Domestic Wine Drinkers Look Beyond Napa

The Associated Press
Wednesday, August 15, 2007; 6:04 PM

BARNEVELD, Wis. -- Chris and Rachel Bohn passed up the chance to spend a sunny Sunday on a friend's boat to picnic on the deck at Botham Vineyards & Winery in southwestern Wisconsin. "We personally like to just get out and go on road trips and go to wineries," said Rachel Bohn, 36, of Madison.

They're part of a growing number of Americans seeking a Napa Valley-like experience close to home. People who may never travel to California or New York's Finger Lakes are touring vineyards and doing tastings at wineries in Wisconsin and other seemingly unlikely states.

The number of wineries nationwide has more than doubled since 2000, from 2,188 to 4,712, according to WineAmerica, the National Association of American Wineries. Some of the most rapid growth has been in states not known for growing grapes, such as Oklahoma and South Dakota.

In Wisconsin, the number of wineries has grown from 25 in 2003, when the state started keeping track, to 39 licensed in April, according to the Department of Revenue.

"What you're looking at is an explosion of craft wineries, small wineries that are producing a unique product," WineAmerica president Bill Nelson said.

The wineries import much _ sometimes all _ of their grapes or grape juice from California, Washington and a handful of other grape-growing states. They ferment them on site, allowing them to market "locally produced" rather than "locally grown" wine.

Their success has been driven by drinkers who take pride in discovering little known vintages and sharing them with friends, Nelson said. The Internet also has helped as states and trade groups have been able to market regional wine tours. Couples and families can follow mapped routes in search of their own "Sideways" experience, touring wineries like the movie's protagonists.

"I think the real driver is that people enjoy visiting wineries and learning about them," Nelson said. Those with vineyards are "really the only farm that most people go to."

Clem and Janet Gillitzer stopped at Wollersheim Winery near Madison, Wis. during a weekend trip to see an amateur baseball game. A co-worker who visits the winery often recommended it, said Janet Gillitzer, 45, of Westby.

"I could do this all day," Gillitzer said after a tour of the site where Hungarian Count Agoston Haraszthy planted his first American vineyard in the 1840s before moving west to become the father of California's wine industry. "This old stuff, I love this. The ball game was fun, but this is more fun."

The couple had been buying Wollersheim's $8 Prairie Fume but could switch to the $14 Chardonnay after tasting it, she said. Both wines have won numerous awards, with the 2006 Prairie Fume earning gold medals at five competitions this year, including the San Francisco International Wine Competition.

Wollersheim is the state's largest winery, producing more than 1 million bottles per year. Most Wisconsin wineries _ and most new wineries nationwide _ are a fraction of that size.

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