Winemaker Seeks Wisconsin Ledge AVA

Grapegrowing appellation would be second within the state

by Jane Firstenfeld
trout springs winery AVA Wisconsin Ledge Viticultural Area
Friends help harvest grapes at Trout Springs Winery in Greenleaf, Wis.
Greenleaf, Wis.—After an arduous seven-year preparation, Steven DeBaker’s petition to establish the Wisconsin Ledge Viticultural Area is nearing fruition. On Oct. 14, the Alcohol and Tobacco Trade Bureau (TTB) published its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and opened DeBaker’s petition for public comment.

If approved, the Wisconsin Ledge AVA would encompass some 3,800 square miles in northeastern Wisconsin including Door, Kewaunee, Manitowoc, Sheboygan, Ozaukee, Washington, Dodge, Fond du Lac, Calumet, Outagamie and Brown counties. Largely surrounded by water—notably Lakes Michigan and Winnebago, Green Bay and the Fox River—the Ledge sits on the Niagara Cuesta landform, an easterly sloping plateau on the western edge of the Niagara Escarpment. The 44-square-mile Lake Wisconsin AVA is the only other official viticultural area completely within the state, partially overlapping the vast Upper Mississippi River Valley appellation established in 2009, almost 30,000 square miles including parts of Minnesota, Illinois and Iowa as well as southwest Wisconsin.

Unlike many AVA petitions supported and financed by grapegrower and winery associations, getting to this point was largely a solo effort for DeBaker, who owns and operates Trout Springs Winery in Greenleaf with his wife Andrea. In February 2010, he jubilantly emailed colleagues that his petition had met the TTB’s technical requirements and that the bureau would begin writing up its proposed rulemaking. At the time, Eric Fowle, from the Niagara Escarpment Research Network called on NERN membership to send comments in support, an effort whose time has finally come. Fowle had helped prepare the petition, providing the essential technical maps.

Wisconsin’s wine industry
DeBaker told Wines & Vines that 14 or 15 of Wisconsin’s 65 wineries (per WinesVinesDATA) lie within the Ledge, with 300-400 vineyard acres. Founded in 1995, Trout Springs was one of the first. The state’s wine industry “has grown exponentially in the last 10-15 years,” DeBaker said. Trout Springs is one of five wineries along the Fox River Wine Trail along with Parallel 44, Captain’s Walk, LedgeStone and Kerrigan Brothers. “Many of our wines compete internationally,” Debaker said. “Last year we won more than 20 medals in the U.S.”

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Steve DeBaker farms hybrids Frontenac, Frontenac Gris and Blanc, St. Croix and Marquette among other varieties at Trout Springs Winery.
Although Trout Springs lists estate-grown Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese among its approximately 3,000-case annual production, DeBaker conceded that most vinifera grapes don’t fare well in Wisconsin. His original plantings leaned on Marechal Foch, but he has since pulled most out and replaced with hybrids Frontenac, Frontenac Gris and Blanc, St. Croix and Marquette.

Unlike much of the continent, Wisconsin’s grapegrowers enjoyed a normal season. “The heat units were what we needed,” DeBaker said. “We had more a ‘reserve’ year than any since 2007,” he said, reporting a harvest of almost 8 tons from his 5-acre vineyard.

Trout Springs sells virtually all of its production direct-to-consumer, mostly at the winery (appropriately, the DeBakers also operate a trout hatchery at the property). DeBaker estimated that “maybe 1% goes to restaurants.” With no other employees and yet another sideline in electrical work, DeBaker prefers to stay small and avoid distributors. “If I’ve got to work that hard, I want to keep the profits,” he commented.

Although he put in the sweat equity to put the Wisconsin Ledge AVA petition before the public, DeBaker will be happy to share the benefits, which he hopes will bring more recognition to the area. “Other wineries will also enjoy using this appellation,” he said hopefully.

To read and comment on the petition, visit the TTB website. Please note, also, that TTB’s Washington headquarters has a new mailing address:

Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau
(Office and/or Division)
1310 G Street NW, Box 12
Washington, DC 20005

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