Local winery on this year's grape harvest: 'a dream for a winemaker'

Published: Sep. 12, 2017 at 11:15 AM CDT
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PRAIRIE DU SAC, Wis. (WMTV) --September is the kickoff to nonstop work for winemakers and grape growers in Wisconsin.

For Philippe Coquard, owner and winemaker of Wollersheim Winery and Distillery, this time of year puts a welcomed pressure on the 13th generation wine maker and his team.

To keep up, harvesting had to change at the vineyard in Prairie du Sac. About three years ago, Coquard bought a massive machine harvestor, something that helps ease the workload on those handpicking in the rows.

Devan Thompson started picking as a vineyard worker about 2 years ago.

"By hand it deifnetly takes longer," Thompson said. "It's not hard."

Jesse Baier started at the vineyard about 13 years ago.

"When I first got the job here, my son was 6 months old. Now, he's 14 years old," Baier said.

The two men picked grapes, cut them off the vine and plopped them into the yellow bucket below.

"It [picking grapes] gets to be tiresome on your arms and shoulders," Baier said.

Thompson and Baier were picking one of the rows when NBC 15 stopped by only because the harvestor wouldn't be able to fit down the row and get by certain technology.

"I can't imagine doing this by hand every year," Thompson said. "It had to of taken forever."

Coquard said he grew up on a grape farm, farming grapes with his two uncles, lots of cousins and grandparents. He said he remembered being eight years old, picking grapes next to his grandpa.

"I'm a 13th generation wine maker," Coquard said. "I have more wine than blood. This is a passion. This is a lifestyle. This is my life."

Coquard said the crop couldn't be more perfect this year; the weather cooperated, and he sampled the grapes for weeks leading up to the harvest.

"No rain for the last 5-6 weeks is a dream for a winemaker," Coquard said.

Each field in the vineyard is a different wine, which will be picked at different sugar content or PH content.

At Wollersheim, there are 30 acres total. One acre has about 700 vines, and one vine can produce about four bottles of wine. One bottle of wine has about three and a half pounds of grapes, according to statistics from Wollersheim sent to NBC15.

To keep up with the 30 acres of picking, Coquard said he would want to hire as many people as he can, but it's hard to find the numbers. Now, he primarily gets help on some rows from the vineyard workers, and on most others, the harvester takes over. The harvester can pick enough fruit 60 people could do in only one hour, according to Coquard.

"We can cater the picking to when the grapes are at perfection," Coquard said.

Taking pride in picking the perfect grape develops over time, find proof by talking to the vineyard workers, who enjoy the time outside in the peaceful vineyard.

"We're out here, and we can watch the harvester do all the work," Thompson said. "I do get to appreciate it by picking a litlte bit every year."

Time isn't something winemakers have at this point in the year.

"It's always a waiting game," Coquard said. "You wait as long as you can."

Waiting longer for a red grape may make the wine darker, but for Coquard, enjoying the fruits of labor makes the wine taste that much sweeter.

"We grow grapes. We make wine. We enjoy the wine. We enjoy cooking," Coquard said. "It's about food, friend and good wine, and that's life!"

In the 1840s, the Hungarian nobleman Agoston Haraszthy discovered the sloped land where the vineyard sits today, and planted it with grapevines, according to the Wollersheim Winery and Distillery website. During his short time in Wisconsin, Haraszthy also incorporated the state's first town, Sauk City. In December of 1849, he followed the gold rush to California, where he also had a hand in developing the state's wine industry.

In 1972, Robert and JoAnn Wollersheim bought the farm from Peter Kehl's great-grandson to restore it to a working winery. They planted the hills with grapevines, furnished the limestone cellars with oak barrels and converted the old carriage house into a store. Philippe Coquard arrived at the winery from the Beaujolais region of France in 1984, on an agricultural exchange. Coquardwho comes from a long family history of vintners, and has degrees in winemaking, viticulture and wine-marketingbecame Wollersheim Winery's winemaker in 1985. The family legacy continues in Philippe and his wife, Julie, Bob and JoAnn's oldest daughter, who now run the winery.

Copyright 2017: WMTV