By M.L. JOHNSON
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.
Steve Johnson produced about 25,000 bottles of wine last year for Parallel 44, the winery he opened this spring outside of Green Bay, Wis. He hopes to bottle 50,000 by 2009.
(In comparison, the nation's 50 largest wineries each produce more than 6 million bottles per year, accounting for 85 percent of the wine sold.)
Johnson, 41, a lawyer, said he saw an opportunity in the growing interest in local foods.
"Everyone's more interested in wine," he said. "And I think the next step is to be interested in wine from where you live, not just from California."
Don Neal gets about 15,000 visitors a year at StableRidge Vineyards & Winery sandwiched between Oklahoma City and Tulsa on Route 66 in Stroud, Okla. Most come from urban areas or are international tourists driving the historic road. They are delighted when they learn his $12- to $35-per bottle wines come entirely from local grapes, said Neal, 60.
"They say, 'Why should I come in to your winery and buy California wine?'" he said. "They're looking for Oklahoma. They're looking for that unique taste."
Rich Hahn, 37, has had a bit of a tougher sell at Hahn Creek Winery outside Sioux Falls, S.D. As in Oklahoma, he is trying to grow grapes in an area where they nearly died out during Prohibition.
"You'll get the whole gamut where they'll receive it with an open mind," Hahn said, "and then you get the opposite of the spectrum where they have a closed mind: No one in South Dakota can make a wine."
Hahn sells a variety of grape, berry and honey wines for $10 to $15. He plants his vineyard with hybrids that combine the pleasant taste of European grapes with a resistance to the cold and imports Riesling and other more sensitive fruit from Washington state.
This is typical of wineries in the Midwest and other spots where the climate is too harsh to grow large quantities of grapes, Nelson said. Some also produce wines from other locally grown fruits, such as Door Peninsula Winery in northeastern Wisconsin, which is known for its cherry wines.
Peter Botham said he tries to create a regional flavor in his wines by growing 10 percent to 15 percent of his grapes and buying the rest from New York's Finger Lakes region, which has a similar but slightly more moderate climate.
Botham, 50, has had success with his Big Stuff Red ($9 a bottle), a slightly sweet blend of Marechal Foch, Leon Millot and DeChaunac grapes. He developed it several years ago to meet the tastes of visitors who like sweeter wines but wanted red wine, rather than white, because it has supposed health benefits.
He and his wife, Sarah, said they were lucky to have gotten into the business more than a decade ago. With all the new wineries, it has become more difficult to get shelf space in stores and attract distributors' attention, they said.
Botham Vineyards & Winery now sells about 60 percent of its wine through distributors, but foot traffic remains important both for immediate and longer-term sales.
Chris and Rachel Bohn said they buy at least one bottle of Wisconsin wine a month and would start looking for the Botham label at the store.
"We try to support the local people," Rachel Bohn said. "And now that I've been here, I will buy this next time."