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 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'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 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 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.



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 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 "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.



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 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, guessed 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.


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.



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


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 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 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.



In the Distillery - We're pretty Old Fashioned


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 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.



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 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!



In the Winery - Art versus Science in the Wine Lab


How wine is made is a mystery to many people.  When looking into our processing facility, we often hear comments like "that's where the magic happens."  In reality, wine processing is more like "where the science happens."  But to my dismay, it's not all science.  There is art involved in wine-making, and as a mathematician by training, art is not my forte.  Thankfully, I am able to apply science right up to the final stages of processing, but that's where for me, things get a little dicey.  Let's take a look at two white wines which will be released this summer...Riesling and Summer see how they are similar and how they are different.

 Frontenac gris grapes at peak ripeness

Grapes harvested at the peak of ripeness are the perfect fruit from which to make wine.  There is enough natural sugar and enough water that neither of these need to be added.  Pitch some wine yeast along with some nutrients, and voila...fermentation produces wine from grape juice.  In the wine lab, three of the components we test in ripe grapes are pH, titratable acidity, and sugar level.  To a winemaker, sugar level is not an indication of sweet wine vs dry wine.  Sugar level is all about potential alcohol.  Yeast converts sugar to ethanol, and a large percentage of sugar is needed to produce ethanol in the 12-14% range.  This is generally an easy number to hit provided grapes are harvested when they are ripe.

Titratable acidity and pH, however, are more of a moving target.  As mentioned above, we are currently putting the finishing touches on our Riesling and Summer White wines.  The grapes that produce these wines have some things very much in common, like sugar level.  But their pH and acidity levels differ dramatically.  Because our Riesling grapes tend to have a moderate pH and low acidity, we can produce a dry or semi-dry wine from them.  Why is this?  Because a dry wine that is high in acidity will taste sour.  Wines that are high in acidity need some residual sugar for balance.  A crisp finish is nice in a drier wine, but a tart, sour finish is not.  Since our Riesling tends to have low acidity, we are comfortable keeping this wine on the drier side.

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The grapes for Summer White, however, tend to have much higher acidity and very low pH.  The grapes varieties in Summer White are Brianna and Frontenac Gris, both grown right here at River Bend.  Our cool climate produces grapes with higher acidity than say, grapes from the Napa Valley.  It is because of this that wines made from cool climate grapes are often sweeter.  The higher acidity must be balanced with residual sugar so the wine is not too tart but has a pleasant, fruity finish.  The challenge...and the just how sweet is perfectly sweet for a given amount of acidity.  Too much residual sugar is just as bad as too little, making the wine flat or cloying.  We strive for a moderate level of sweetness that still leaves a clean finish on the palette.

For me, this is the tricky part, and we make this decision based solely on taste (art) and not on numbers (science).  It sounds pretty fun to taste wine all day to get the sweetness level just right, doesn't it?  We actually agonize over this process, because we want all of our wines to be approachable and balanced.  At the end of the day, the palette of our customer is the final judge on whether or not we hit our mark.  

Once we finish up in the wine lab, we'll be heading back outside to check on the vineyard.  Bud break has occurred, and we are about to see tiny little flowers and grape clusters emerging.  Exciting!  Do stay tuned.



Spring in the Vineyard - Rainy Days and Mondays Don't Get Me Down

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Tasks in the vineyard vary considerably from one season to the next.  Spring is a two month frenzy, summer is longer and more evenly paced, and fall is a mad dash to the finish.  As we find ourselves in mid-May, we are thankful to be putting a wrap on spring with the vineyard looking healthy going into summer.  Despite a late spring snowstorm and some recent days of rain, the pruning, mowing and first round of in-ground fertility are complete.  As I look out on a gloomy, rainy day, I remind myself that as a farmer, rain is pretty much always a good thing.  I think Luke Bryan mentions that in a country song.


Vineyards are not always thought of as farms.  Maybe that's because in some geographic areas...ours included...they are just not very common.  But even though vineyards are rarely referred to as grape farms, that is truly what they are.  And while it might sound romantic to call "a person who cultivates grapes for a living" a vigneron (vin'-yer-on), that person is a farmer.  And as a farmer, he (or she) is at the mercy of Mother Nature 24/7.  The day of the week does not matter when it comes to weed control, and the hour of the day does not matter when it comes time to spray.  Mother Nature sets the schedule and expects you to punch in on time.  If you don't, she is a brutal mistress.  But if I had to choose between being a grape farmer and any of my previous careers, of which there were several, I'd take farming hands down, every time.  I am more fit than I was in my twenties, and I sleep like a well fed baby.  Fresh air and sunshine does a body good, and so does hard, physical labor.  So when Monday rolls around, I no longer get the blues because its just another day on the farm.

