Fitzgerald.  I do love summertime, and when the sun burns bright and the heat kicks on, so does the vineyard at River Bend.

Warm temperatures in late May and early June bring rapid development to northern vineyards.  While vineyards in places like southern California can break dormancy as early as March, vineyards in Wisconsin do not break until May.  With fall frost as early as October 1st, the growing season is short and fruit maturation must happen quickly.

When the University of Minnesota started developing wine grapes for northern climates, the heat of the growing season was of utmost concern.  In Wisconsin, we have an average of 2500 degree days in a calendar year.  Degree days are the number of degrees Fahrenheit over 50, based on average daily temperature, summed up for the period.  But don't get hung up on the definition.  Here's the gist...grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon need 3000 degree days from April to October to ripen.  We don't get that in a full year!  Cab would never ripen here, much less survive January.  So the U of M crossed native grapes (that ripen quickly) with European grapes (that make great wine) and ta-dah!  Now there are vineyards in Wisconsin. 

 Frontenac gris grapes at peak ripeness

Grapes, like all fruit, begin as flowers, and they are tiny.  But not for long.  Shoots can grow several inches a day, and the flowers elongate quickly.  Bloom is short and before you know it, the flowers are little buck-shot berries.  By late July we'll see clusters at full size, and they will begin to change color.  By late August, sugar levels will be rising, organic acid levels will be falling, and we'll be looking at harvest dates in September.  And just like that, it's over!  (Insert sad face emoji.)  But it's always a great ride, so remember, from the lyrics of Summertime, "Your daddy's rich and your mamma's good lookin', so hush little baby, don't you cry."

Grapes bucket.jpg

Join us again next week as we head back inside the distillery.   Batch #3 of our Craftsman Bourbon will be released the first weekend of June, and we've also been hard at work on a brand new whiskey that is uniquely Wisconsin.  You won't want to miss it!

Cheers!