Thursday, August 9, 2012

Fisher King Winery

Wisconsin will always be strongly associated with beer.  But last week MTC visited the other side of the coin: wine.  We drove the easy 30 minutes down to Mt. Horeb to visit the up-and-coming Fisher King Winery.  We sat down for a glass with owner/winemaker Alwyn Fitzgerald ('Fitz' to his friends) to discuss Wisconsin's growing wine culture and his passion for the art.

More Than Curds: [Being served the Gentle Sin] This is really good! It’s not too sweet. I usually find Wisconsin wines to be too sweet but this one is really nice.
Alwyn Fitzgerald: Wisconsin is no stranger to the overly sweet wines. They’re definitely out there, you can find them by just turning sideways, so we try not to have our wines overly sweet. One of my guiding principles. I’m a dry red person by desire and passion and it’s what I’ve always really liked and migrated towards. Maybe it’s because when I was little, in my German household, we would have sweet wines and I really…maybe that’s what turned me off to sweet wines.

Yes please!
MTC: Why did you choose to open up shop in Wisconsin instead of, say, California?
AF: Because I live here! I don’t live in California, I don’t want to move. My kids are in the school system here. Even above and beyond that, I got to tell you something—if you open up a winery in California you’re one of a million other wineries. You open up a winery in Wisconsin and it’s unique. We’re still at the earlier stage of the growth curve, it’s not a saturated market. Now granted, in the last 20 years we’ve grown from a handful of wineries to about 70 or 80 [MTC editors note: that’s more than breweries!].

MTC: How many employees do you have?
AF: Well I’m the only fulltime employee but I do have a guy who helps me back here part time, Charlie. And then I have a staff of part timers that work up front. But I have an ad out right now for more part time wine servers—I want a bigger pool of wine servers. We have private events, we have live music on Fridays, all local musicians.  It’s a variety, too. This past Friday we had a string quartet, but usually it’s young
Madisonian artists playing their own original songs. We also have volunteers. Last year in August we bottled 14,000 bottles just doing it with volunteers. They’re motivated! We put the word out all the time—I’ll send out an email saying that we’ll be bottling next Thursday and we’ll be all set up for our bottling run. They love it, people love it! Maybe because it is out of the ordinary, but people have a blast.

Tasting Room on a quiet Sunday afternoon.

MTC: Let’s try the White Whisper.
AF: That sounds like a good idea. It’s made from Frontenac Gris. I had a guy from Midwest Wine Press get a hold of me and he wants to do a story on us. A person that works at Scott Labs, who has yeasts and things like that for wine and beer industry out in California, started asking questions about Wisconsin wines. See, Frontenac Gris is a new hybrid grape that is actually starting to get a little notoriety, there’s a little bit of buzz going on about it. People are trying to find wines made from Frontenac Gris because it’s one of the most recent hybrids introduced.  It was planted only four or five years ago, it’s just now bearing grapes, but there’s only a few wineries making wine from Frontenac Gris. Our White Whisper is Frontenac Gris.

MTC: Are you aiming to use all Midwestern grapes? Or are you going to source wine for whatever kind of wine you’re trying to make?
AF: Well, I want to make wine that sells. That’s kind of important. There are some people that are sort of purists or they have these attitudes about it and everything when it comes to different parts of the winemaking process.  If it tastes good, it is good. That’s what’s driving me.

MTC: How much of the final product is a reflection of where the grapes came from and how much is your influence?
AF: I don’t know, I guess it’s both. You’ll get different answers depending on who you talk to. Let’s put it this way: if you’re a lousy winemaker it’s all going to come from your hand. Basically the winemakers role has been described as being the person who facilitates the grape turning into the wine without getting in the way. But then again it’s a bit more than that because you can steer what happens. You can bring out more floral esters, you can do different things to the wine that bring out characteristics in it. The main thing in the winemaker’s job is to understand the principles as best as possible—you’re not following a recipe. What you do is you following winemaking principles throughout the process—from the beginning to the middle to the end—and if you’re following good practices you’ll get good wine.

