Summer days beg us to get outside and enjoy them. And what better way to experience the buy-local movement a bit differently than by visiting local wineries? These uncomplicated day trips make excellent summer getaways - and summer is the best time to get in touch with the land that grows your favorite local wines. If you don't have a favorite, here's the perfect opportunity to find one. Sample the wines at the source, and see for yourself the very vines that grew the grapes.
Interest in winemaking and wine drinking exploded about five years ago. People realized they could find good wines under $10 and that wine wasn't just for the elite. Nationwide, wine consumption recently surpassed that of beer. And even beer-stronghold Wisconsin now boasts over 30 wineries.
Mary Spurgeon of Spurgeon Vineyards & Winery in Highland notes the recent boom brings local wines and wineries to the forefront. "People are going to the source," she says. "They want to get to know the people and the families behind the wines. They want to be close to the land and know how the wineries operate." People don't want what everyone else can get, she said, which encourages people to search locally.
Madison is lucky to have a handful of wineries within a short drive. Often, you can plan a route to visit two or three in one day. You will learn that the golden nugget of truth for most Wisconsin winemakers is that their business started out as a harmless hobby - a Christmas gift run amok.
The best part is that winemakers are more than willing to share everything they know about their obsessions-turned-businesses.
Burr Oak Winery
N5873 Hwy. 12 & 16, New Lisbon.
Head half an hour north of Wisconsin Dells to Burr Oak Winery in New Lisbon. Named after the second-largest oak tree in the state, Steve and Judy Kennedy's winery boasts nine acres of grapes, all planted by Steve. The quiet rural setting of Burr Oak is a perfect summer diversion for a busy mind. The winery sits on a pleasantly simple country road, and the Kennedys are the epitome of friendly, down-to-earth people looking to share their wines.
In 1993, Steve noticed a neighbor pulling dandelions for wine. Curiosity got the best of him, so he dug out his grandfather's dandelion wine recipe. He gleaned knowledge and prunings from Elmer Swenson, the godfather of Midwest grape growing.
At Burr Oak, grapes travel a few hundred feet from picking to crushing to bottling. You can retrace the steps of your Baco Noir or Castle Rock Red from grape to glass. Tours and tasting are free. Enjoy viewing three 150-year-plus stained-glass windows that hail from a local church predating statehood.
The Kennedys debunk the myth that wine is just for the upper classes. If you don't know dry from sweet or Vidal Blanc from Marechal Boch, don't worry.
"Play with it," says Judy. "You don't have to know everything about wine. Taste it, enjoy it, and it's yours. You don't have to pass some test."
The winery is open Wed.-Sun. 11 a.m.-5 p.m., and any time by appointment. An added perk to Burr Oak is an art gallery 20 steps away. The Hickory Hill Arts promotes Juneau County artists with original work, prints, notecards and gifts for sale.
Mason Creek Winery
N47 W28270 Lyndale Rd., Pewaukee.
N5817 Hillside Dr., Concord.
You can take in two wineries in one trip if you head east. Mason Creek Winery in Pewaukee features a 100-year-old barn dubbed Old Lynndale Farm. The area's rolling hills and green fields make this our state's mini-version of California's laid-back Sonoma Valley.
"We wanted to take out the pretentiousness of wine," says proprietor Bonnie Gomon. "People should buy wine to enjoy it."
The operation grew out of a wine-making kit Bonnie gave husband Kyle for Christmas in 1994. He's since won 14 international medals for his wines.
Kyle doesn't grow grapes, opting to bring in juice from New York, California and Washington; bottling takes place year-round. A popular cranberry wine sells out within weeks each fall.
Sample bestseller Gomon's Gold, a semi-dry white, and newcomer '47 Pick-Up, a dry red blend, while strolling the grounds of the old farmstead. Live music is popular on weekends. Tastings are free; tours are $2, and the winery is open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. The tasting room is nestled next to Molly's Gluten-Free Bakery and Old Lynndale Farm, also the name of a home furnishing store specializing in early-American-style décor.
A picturesque country drive straight from a Grandma Moses painting brings you to Vetro Winery nestled in Concord, just east of Johnson Creek. Hillside Drive is surrounded with manicured country lawns and grazing horses. Sample fruit and grape wines while waiting for sandhill cranes to visit the backyard spring-fed pond.
Vetro's winemaking has roots in Sicily. Bill Vetrano watched grandpa Michael and father Joseph make wine for family dinners. He and wife LaVerne opened Vetro four years ago. Some grapes travel to the winery from Italy, while others are grown on-site. Most fruit comes from Jefferson County, including strawberries for Strawberry Wine, a semi-sweet red, and blueberries for the Blueberry Wine, a dry dark red. Tours are $2, with $1 donated to the Down Syndrome Association of Wisconsin. Tastings are free. Vetro is open Tues.-Fri. and Sun. 10 a.m.-6 p.m. and Sat. 10 a.m.- 4 p.m. and closed on holidays.
1072 288th Ave., Burlington.
Apple Barn Orchard & Winery
W6384 Sugar Creek Rd., Elkhorn.
