Ryan Prellwitz has a piece of advice for amateur winemakers who decide to scale up and make it a business.
“Forget everything you learned as a home winemaker,” says Prellwitz, president of the Wisconsin Grape Growers Association, who dabbled in winemaking before founding Vines and Rushes Winery in Ripon in 2012. “It’s a tough transition to make, and you need to find someone with the right expertise who can help you take that next step,”
While Prellwitz chose to hire a private winemaking consultant, many new winery owners make the decision to try to go it alone. Soon, however, they’ll have another option: They’ll be able to call on a University of Wisconsin-Madison outreach specialist whose job is to support the state’s wine and hard apple cider industry. The position was recently funded by a Specialty Crop Block Grant through the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.
“This person will work closely with the wine and cider producers in the state to improve the quality of their products,” says UW-Madison food science professor Jim Steele, who leads the university’s new Farm to Glass project.
Wisconsin now has about 110 wineries—up from 13 in 2000—and has been adding around a dozen new ones each year in recent years. Many of these operations could use some help, says Prellwitz. So could the state’s amateur winemakers, adds George Scovronski, a member and recent past president of the Wisconsin Vintners Association, an organization for serious winemaking hobbyists.
Prellwitz and Scovronski together came up with the idea for a university-based expert.
“We were asking ourselves, ‘How do we take the next step?’ How do we help winemakers improve their protocols and processes, resulting in a better end product?” says Prellwitz. “We came to the conclusion that what we really need is somebody who reaches out to wineries, who can work with them on an individual, per-problem basis, as well as on a continuing education basis.”
The idea struck a chord at CALS. Faculty in the food science and horticulture departments helped write the grant proposal, which included the offer of matching funds from the Wisconsin Grape Growers Association, the Wisconsin Vintners Association and the Wisconsin Winery Association.
The specialist will help operators of wineries and cider companies with microbial issues, cleaning and sanitation issues, protocol and equipment issues, and will train winemakers how to detect off-flavors and to address the underlying causes. The project will also give the industry access to UW labs and experts.
Farm to Glass fits nicely with the college’s effort to develop a fermented foods and beverages program through the food science department, Steele says. The idea is to bring together the college’s research, teaching and outreach efforts related to fermentation.
“There hasn’t been a lot of wine science in the state of Wisconsin, but there are lots of commonalities between wine, beer, cheese, sauerkraut, soy sauce—all of the things that make up this huge, dynamic fermentation industry that we have in the state,” says Steele, who hopes to have the new outreach specialist in place by January.
It can’t come too soon for Scovronski, who makes close to the legal limit of 200 gallons of wine each year to share with family and friends.
“I have a couple of things that are baffling me. I need this new outreach specialist right now,” he says.