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.
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 lifestyle...one 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 grapes...wow, 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!