Wisconsin has a strong locavorist tradition. A history of rural self reliance complimented by progressive, urban support of regional markets means opportunities galore for consumers with the local-regional bent. My family and I are locavores when it makes sense. But we draw the line with wine. Here's why.
We prefer wines made from grapes to those from other fruits --
Midwest wineries produce a huge array of bottlings. Wisconsin's Wineries Association currently lists over sixty wineries in business; in neighboring Minnesota, the state's Grape Grower's Association touts more than forty producers.
To a considerable degree, Midwest wines are from fruits such as cherries, blackberries, apples, and cranberries. Some of the wines can be interesting to taste. For example, Wisconsin's Orchard Country Winery in Fish Creek makes at least five different cherry-based wines. It's a unique opportunity to try wines made from Montmorency and black cherries made in varying styles. We've found that even the purest, best examples of cherry wines have limits as regular dinner accompaniments.
We prefer wines made from European vinifera varietals over those from regional grapes --
Many Midwest domaines, such as well-known Wollersheim in Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin, grow some of the grapes for their bottlings. French-born Philippe Coquard has been making wines at Wollersheim since the early 1980s and currently produces seven in his extensive portfolio from four estate grown grape types. Groundbreaking work by Midwest pioneers such as the late Elmer Swenson helped to develop hardy northern grape varietals most suitable to the upper Midwest's extreme climate. Grape types including Frontenac, Marechal Foch, and Millot, St. Pepin, and LaCrosse are among those found in regional vineyards. These varieties show potential in local wines.
Emerging micro-regions like the Lake Wisconsin Viticultural Area deserve notice. Sampling little-known grape types is worth the experience. For now, we strongly favor the taste of wines from France, Italy, California, the Pacific Northwest, and South America over those from the midwest.
Many regional wineries use grapes from outside the Midwest --
European Vinifera grape varietals such as Chardonnay, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Noir aren't suited to the Midwest. Early settlers discovered that harsh winters and vineyard disease destroyed vines in the cold northern states. Even with rising temperatures, we're not likely to see Wisconsin-grown Cabernet anytime soon. Yet there's plenty of Wisconsin Cabernet on shelves, and much of it comes from grape must shipped in from across the country.
Must is basically the fresh juice from grapes which still contains stems, seeds, and skin. It's packaged -- often frozen -- and shipped from the vineyard to the winemaking facility, as well as to home hobbyists. Midwest wineries are quite open about grape sourcing. A lot of raw material going into Wisconsin wine actually comes from California, Washington, and New York state vineyards.
It's no secret wineries the world over have sourced grapes outside home regions for as long as casks have transported juice. But the most authentic wine expressions are bottles made from grapes grown near or at the wineries, then made and bottled at the source. In France and Italy, the grapes going into a local wine must be from within specific areas, usually close to where the wines are made. For instance, a Beaujolais producer in central France cannot legally ship Gamay, the predominant red grape allowed in the region, from another place across the country (like Anjou in the Loire valley, where the grape is also cultivated).
Winemakers may argue that the very winemaking on site -- the production and bottling without local grapes -- still qualifies wine as local. Local wine should have origin in a local vineyard, not thousands of miles away, namely for the reason that wine tastes better when produced in the region of origin, and reflects something unique about place along with the winemaking approach.
Vineyards and wine culture take time to mature --
California, Washington, and Oregon have history and culture surrounding the vineyards and wine industry. It's possible that the Midwest will eventually emerge as a leader in domestic wine production. Possible, but highly unlikely. Other wine regions of the world have taken decades to achieve greatness. Factors including soil, climate, and vineyard exposure help separate great regions from average acres. The search for the best sites, the best grape and clonal selections, and the winemaking techniques most suited to the raw material become refined over time. Time can be measured in centuries in the best wine zones of the world.
In the meantime, we applaud vignerons for their work. While regional wines are refined through trial and error, we opt for wines from places -- outside our region -- where there's better value and better wine - for the time being - on a consistent basis.
Wisconsin is better suited to beer, cheese, corn, and squash than to wine --
Corn, tomatoes, squash, apples, and countless other farmer's market fruits and vegetables are what really shine, and grow well in Wisconsin. The honey is wonderful. The maple syrup as good as any in the world. The deer tasty and plentiful. Fresh fish do well in the inland lakes and streams and grace many tables. A long tradition of cheese and sausage making provides for a horde of high quality, small production treasures. Many Midwesterners proclaim regional breweries -- based locally but using ingredients sourced from all over -- to be the best local beverages of all. Wine is still catching up.
The coffee we support thrives in Africa, Mexico, and South America. The best green tea we sip comes from China. And we look to outside the Midwest for essentials like olive oil, nuts, citrus, and spices. There are simply places best suited to the production of foods and beverages we consume.
The point of locavorism is to sustain oneself and to support local and regional producers when and where we can. And we do it on a daily basis, but not yet with wine.