TOWN OF BELMONT — One of the Founding Fathers, Ben Franklin, said of wine:
“We hear of the conversion of water into wine at the marriage in Cana as of a miracle. But this conversion is, through the goodness of God, made every day before our eyes.
“Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards, and which incorporates itself with the grapes, to be changed into wine; a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy.”
Those who are not oenophiles might be surprised to find a winery that makes its own wine from Wisconsin-grown grapes in a state whose climate is considerably colder than the Mediterranean or California.
Bauer–Kearns Winery, located on the west side of the Platte Mound in the Town of Belmont, is one of more than 50 wineries in Wisconsin. It is also the state’s only estate winery, a winery that exclusively uses its own Wisconsin-grown grapes.
“This is arguably the best site in Wisconsin to grow grapes,” said Ted Kearns, a U.S. Army veteran who grew up in Hazel Green and Benton.
“This is a homemade handmade vineyard, literally,” said Helen Bauer Kearns, a Cuba City native.
About 130 of the more than 5,000 varieties of grapes found in the world can be grown in Wisconsin.
“It has to be a cold, hearty vine,” said Helen. “Some people 50 miles south of us can grow things that we can’t grow at all. The dividing line is that small.”
Bauer–Kearns makes about 1,000 gallons of wine each year, although it made 3,000 gallons one year.
“I try to stick at 1,000 gallons,” 200 more than the winery made in 2011, said Ted. “It’s simply that you want control of the quality of the grape. I know in each row how many pounds come out of that row during the harvest.”
The Kearnses started growing grapes toward the end of Ted’s days working for the U.S. Department of Energy. Ted spent 20 years as a helicopter pilot in the U.S. Army, followed by 20 years working for the U.S. Department of Energy on pilot projects, construction of small-scale power plants designed as a prototype of larger plants.
In Ted’s last few years with the DOE, the Kearnses lived in Colorado while Ted worked on the Rocky Flats Plant nuclear project.
“I bought five vines from somewhere, and a quarter-mile away a guy had 100, 150 grapes, and the people owning it moved away, and the people moving in didn’t want grapes,” said Ted. “We had chickens and we had three or four dozen eggs a day. I’d put them out at 5 o’clock in the morning, and by 7:30 they’d be out and people would be knocking on the door wanting more.”
Unfortunately, the Kearnses chose a place not necessarily suited for grapes, “About the time they’d be blooming we’d get a frost and it’d wipe them out,” said Helen. “And then we got the brainstorm idea to come here.”
“I thought I’d plant five acres of grapes, and I thought the kids could take over; five acres of grapes would be enough,” said Ted. “But the kids all had careers, and when we got to the fourth year it didn’t like it’d come to pass, and it looked like it was time to start a business.”
In 2004, five years after the Kearnses moved back to Wisconsin, they purchased winemaking equipment. That same year, though, a nearby farmer sprayed 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid — the world’s most common herbicide and pesticide that is harmful to grapes — which drifted onto the Kearns fields. The Kearnses had to deal with more 2,4-D damage in 2007.
“I looked at that as an educational process, and we were coming into an area that hadn’t grown grapes before,” said Ted.
“We were doing well just selling grapes,” said Helen. “Then when you are making wine, it’s name recognition, and we didn’t have one. And you’re still bucking up to Wollersheim, Spurgeon, Botham, the big boys” among Wisconsin wineries.
Being an estate winery is “very difficult to do here because the grapes grown here tend to be high in acid,” said Ted. “Wineries will get low-acid grapes from the West Coast and blend them.”
Reducing acid can be done by secondary fermentation, which reduces malic acid. Ted Kearns found another way to reduce acid by accident — he put wine outside in a 350-gallon tank on a night the temperature dropped to 27 below zero, which turned the wine to slush, leaving tartar on the walls of the tank.
The result of that night was Driftless White, which received a gold medal in the first International Cold Climate Wine Competition in Minnesota. Driftless White, similar to a German Riesling, is the winery’s second most popular wine.
“It’s a marvelous white wine,” said Helen. “Ted treats it with Riesling yeast. We fell in love with Riesling wines when we were in Germany. I think this year he’s outdone himself from last year’s crop.”
Driftless White comes from the La Crosse grape, one of the grapes created by Wisconsinite Elmer Swenson, who worked with the University of Minnesota to create several varieties of grapes that would grow in Wisconsin’s climate.
Bauer–Kearns’ best-selling wine is Marechal Foch, which Helen said is “very similar to a merlot wine. It’s my favorite.”
Another favorite is Leaping Leon, made from a relative of the Marechal Foch grape, the Leon Millot grape.
“We found a grape that was supposed to be a Foch, but it was a cousin to the Foch,” said Helen. “It’s a little lighter, and it grows differently. It takes the fourth, fifth or sixth year to identify itself.”
Two other favorites are the St. Croix, a red from a Swenson grape, and the Corot Noir, developed from a New York state grape.
“It costs us about twice as much as other vines, but it’s good,” said Ted of the Corot Noir.
The winemaking process varies depending on the winemaker, the kind of grapes and the length of aging. Nouveau winds are picked September and October and sold around Nov. 21. The Driftless White starts with picking in October and is sold the following May. The Marechal Foch takes 18 months.
“I think the biggest word in a winemaker’s vocabulary is ‘patience,’” said Ted.
Bauer–Kearns offer what it calls “guest wines,” made from other grapes under the Big M label, including Southern Silk, from the Muscadine grape grown in the Southeast, and Summer White, a pinot grigio-style wine from Seyval Blanc and Vidal Blanc grapes.
Running a winery is “pretty much” an every-day job, said Helen. “There’s always something to do in the summer.”
Once the winter arrives, she said, grape vines “just grow dormant. Of course, there’s plenty do here at the winery in the winter.
“This was supposed to be a hobby — something to stay out of my hair while I played in the garden. We were told it’s not a hobby after three acres; now we have five, so it’s no longer a hobby.”
“I’ve worked 12 hours a day seven days a week to build this,” said Ted.
The Kearns’ winemaking ambitions don’t stop with their current offerings.
“I’d love to start out with a St. Pepin, and with a St. Pepin you can make ice wine,” said Ted. “You don’t get a crop every year because it doesn’t always get to the right temperature before it rots. You pick them when they’re frozen and you make them that day.”
Ice wines sell for around $100 per bottle.
Two other grapes Ted would like to try for wines are the Marquette, a new red wine grape, and the Frontenac, a French–American hybrid. Both were developed at the University of Minnesota.
Ted also said he would try to make brandy “if I was 40 years old.”
To grow the winery further, he said, “It’s going to take somebody who’s younger and has more energy and can get more people involved with it. It’s come to the point where mom and pop can’t manage the business anymore because of too many regulations.”
The Kearnses don’t feel local government — specifically the Town of Belmont and Lafayette County — has been particularly helpful either.
“They don’t understand growing grapes is farming just as growing wheat or corn,” said Helen. “It’s a different form of farming, but they don’t understand it. They don’t seem to grasp that this is farming. It takes longer to get the final product.”