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WisBusiness: Wisconsin winery finds switch from tobacco paying off

By Brian E. Clark

VIROQUA, Vernon County – It’s grape harvest time all over the country, including western Wisconsin.

For Bob Starks and his business partner Loren Cade, who also serves as winemaker for Vernon Vineyards, that means walking the rows in their vineyards with friends and neighbors, hand-cutting clusters of grapes for crushing and making wine.

Starks, who switched from tobacco to grapes about seven years ago, says he never planned to get into the wine-making business. He grows about 10 acres of grapes, while Cade has another two-and-one half acres.

This year, they figure they will produce about 20,000 bottles of both red and white wines, with the sweeter wines the most popular.  They also make dry varieties, though not a Chardonnay-style white.   He said their enterprise is somewhat profitable, but only because the pair have no debt.  They sell their wines at the winery and in some selected shops.

“The idea for growing wine grapes came from the (Vernon County) agricultural agent as an alternative crop because there was quite a bit of tobacco grown up here, but it was dwindling,” said Starks, a Dane County native who grew up on a farm north of Sun Prairie.

“A lot of people were looking for a second, small crop that they could do if they farmed or even worked off the farm,” added Starks, who is a retired farm equipment and fertilizer salesman.

Initially, Starks did not plan on running Vernon winery as a second career.  

“It was just supposed to be a part-time thing,” he said, chuckling. “But we had more grapes than the cooperative winery we’d bought in on – Northern Vineyards in Stillwater, Minn. – could take, though we are still shipping most of our grapes up there.”

Nearly all of the grapes they produce are cold-hardy varieties from the University of Minnesota. Many are Swenson varieties, created by the late Elmer Swenson, a St. Croix County viticulturist and apple grower.

Starks said grapes can be grown in Vernon County because it gets hot enough in the summer and because there is enough air movement from deep valleys to limit frost in the spring.  He expects to harvest as much as 34 tons of grapes from his vineyard this fall.

But he said it is nothing like the Napa or Sonoma valleys in California, where summers are longer, the winters are quite mild and some of the nations premier wine grapes are produced.

“It’s totally different out there,” he said, with a twinge of jealousy in his voice.

Stark’s vineyards are above the picturesque North Fork of the Bad Axe River valley. He is getting grapes from nearly all of his vines, most of which were planted about five years ago.

But he recently took out an acre of Pinot Noir grapes – made famous in the movie “Sideways” – because they were not hearty enough to overwinter, which meant he had to to bury them in the late fall to protect them from freezing.  

“We got the the grapes nice and ripe and they produced nice fruit, but it wasn’t worth all the work,” he said, noting that he may try again, but plant them against a wall that would retain heat.

Starks said the grapes are crushed and the wines produced in the basement of the winery off Dahl Road, near Viroqua.

“We do everything here, it’s all Vernon County and they are all Wisconsin grapes,” he said.

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