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As we move into early summer in the vineyard, we turn our attention to bud break, and we anxiously watch the weather.  At this point in their development, grape buds are very tender, and a low temperature of 30 degrees for just a few hours can devastate the entire season's crop.  With the full moon at the very end of May, we are crossing our fingers that the coldest mornings are behind us.  With forecasted highs in the 70's and 80's on the near horizon, it won't be long before buds become flowers.  And flowers become grapes.  And grapes become wine.  Ain't Mother Nature grand?

Join us again next week as we head inside the winery to put the finishing touches on two white wines releasing soon.  We'll talk about how they are similar, how they are different, and in the wine lab, whether art or science ultimately wins the day.



The Vineyard at River Bend - A Brief History

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Over the past several years, people have often asked what made Al and I want to start a vineyard in Wisconsin.  Back in 2004, when this crazy idea took hold, northern vineyards were very uncommon, and most wineries in the Upper Midwest were producing wine made from fruit other than grapes.  Apples, cherries, and raspberries...these were the fruits traditionally grown in the area and hence the fruit from which wines were made.  But in the late 1990's and early 2000's, the University of Minnesota's fruit breeding program began releasing hybrid wine grapes...grapes with part of their heritage right here in the north country, but another part rooted in the soils of California and Western Europe.  It was this program that literally changed the landscape in the Midwest, allowing wine grapes to be planted in a climate where it was unheard of until that time.

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So back in 2004, Al and I were working in the Twin Cities, Al as a custom cabinet maker and I as a computer programmer.  The national retailer I worked for was headed for bankruptcy, and after a lot of soul searching, we decided when I got laid off, we were leaving the city for a more rural we envisioned would include a vineyard.  We began scouting possible areas and quickly felt a connection to Chippewa Falls.  We purchased a 16 acre parcel of farm land and waited for my lay off.  It took two years, but when I finally lost my job in 2006, we packed up and moved into a travel trailer that we dropped in the middle of that 16 acre field...the field that would one day become River Bend Vineyard.

By this time, the University of Minnesota had released four wine grape varieties, all of which we would ultimately plant.  Frontenac was the first, released in 1996 and the most cold hardy variety to date.  Then came LaCrescent, Frontenac Gris and Marquette.  Just recently, a new variety called Itasca has become available, though we are letting other grape growers experiment with that one.  Over four years we would plant more than four thousand vines...and later remove a thousand of them.  But that is a story for another day.


The challenges of operating a vineyard in Wisconsin have been many.  Having not been farmers prior, the learning curve was steep.  We had to figure out what fertility program was best, what pests would need to be dealt with, what you could do to mitigate late spring frost.  The work was physically demanding and seemingly endless.  But after several years, when that first harvest came and we produced wine from our very own, just wow.

Fast forward to today.  We have now been in the vineyard business for twelve years, the wine business for ten, and the distillery business for two.  We honestly had no idea what we were getting into back at the start...which is probably a very good thing.  But today, when we watch our guests relaxing on the River Bend lawn, enjoying a glass of wine made from grapes grown right in front of them, that is an amazing reward.

To all of you, we lift our glass...Cheers!


Spring in the Vineyard - Pruning and Raking and Mowing, Oh My!

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So the snow is FINALLY gone, and we are back out in the vineyard.  Until just recently, the spring of 2018 has felt more like winter, with over a foot of snow falling on April 15th.  What that means to a vineyard manager is the window of opportunity before the vines break dormancy is shorter than normal, but the list of tasks that must be completed is just as long.

Pruning is the most time-intensive spring vineyard task, and it takes us a strong six weeks to complete.  Our goal is to finish pruning our 3,000 vines by the end of April, and despite the late snow storm, we have managed to get it done.  We must give a huge shout-out and thank you to our good friend Tim who showed up on his days off to prune in pretty much any weather imaginable...we truly appreciate the help!