Journey southeast of Madison and visit AEppleTreow Winery (pronounced Apple True), near Lake Geneva. Hard cider was pushed from family tables - and memory - during Prohibition. (In fact, orchards were often burned during the era.) Cidermakers Charles and Milissa McGonegal are on a mission to bring cider back to the American palate.
Heirloom apples, with more powerful tastes and unusual colors and textures, are the start for many of AEppelTreow's ciders. The apples are grown at Brightonwoods Orchard, where the winery also resides.
"I encourage people to try the ciders and the heirloom apples," says Charles McGonegal. AEppleTreow also makes pear, strawberry and cranberry ciders, wild cherry port and more. Sample the Songbird Draft Ciders, including Barn Swallow Cider and Sparrow Spiced Cider.
"We have a small, transparent operation," says Charles McGonegal. Sample ciders, stroll the orchards and watch the family produce the ciders. Spend some time nestled in the shade of the apple trees. The fruit won't be ripe yet, but one of the best parts about summer is learning yet again that food doesn't just appear in the grocery store. Tours and small samplings are free, and full samplings are $5. AEppleTreow is open Saturdays in summer and Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays in late August, just as apples ripen.
In nearby Elkhorn, Apple Barn Orchard & Winery is an orchard and farm geared to families. Pick your own strawberries, apples and pumpkins in season. Fruit wines are new, and batches are small, so call ahead for current offerings and tasting opportunities. Apple Barn's 40-acre orchard overlooks the Turtle Valley Wildlife Area, a protected wetland habitat.
Spurgeon Vineyards & Winery
5 miles west of Highland on County Hwy. Q, Highland.
30940 Oak Ridge Dr., Richland Center.
Head west from Madison to unglaciated territory and enjoy stunning natural views with your wine. Celebrating 25 years, Spurgeon Vineyards & Winery touts a down-to-earth approach to winemaking.
"Our philosophy is that people can drink our wines every day, not just for special occasions," says Mary Spurgeon. The family-run winery produces grapes and fruit wines and has been growing grapes since 1978.
The winery is in a deep green valley, and the vines themselves are perched on a hill, a bit of a hike. It takes 20 minutes to make your way to the top, so be smart about your shoes and your efforts will be rewarded with a rare view. Tours are $3 at noon each day or anytime by appointment and cover the entire winemaking process, from pruning and caring for vines to crushing and fermenting fruit to bottling the wine. Tastings are free, and 18 wines are available. The Ruby Lady, a sweet red, is the flagship wine. Spurgeon will throw a wine- and cheese-tasting extravaganza June 16 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. with hayrides, 30 specialty cheeses and buffalo burgers.
Weggy Winery, a mere 15 miles away from the Oak Ridge vineyard, sits in an old dairy barn. The cows are gone, replaced by modern winemaking equipment. Weggy's daily tours are unique - a 24-person tram winds through 80 acres along the Lower Wisconsin River Valley and 14 acres of vines. The tram only runs weekends and holidays. Tickets are $6.50. Tastings are free and include Oakey Red, proprietor's choice, aged in American oak barrels.
New Glarus Primrose Winery
226 Second St., New Glarus. 608-527-5053
This small winery doesn't offer tours yet but makes up for it with free tastings, mom-and-pop charm and superior customer service. Primrose offers a reward for helping with a summertime task. During rhubarb season in early summer, harvest your fresh rhubarb and bring 15 pounds or more (a big brown paper bag full) to the winery to earn a free bottle of the coveted wine once it's ready. The winery will be moving this summer, so call before you go.
7876 State Rd. 188, Prairie du Sac.
Wollersheim, the largest local winery, celebrates 35 years of winemaking and triumphs with more recent awards for the popular Prairie Fumé. Winemaker Philippe Coquard hails from France's Beaujolais region. Hourly tours, $3.50, focus on education. Find out about Wollersheim's long history and see the cave overlooking the winery used as the first wine cellar. Learn the fermentation process, tour the limestone aging cellar, and tiptoe around the aging barrels. Finish off with tips on wine tasting and views of the Wisconsin River. Open daily, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Cedar Creek Winery
N70 W6340 Bridge Rd., Cedarburg.
Cedar Creek shares Wollersheim's winemaker and is owned by the Wollersheim family, but its wines and history are unique. The winery's home is a restored 1860s woolen mill, once powered by Cedar Creek. Scheduled tours cost $3; they include the history of the winery and mill, the underground limestone cellars, and a wine tasting. Open Mon.-Sat. 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
Botham Vineyards & Winery
8180 Langberry Rd., Barneveld.
Botham is surrounded by 800 acres of conservancy land in Iowa County. Tours are for groups of 15 or more, cost $3 and require two weeks' notice. Tastings take place in a restored historic barn, and picnic lunches are welcome for a summer escape from the city. Summer tasting room hours are Wed.-Sun. 10 a.m.5 p.m.
The Wisconsin Winery Association's Web site provides information about 34 statewide member wineries, including maps, directions and Web site links. The association also hosts the Wisconsin State Fair Wine Garden every August. Visit www.wiswine.com to learn more.