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Nick Smith, CALS’ new enologist, will aid Wisconsin’s wine and cider industry

Nick Smith
Nick Smith, new wine and cider outreach specialist in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, with the fermentation set-up in place at his lab in Babcock Hall. Photo by Kelly April Tyrrell, UW-Madison.

Wisconsin is known for fermentation, like its cheese, craft beer and pickles. But it’s also been working to add even more to that blossoming list: wine and cider. The Badger State’s 110 wineries and commercial cider makers now have a new resource to help them compete: Nick Smith.

Since he started at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in March as the first wine and cider outreach specialist, based in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, Smith has been traveling the state, knocking on doors and meeting Wisconsin’s wine and cider makers.

Wine grapes can be difficult to grow in Wisconsin, since most varieties prefer warmer climates, but after years researching wine and working with growers in Minnesota, Smith is confident there is a market for it here, too, given the state’s legacy of fermented products, bustling tourism industry and agricultural diversity.

Smith is confident there is a market for wine grapes here, given the state’s legacy of fermented products, bustling tourism industry and agricultural diversity.

Smith is also interested in trying to help producers realize profits in cider, where it can be hard to compete with large cider-makers who sell product for the price of craft beer.

“It’s a relatively rapidly growing industry, especially for cider, which is one of the fastest growing market segments in terms of percentage growth year-after-year,” he says.

One way that Wisconsin cider-makers can stand out is by using traditional, less-well-known apples for cider production, he says. It can be risky, because many of these apples are now rare and thus, expensive.

“There is a whole line of cider-specific apples out there, which have a lot of tannins and other bitter compounds that give more complexity overall to the cider, with different acidity and sugars,” Smith says. “It’s a matter of finding those varieties and convincing growers to grow them. But, there’s no one magic apple.”

Smith has blazed a meandering trail to his current position. He was a 19-year-old undergraduate at the University of Minnesota the day he caught the wine and beer bug, but not in the way you might expect.

The business management major, who didn’t drink, was making a delivery for one of his campus jobs when he noticed a certain shop across the street.

“There was a homebrew shop right there on campus — I think it was owned by a retired microbiology professor,” he says. “I thought: ‘What is that?’ and instantly, I was hit. It never occurred to me before that you could homebrew.”

The craft beer industry was just heating up at that time, and there was something about beer and wine that fascinated him, so after finishing his first degree in 2002, he re-enrolled as a food and fermentation science major.

Wisconsin is fertile terroir: roughly 10 new wineries, 10 new breweries and 10 new distilleries pop up in the state each year.

He began researching institutions in the United States where he could learn more about beer and winemaking as an exchange student — in much the same way an international exchange student looks for the best place to study a language — and he found a program at Oregon State that would let him spend a year studying the trade.

From there, Smith interned at a winery in a tiny town in California, aptly named Hopland, before becoming a chemist for a well-known commercial winemaker in California.

But the draw back to the Midwest remained strong and, in his words, he “slingshotted” to the University of Minnesota for a job as a research winemaker, where he spent eight years preparing small batches of wine for tasting analysis based on the selections of grape breeders. He also earned his master’s degree in food science.

Just prior to coming to UW-Madison, he was working as a winemaker in Rochester, Minnesota, but the opportunity to build something from the vineyard (and orchard) up in Wisconsin was too good to turn down.

Since his arrival, Smith has participated in several workshops hosted by the wine industry and is gathering input and information about the needs of wine-and-cider makers in Wisconsin. Many, he says, are new to commercial production and are looking for advice and help in scaling up from homebrew or commercial small-batch operations.

Smith, who is funded by state and industry grants, is also working with the Wisconsin Winery Association to develop educational outreach tracks for conferences, find speakers and develop short courses for industry, much like the Center for Dairy Research, which he says serves as a good model for developing outreach and viticulture partnerships.

Smith says there is a surprising amount of misinformation out there when it comes to making fermented beverages, such as wine, cider and beer, but there’s also a whole lot of science.

“You’ve got everything from the microbiology — the fermentation process — all the way down to the wine chemistry aspects and how sulfur and other flavors work together,” he says. “There’s the sensory science, trying to get everything to balance out and get the products you want. Plus, you have the whole agriculture side to it.”

In July, Smith will host what he hopes will be a three-part series for industry on sparkling wine production, which he expects to be a profitable segment of the market in Wisconsin.

Smith is also trying to get a fermentation lab bubbling in Babcock Hall, where he currently shares space with ice cream and other frozen dessert researchers. He may also take students interested in wine-and-cider-making for an independent study course, similar to a beer-brewing course recently led by Jim Steele, head of the fermented foods and beverages program in the Department of Food Science. The idea is also to begin offering undergraduate certificates in fermented foods and beverages by fall 2016.

Smith hopes the revenue generated from workshops will fund additional research on how grape growing affects flavor and aroma development. Wisconsin is, after all, fertile terroir: roughly 10 new wineries, 10 new breweries and 10 new distilleries pop up in the state each year.

“It’s a growing industry, and it’s going to grow without us,” he says. “We might as well be a part of it.”

This story was originally published on the UW-Madison News website here

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