MTC: How about a bit of the Romantic Rogue?
AF: Yeah, let’s switch over to reds—over to the dark side. A blend of Marechal Foch, a Wisconsin grape, and Norton, which is the state grape of Missouri. They have a big industry down there in Missouri. The Norton we had in a bit of oak and that’s the part of the wine, when you taste it, is the oaky part, especially in the finish. The Foch, we kind of lightened it up and then we made sure that it came in with just a little bit of residual sugar for some sweetness at the very end. And that is so we could have at least one of our wines that could balance the dryness of the oak with the sweetness. There is some berry in there, but I want to have at least one of our reds be not dry. I didn’t want a sweet red, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it (maybe next year, I don’t know), but we’ve had people asking for it, but in my tip-of-a-hat to that, I’ve made a semi-dry red.

Fitz (right) talks to a group of cyclists passing through town.
MTC: We overheard you talking to that other group about the bike trails. What’s the deal?
AF: The bike trail, it’s right there [Fitz points out the window]. We’re right here in town and the bike trail goes right though town, the Military Ridge Trail. I’ve been touch with the folks at the DNR and they’re really struggling—like, all departments because of budget cuts and staff hiring freezes and letting people go—they have all these miles of trails that they have to maintain, not to mention make improvements on. So I was thinking, geez, well maybe what I should do, because it goes right through town, why not create a program where we have this little club. We’re not making any money on it, but we don’t want to lose too much money—but we have this little club where they can come in and give us $10, we will give them one of our $8 wine glasses, and then we donate $5 to the DNR, earmarked specifically to the Military Ridge bike trail maintenance. And then we give them a membership card, it lasts a year, and every time they come in after that, when they order a glass of wine, we donate a dollar right off the top to the DNR. That’s what we’re trying to do. We’ve sold a bunch of them, but I’m still trying to get the word out. I can’t really spend money trying to advertise it. But I’m just trying to support this trail thing here.

Fermenter tanks built in Wisconsin by Darlington Dairy Supply
MTC: When did you first start winemaking? I know you’ve been doing this as a hobby for awhile.
AF: I’ve been making wine since high school. But I don’t talk that one up to my teenaged daughter! I’d make wine and my parents were ok with it, they were European, you know ‘It’s fine as long as you don’t get carried away.’ But I’d make wine and back then the production standards aren’t what they are today. I
mean—it was high school. Some of the wine would come out really good (or, I guess, ok) and some of the wine wouldn’t come out very good at all. Back then you really didn’t know what you were doing. I remember in high school, each kid had to do a presentation during a homeroom period during the year on a hobby of theirs, so I did winemaking. So I had my good friend Bob, who was really into photography, take all these pictures of me making wine in the basement, holding up campden tablets. We did this whole slide presentation and I brought it in. And I gotta tell ya, everybody loved it. I spent an hour and the homeroom teacher was just smiling, and she was laughing, and she was clapping, and at the very end she said the only thing that she regretted was that I didn’t have samples to hand out to everybody! So yeah, I’ve been making wine since then, and now I have a biology degree, so I understand the fermentation process and I’m not put off by the chemistry. I got a business degree and some business experience and so I was mostly into marketing and it seemed like a good fit. I know the biology of it, I’ve had an interest in it since I was little, I’ve been taking other courses, I got involved in UC Davis certificate program in wine production, which has it’s limitations because they focus on California grapes, but I got involved in the program in Michigan State and I spent time with this unbelievable wine guru, Alan Dillard, in southern Illinois. Unbelievalbe guy, I can’t believe how much time of his I got. I had almost an entire week—8 to 10 hours a day with the guy—and I got more information out of that one week with him that all that other stuff combined, just about. So, you spend some time with winemakers, you spend some time with Philippe [Coquard, of Wollersheim Winery] and you learn and absorb and you basically get the principles down about what you should be doing. And it’s still a learning process! I still make mistakes. I’ve going from non-commercial to commercial. The principles are the same, the fermentation is the same but you have to deal with volume management. There’s the ramping up and there’s different pieces of equipment. But it’s like anything else in life. You never, never, never stop learning.

Fresh wine

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