The Wisconsin Winery Association claims that the American wine industry was born in the rich soil of the Badger State. Agoston Haraszthy, a Hungarian immigrant planted a vineyard and established the first winery in the 1840s on the estate that is now the Wollersheim Winery near Sauk City. He later moved to California where he established vineyards in the famous Sonoma wine area. In the same timeframe, many European immigrants settled in Green County and brought their grape growing and winemaking skills with them, too. If they carried grape cuttings with them from the old country, it’s likely they did not survive Wisconsin harsh winters.
However, through the efforts of Osceola, WI native Elmer Swenson, we and all residents of the upper Midwest can enjoy growing grapes that survive and thrive in our climate. Elmer was born in 1913 and his in grapes came from his grandfather, a Swedish immigrant, from whom he inherited the family farm. He began planting and experimenting with developing new grape varieties in 1943 while working as a full-time dairy farmer. In 1969 he was hired as a gardener at the University of Minnesota. Through this relationship, Elmer and the University developed and released about 20 cold hardy grape varieties since 1977. The University has continued its research and release of new varieties since Elmer’s death in 2004.
Whether you are interested in growing grapes to continue a family tradition or start one of your own as an educational and enjoyable hobby, it is important to plan ahead.
Site selection and preparation
Consider location carefully because once planted grapes are difficult to move. Choose a sunny space in your yard with a southern exposure and a gentle slope, if available. Avoid low spots in your yard as they will collect cold air and increase the risk for frost damage or winter kill. Also avoid the top of a hill, unless a windbreak is available to avoid potential wind damage. If the slope of your yard is steep, picture a north-south orientation so that the grapes receive the most sun exposure.
Grapes grow well in all but the rockiest or heaviest clay soils and do best in sandy or gravelly loam. Good drainage is important because grapes do not like “wet feet.”
Explore the library or visit some vineyards and learn more about the types of trellis systems to support grapevines. Some types include the single cordon which is a simple post and wire on which to train the vines. Another system is called the umbrella kniffin, which supports a single trunk and vines along two wires at 3 and 6 feet above the soil. Kill perennial weeds such as quack grass in the space you choose in the year before planting. Plan for straight rows spacing the grapevines 12-14 feet apart. If you consider planting more than a few vines in multiple row, plan for 9 feet between rows. Spacing can be reduced if your backyard is small.
Choosing a cultivar/variety
A mature grapevine may yield 8-12 pounds of grapes and 11-12 pounds of grapes will produce a gallon of finished wine. While grapevines may blossom the first year after planting, you should expect your first harvest in 3 – 4 years. Many grape varieties are available, but few are consistently productive in our Wisconsin climate so consider the Elmer Swenson collection when choosing a variety to suit your preferences and needs. Purchase potted vines or bare root plantings from a reputable nursery.
Some Elmer Swenson wine grape varieties include:
Frontenac – a disease resistant vine that produces small, black berries suitable for making rose, red and port wine.
Marquette – a vine that is a grandson of Frontenac and cousin to Pinot Noir. These vines are in high demand due to grapes with high sugar content and low acidity.
La Crescent – the white wine made from La Crescent grapes is similar in taste to Riesling. These vines a somewhat less disease resistant but have survived -30+ degree winters.
Prairie Star – is another white grape most suitable for blending and is more susceptible to wind damage in early spring than other varieties.
Nurseries specializing in wine grapes for the Mid-West will be happy to tell you about other varieties and their characteristics.
For a comprehensive overview of planting and vine management techniques, consider ordering this publication available from Cooperative Extension Publishing: A1656 Growing Grapes in Wisconsin
For an all-inclusive book for growing grapes and making wines choose: From Vines to Wines, by Jeff Cox.
For more information about the expanding Wisconsin wine industry visit this website: http://wiswine.com/history