Poynette winery on a special mission after avoiding catastrophe

September 16, 2018

POYNETTE — Shaun Lapacek offered a forced laugh after he gave the punchline to the joke that starts with: “Want to have one million dollars?”

“The answer is: `Start with two million dollars and open a winery,’” he said while offering a shrug for punctuation.

Lapacek didn’t just open Rock N Wool winery 10 years ago on rocky land where his parents raised sheep just north of this Columbia County village. He also decided to make wine only from grapes grown in Wisconsin, which is a costlier and riskier proposition.

“I believe in terroir (pronounced ter-WA’), the French philosophy that wine should reflect the land where the grapes are grown,” he said. “It’s a passion and a belief I have that Wisconsin wineries can make the best wine you can find on any list just with Wisconsin-made grapes. I think it’s already happening.”

After years of mostly-give-and-little-take while growing persnickety grapes with high risk-reward value, Lapacek and his plant manager, Amber Pedersen, believe the winery is on the cusp of something special this year.

One reason is the bumper crop of grapes growing on nearly seven acres of Lapacek’s land. The other reason is their quick thinking to save the grapes from a potentially crop- and business-killing disorder called sour rot that was the result of the heavy rain that fell in late August.

A third reason has nothing to do with the winery or the grapes. Lapacek, his wife, Maria, and their two girls, live part-time in the Chicago area because Maria is an attorney for the city of Chicago. But since Mayor Rahm Emmanuel has decided not to run again, her job will end when Emmanuel’s term ends.

“The new mayor always cleans house and starts over,” Lapacek said. “So we have to make this work.”

After a period of sunny, dry weather, Lapacek has begun his harvest along with grape growers in the state that are north of him. Grape growers south of Lapacek’s vineyard began harvesting grapes earlier.

“We’re a good week to 10 days ahead of schedule,” said Randy Hartung, the owner of Three Branches Vineyard in Arena and president of the Wisconsin Grape Growers Association. “We’ll be done picking before we started last year.”

Hartung said most of the state’s vineyards are experiencing strong crops. “Everybody is talking about sour rot being an issue but it’s an issue every year,” he said.

Lapacek wasn’t sleeping when sour rot — a disorder involving fungi and bacteria that turn the sugar in the grape into vinegar — started showing up on some of the grapes last month. It’s a fast-moving disease so if it shows up on one grape, the infection can rapidly spread to the entire cluster of anywhere from 50 to 100 grapes and then to the rest of the clusters on the vine, he said. There are about 60 clusters per vine.

“A little bit of vinegar goes a long way to making bad wine,” Lapacek said.

The grapes were susceptible to it because the rain forced them to swell up with water and the skin broke on some of them, virtually opening the door to bacteria and fungi, according to Pedersen.

Pederson had heard about a winery in Minnesota that used ozonated water to treat their sick grapes. Since they already had a machine that uses oxygen to convert tap water into ozonated water to sanitize equipment, she poured some into a sprayer and started treating the sick grapes.

“The ozone sanitizes and kills any spores on the grape. It allows the fruit to dry out and it keeps from spreading the disease,” Pedersen said. “The best part was the results were almost immediate.”

Lapacek figures he lost 10 percent of the grapes on each cluster. “It’s a loss but it’s not a huge loss,” he said.

It also was healthy for the environment. “We want to be as green as we possibly can be,” he said.

Lapacek’s most important grapes — hybrids developed at the University of Minnesota called La Crescent, St. Croix and Marquette that produce great wine and can withstand Midwest winters — are in excellent shape.

This fall, he hopes to introduce new dry wines with those grapes. “We make some fruit and sweet wines and they pay the bills. But the dry wines are what builds your reputation,” he said.

So far, Rock N Wool sells 14 wines that run the gamut from light and fun to complex and special so they do reflect the land where it is grown. He named a semi-sweet blush after his wife, Maria. “It’s one of our best sellers,” he said. A dry white was named after his four-year-old daughter, Nadia Jo and a dry rose was named after his three-year-old daughter, Hannah Jo.

Besides growing grapes on nearly seven acres, plans are in the works to add vines on another four acres. Rock N Wool also includes a stately restored barn that stands 50 feet tall and towers over the central part of the Columbia County countryside.

The production facility is in the lower level and a tasting room, store and meeting area are part of the upper level that has a charming ambience.

Just behind the barn, land has been set aside for people who want to hit wedge shots up to 100 yards toward make-believe wine bottles or play some holes with a frisbee while their significant others are shopping for wine. There’s also a beer tap if they don’t want to drink wine.

“Wives brings their husbands here and 90 percent don’t want to be here,” Lapacek said. “I want those guys to leave here and say, `I drank beer, watched the Badger game on TV and my wife was happy with me.”’

Grapes grown on Lapacek’s farm are used for about half of the wine he makes. The rest are grown in Wisconsin by farmers that he knows, Lapacek said. “We only buy varietals we have on our property,” he said.

Nobody is sure how many wineries in the state make wine with only grapes made in Wisconsin. Most use juice from grapes grown in California, Washington and elsewhere because it’s a cheaper process, according to Lapacek.

“It’s not many but we don’t know the exact number because (the wineries) don’t have to give out that information,” said Hartung, the president of the state grape growers association.

The association has begun to put pressure on the wineries to divulge whether they use grapes from outside the state, according to Hartung. “We want to recognize the ones who do use just Wisconsin grapes. It’s important information.”

Hartung, like Lapacek, believes the state is making some quality wines but lacks the proper marketing to get consumers to buy it. Both said it’s extremely difficult for restaurants in the state to sell local wines.

“California used to be the laughingstock of the entire wine industry and look at it now,” Hartung said. “There’s no reason we shouldn’t be recognized for our quality, too.”

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