One of our favorite local producers is the winery of Elmaro Vineyard located northwest of Trempealeau, Wisconsin. Elmaro is owned and operated by the Delaney family, who have farmed the hilltop above the Mississippi for generations. In 2006, the Delaneys planted their first grape vines. The winery is a family business run by Mark and Lynita Delaney with their children Cameron and Laura, and Laura’s husband Todd Roessler. Mark had farmed corn and soybeans until his wife and daughter returned from a curling competition in Italy where they discovered an interest in wine. Five years later, Elmaro bottled its first vintage.
“I went from farming 1400 acres to eight,” Mark says. “It’s a lot more handwork than corn and soybeans.”
Lynita and Laura are Elmaro’s winemaking duo. Besides having studied at the University of California–Davis’ winemaking program, Lynita Delaney also happens to be a master plumber—a skill that came in handy when the business designed its new winery and tasting room. The building boasts several “green” building innovations, such as the crush pad room that uses a simple gravitational feed system to move the grapes from first processing to fermentation tanks. The other winemaker in the operation is Laura, Mark and Lynita’s daughter. Laura has a degree in microbiology from the UW–Madison and further study in winemaking at Des Moines Community College. This may be the only mother-daughter winemaking team in the industry.
In spite of being such a new winery, Elmaro has been pulling in the awards. Elmaro wines have won recognition in regional, Californian, and national competitions. Their La Crescent dry white wine recently won the double gold award from the Indy International competition.
The Wisconsin climate has traditionally been a difficult one for European-style winemaking (see sidebar), but Elmaro’s Todd Roessler is an optimistic, undaunted sort. Todd showed us around the vineyard, pointing out that the La Crosse area is known as a bit of a “banana belt” as far as climate goes; still, southwestern Wisconsin can be a difficult climate for winemaking.
Recently, however, the University of Minnesota has been working on hybrid grape varieties, crossing cold-hardy American cultivars with traditional European wine grapes. These hybrids are now being planted in regions that would not previously have supported traditional viticulture. Elmaro’s Marquette wine, for example, is made with the University of Minnesota’s Marquette grape, a hybrid of Pinot Noir with the American River Bank grape. Elmaro is also making wines with the Chardonel grape, a hybrid of Chardonnay crossed with Seyval, a cold-hardy variety. Elmaro has been having great success with these varieties. In addition to these grapes grown at Elmaro, the winery also uses fruit and juice bought from a number of local growers as well as from the Finger Lakes region of New York.
Elmaro has been handling its own distribution, in addition to working with the Badger State Wine Co-op. Growth has been phenomenal. “We went from normal life to the wine industry in five minutes,” Todd Roessler says. “We’ve gotten a lot of support from the local area.” Elmaro wines can be found in restaurants and liquor stores in La Crosse, Hudson, Tomah, and Madison. People’s Food Co-op in La Crosse carries Elmaro’s Rosa, Edelweiss, and Cranberry wine, as well as a chocolate-infused port. They plan to expand their distribution into Minnesota soon. Only five of their wines are currently distributed, but if you visit the vineyard’s tasting room, you may choose from 13 wines, both sweet and dry.
On a recent visit we tasted their dry wines—including their award-winning Marquette Rosé, a dry wine that may change your mind about blush wines needing to be sweet to be good. While most of the wines at Elmaro aren’t casked but bottled from the fermentation tanks, the white Chardonel and the Marquette Red are both aged in oak barrels for two to eight months before bottling. These are great-tasting wines. The Marquette grape, described by the University of Minnesota as the ‘grandchild of Pinot Noir,’ is a bit like meeting an old friend’s grandchild. The wine reminds you of the grandparent but has its own personality—being as likely to go run in front of a fermentation tank and pull a goofy smile as talk about crush pads and wine casks.
Todd tells us that last summer’s weather was a mixed blessing for the vineyard. The unusually high heat and low precipitation made for sweeter grapes, but the harvest yield was low because of the stress. The 2012 vintage is in cask now, and it will be exciting to see how the wine turns out. Elmaro plans to release a Frontenac Gris dessert wine in the near future.
The handsome new tasting room (managed by Cameron Delaney) opened for business in November 2011. In addition to acting as a factory for wine production, the family hopes to make the building a community events center. The large crush-pad room doubles as a concert venue. They’ve recently hosted musicians such as Joe Cody, Doug Mahlum, and the Woody Sampson duo. The hall and tasting room are also available for group dinners, showers, and weddings. Elmaro has also worked with area chefs to produce wine-pairing dinners. Upcoming dinners are posted on their website, but fill up quickly.
From the tasting room, I followed Todd out to the upper vineyard to see how the vines were making out in Wisconsin’s February weather. Mark Delaney’s long experience as a farmer was on display in a remarkably well-kept vineyard. The vines were carefully trained along the trellises stretching into the distance. This is clearly a well-loved field. Mark had noted in the tasting room that the family had been in farming for generations, but he didn’t see any of his kids following him into the corn and beans business. “A vineyard’s a lot more handwork, but you can’t beat working with your family.”
Elmaro Vineyard’s spokesperson, Ava Roessler, seven, shows us the winery’s fermentation tanks.