One of Southwest Wisconsin’s wineries is closing Friday.
Bauer–Kearns Winery, located opposite the west side of the Platteville Mound, was started by Ted and Helen Kearns more than a decade ago.
“My license expires on Friday, and they’ve made it so restrictive,” said Ted Kearns. “I’m tired of playing the game.”
The winery is offering 20 percent off orders through Friday. The winery also is selling its furnishings and some of its winemaking equipment, though the Kearnses plan to continue to make wine for their own use.
The winery had been for sale for more than a year, and the Kearnses had talked to potential buyers, but Ted said “as soon as they talked to the township they went away. It’s been a constant battle for 15 years. It’s too hard and life is too short. … I’m not going to miss the 12-hour days.”
“We had some fine young men working here,” said Helen Kearns. “We made some good friendships. … People would come here and buy cheese and drink wine outside, and they’d say come on over, and we had more fun.”
The winery’s closing ends a series of battles the Kearnses have had with the Town of Belmont. The most recent was the town’s refusal to issue the winery a beer license, even though the town had the authority to issue wine and beer licenses under chapter 125 of state statutes.
Ted Kearns said the town “would likely eliminate me from being able to sell anything other than wine. … They’ve interpreted that to be just wine only.
“We had a chance to be a real good business for Platteville, an attraction for people to come and even spend weekends, and the town does not want that.”
The Kearnses began growing grapes while Ted was finishing his 20 years working for the U.S. Department of Energy, which came after his 20 years in the U.S. Army as a helicopter pilot and commander of an assault helicopter company.
They moved back to Wisconsin in 1999, and five years later purchased winemaking equipment, the same year the property was oversprayed by a nearby farmer with 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid, one of the world’s most common herbicides and pesticides, which nonetheless is harmful to grapes. Three years later, another overspray occurred.
Kearns said the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection failed to properly enforce federal law and “their own administrative rule. … The law says it can’t leave the premises.”
The Kearneses also battled Lafayette County after state law was changed to allow wine sales at county fairs. Ted Kearns said the county fair committee required him to get a wine license from the City of Darlington, even though the county fair is a county event, not a city event.
The winery produced 23 tons of grapes in 2012. Last year, it produced 5 tons of grapes last year.
“I haven’t made profits and showed losses every year” since 2012, he said. “I can’t find help to prune; I don’t have pruning done yet. I couldn’t get help for picking last year. Nobody wants to work anymore.”
Bauer–Kearns wines included Driftless White, which received a gold medal in the first International Cold Climate Wine Competition; Marechal Foch, the winery’s best-seller; Leaping Leon, made from a relative of the Marechal Foch grape; Corot Noir, from a New York grape; and Aviation Red, in memory of the members of the 57th Assault Helicopter Company who died in Vietnam.
The winery hosted Alice in Dairyland contestants when the event was held at UW–Platteville in 2012. It also hosted a national soil judging contest.
The winery participated in holiday-weekend tours of Southwest Wisconsin wineries until this year. However, the winery has been part of Harvest Hosts, in which winemakers and farmers host recreational vehicles for overnight visits. The winery has been visited by three this year, most recently by RV owners on their way from Missouri to the Wisconsin Dells, and that will continue.
“It is the best place in the world for supper clubs,” said Ted Kearns of Southwest Wisconsin. “It can be a destination.”
The Kearnses, who are 78, have travel plans, and besides that Ted said “There will be more than enough to do, because I can’t get help.” They traveled 4,700 miles in 11 days to California for a reunion of his helicopter company, “guys I haven’t seen in 50 years.”
Helen Kearns said she would be “working my yards, and in the winter quilting again, going to see our kids more often. We’re going to actually retire; can you believe that?”
The closing of the winery may not be the permanent end of the winery. The Kearns’ twin sons have expressed interest in coming back to Wisconsin after their retirements, though Ted said they “don’t really want to do a winery under these conditions. … It is the ag of the future since corn is now fuel.”