So now there are literally thousands of pruned canes lying around on the ground that must be cleaned up.  Enter the flail mower...a beast of a machine that without hesitation will grind up wood with a two inch diameter.  The flail mower is mounted on the back of our tractor and runs off the PTO (power take off), chewing up and spitting out anything in its wake.  It may take three or four passes per row, but canes as long as six feet have now been reduced almost to powder.  The flail mower also mows the grass while it is grinding up the sticks, so two jobs get done at the same time.  The only thing the flail mower can't get to is the pruned wood that has fallen in the dirt between the plants.  Enter Al...also a beast, who rakes out every row by hand to move all remaining debris into the path of the flail mower.  The rake out is key to managing any disease that may have over-wintered on the vineyard floor.  Once the rake out is complete and the pruned canes have been pulverized, a copper spray is applied while the vines are still dormant to ensure a clean start to the growing season.

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By now the days are getting longer, the nights slightly warmer, and the vines are beginning to stir.  While our vineyard generally does not see buds opening until late-May, the first sign of breaking dormancy is what we call the sap run.  Similar to what happens in maple trees in the spring, the liquid inside the vine begins to move up, and it runs out the pruned ends of the canes.  This is a sign of a healthy vine, and it means winter is finally (hopefully) behind us. we come!

Join us again next week as we take a step back in time to discuss what made us want to start a vineyard in Wisconsin in the first place, and how a program at the University of Minnesota made it all possible.



In the Distillery - Bourbon Distillation

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So last week, we cooked up a batch of Bourbon Whiskey, and now that fermentation is complete, we can run it through the distillation process.  The purpose of distillation is to separate and concentrate the ethanol produced during fermentation. So how does this work?

Distillation is the process by which a liquid is heated, becomes a vapor, and is condensed back into a liquid.  The key to separating ethanol from other components in our freshly fermented grain mash, now called the wash, is temperature.  Ethanol boils at 173 degrees Fahrenheit.  Water boils know this one...212 degrees Fahrenheit.  If you are able to heat a liquid containing both water and ethanol to 173 degrees but not 212 degrees, you can boil off the ethanol and leave the water behind.  That is distillation theory in a nutshell.

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But our Bourbon wash has a lot more in it than just ethanol and water, and it is here where you begin to find the "craft" in craft distilling.  When we distill a Bourbon wash, we want to keep certain components and eliminate other components.  Ethanol is the most important component we keep.  But when making Bourbon, we also want flavor.  To retain flavor, we distill our Bourbon wash to approximately 60% ethanol.  For comparison, vodka is distilled to 95% ethanol.  Vodka is considered a neutral spirit and should have very little aroma or flavor.  Bourbon Whiskey, on the other hand, should have richness and flavor, and controlling ethanol content also retains flavor.  The column on our whiskey still has four windows...which is basically the same as saying our whiskey is four times distilled.  A vodka column may have as many as thirteen windows.  More windows, less flavor.  Fewer windows, more flavor.

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Once the distillation process is complete, our Bourbon will be laid down to age in new 15-gallon American oak barrels.  Did you know that the distillation process always produces crystal clear liquid?  The deep, rich color of finished Bourbon is all created in the barrel.  Barrel aging also adds complexity, and it is during aging that rich components like caramel, mocha and vanilla are developed.  How that occurs is a topic for another day!

Join us again next week as we head back outside to see how this snowy spring has affected progress in the vineyard.  With green grass FINALLY making an appearance again, we are hard at work prepping the vines for the upcoming growing season.



In the Distillery - Cooking Up a Batch of Bourbon

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Did you know that all Bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is Bourbon?  What??  Can you run that by me again, please?

Bourbon is a uniquely American word and product and is officially labeled as Bourbon Whiskey.  But what makes Bourbon, well...Bourbon?  And how does it differ from other types of whiskey?  There are two main criteria.  First, Bourbon must be made from at least 51% corn, whereas whiskey in general can be made from any type of grain...rye, corn, wheat, millet.  If it's made from grain, you can call it whiskey.  But if you want to call it Bourbon, your mash must be at least 51% corn.  The second criteria is how it is aged.  All Bourbon must be aged in a NEW oak barrel, whereas a general whiskey product can be aged in a new or used barrel.  There is no time requirement for the aging of Bourbon, just that the aging occurs in a brand new barrel.


So how do you turn corn into Bourbon?  That's a great question.  Magic!  Just kidding.  It's actually science and begins with the oh-so-scientific processes of liquefaction and saccharification.  These are fancy terms that mean taking a complex this case starch...and converting it into its monosaccharide components, basically sugar.  These steps are required when making spirits like Bourbon, but not when making wine.  Any why is this?  Because the raw materials used in wine making...grapes...have sugar readily available to use for fermentation, which is the conversion of sugar into ethanol.  To conduct a grain fermentation, we must first "crack" the starch to get at the sugar.

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So how do we crack the starch?  First we mill the raw grain, which we do right here in the distillery with a machine called a hammermill.  Once we have milled grain, which has a flour-like consistency, we add it to heated water to produce the mash.  This step is the liquefaction and is conducted at a precise temperature and pH with the addition of certain enzymes.  Once liquefaction is complete, the saccharification process begins by way of different enzymes added to the mash at a (different) precise temperature and pH.  Now we have sugar available, which we can ferment into ethanol by the addition of yeast.  Wow...that's a whole lot of science!

Once the yeast has been added, our grain mash will ferment away for five or six days, producing a low level of ethanol.  But don't spirits have a high level of ethanol?  Indeed they do.  We'll talk about that next week when our fermentation is complete, and our Bourbon mash enters the process of distillation.  Do stay tuned!



Spring in the Wine Cellar - Bottling


Robert Louis Stevenson is best known for his beloved adventure novel Treasure Island, but he also penned one of my favorite quotes, “Wine is bottled poetry.”  As an author, he likely did not bottle much wine, however, and the task itself is not that poetic.  It is, however, the task that gets our wine into your hands, so off to the bottling line we go!


Here at River Bend, we fire up the bottling line approximately fifteen times a year starting in the spring.  Reds that have aged for the past twelve to twenty-four months are ready, as are the wines from last year’s harvest that do not benefit from extended aging.

Set-up of the system falls into Al’s hands, and on bottling day he is in the winery by 6:30 a.m.  It takes four hours to completely prep the system, which involves attaching inert gas cylinders and final filters, cleaning and sanitizing the pump and bottler, and testing each stage of the line, of which there are several.


Now we are ready to begin!  After being loaded on a conveyor, each empty wine bottle is inverted and blown out with nitrogen.  After being turned back upright, each bottle is purged a second time to displace any air (the enemy of wine).  After the nitrogen purge, the bottle advances to the filling carousel.  After filling, each bottle passes under the leveler, which ensures every one is filled to exactly the same height.  From here, the bottle is vacuumed and corked and makes its way to the finish carousel from where it is loaded into a case.  Sixty cases are loaded onto a pallet and are sent off to the warehouse to await labeling.  With three staff members working the line, we can bottle approximately 250 gallons per hour.  Once we are done, the whole system is cleaned again.  Ten hours later (half of which were spent prepping or cleaning), we have approximately 5,000 bottles of finished wine.  Whew…now it’s time to relax with one! 

So now that we have some wine in the bottle, it’s time to make spirits.  Next week we’ll be checking in with Al in the distillery as he cooks up a batch of Bourbon whiskey.  If you are a Bourbon fan, you won’t want to miss it.



Spring in the Wine Cellar - Prepping Reds for Bottling

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Grapes harvested in the fall go through many stages of processing before becoming finished wine.  Fermentation is complete a few weeks after harvest, but several additional processing steps are needed before a wine is either laid down in barrels to age or made ready to bottle.

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Spring is when we sample our aged red wines to determine if they are ready to be bottled.  Our reds are stored for up to twenty-four months in either French or American oak barrels, and each barrel that is a candidate for bottling is sampled individually to determine its readiness.  We recently sampled fifteen barrels in preparation to blend two wines...River Bend Blend and Summer Red.  As luck would have it, we found a stand out barrel that will become a Reserve wine later this year...exciting!  More on that in another post…


Once we have determined which barrels are ready, the wine is transferred to stainless steel tanks for the next stage of processing.  Filtration is a crucial step in winemaking, and our wines go through five filtrations before reaching the bottling line.  Filtration to this level of polish ensures both quality and longevity, allowing our red wines to age gracefully in the bottle for several years.

Interested in learning more?  Next week we will be on the bottling line, so stay tuned.