Q&A: At American Wine Project, Erin Rasmussen rethinks Wisconsin wine | Food & Drink

In less than two weeks, Erin Rasmussen at American Wine Project drops her newest wine, the fastest one she makes.

Wisco Nouveau shares a name, launch date and winemaking style with the more familiar Beaujolais Nouveau. It’s light and bright, low in alcohol and a little spritzy.

That’s where the similarity ends.

“You cannot make a wine that tastes like this from grapes that aren’t American,” said Rasmussen, a winemaker who founded American Wine Project in 2018 and opened her Mineral Point tasting room last year.

To make this year’s 30 cases of Wisco Nouveau, Rasmussen harvested grapes from an odd, sandy little vineyard east of the Wisconsin Dells. There she found many of the kinds of grapes she often works with, hardy hybrids like Marquette, Frontenac, St. Croix and St. Pepin.

“But then there’s a lot of stuff nobody’s using anymore — there’s concord, King of the North, Beta, Kay Gray,” Rasmussen said. “There’s wild grapes that have been incorporated and trellised in the vineyard. I spent an hour foraging wild grapes that were growing up into the trees.”

In a move that reflects her winemaking philosophy, Rasmussen then processed those grapes using traditional techniques. Carbonic maceration involves adding carbon dioxide to whole, uncrushed fruit in a stainless steel tank and letting it ferment for three weeks or so.

The finished wine “tastes like grown-up grape juice,” Rasmussen said. “There won’t be any sugar in it. It’ll be a little bit spritzy, and it will taste like concord grapes but not sweet. It’s just a very joyful, exciting, unusual, nostalgic bottle of wine.”

Starting Nov. 17, the Wisco Nouveau will be available at the winery Friday through Sunday, as well as Table Wine, Square Wine and Steve’s on University in Madison. It retails for $23-$26.

As the harvest season wraps up, Rasmussen spoke to the Cap Times about what “sweet” means, planning for climate change, and why Wisconsin wines deserve a spot on your table.

What’s the elevator pitch for American Wine Project?

Basically, it’s Wisconsin wine done differently. I approach the grapes like I would if I was making extremely expensive wine in California, using minimal techniques and very few, if any, adjustments or additions to the grapes or wines. I am encouraging my grape grower partners to rethink what it means for them to grow grapes here in order to grow better grapes with fewer inputs.

I was invited to pour at a natural wine fair in San Francisco. One of the parameters is that the growers must be at minimum practicing organic. And that’s really, really hard in this climate. People try and they lose their crop, so they can’t do it again. I donate time to help my growers understand better ways to do things.

The winery is just an extension of what the grapes are. I’m not targeting styles, like, “I want to make a fruity raspberry-flavored rosé,” and then it’s not raspberry enough so I mess with it to push that. Rather it’s, what do I see the grapes want to be? And that’s what I try to let them do.

Mass-produced wines may include additives to make the wine taste better. AWP does not use these. Why?  

I think when you look at (wine) as a commodity, you dull the consumer’s sense of curiosity. You dull your own sense of curiosity as a wine producer, and you aren’t trying to improve things.

I hesitate to align myself with natural wine the behemoth, but there are a lot of individuals who think really hard about how they can improve the world around them, how they can improve how their wine tastes, and how they can minimize how much they have to do to it.

Because wine is always more interesting when you don’t do anything to it, if you can just go from grape to glass. But it’s a complicated conversation!

There is a stereotype that Midwesterners want sweet wine. What’s your read on that?

If Midwesterners are buying wine at a wine shop or grocery store and they’re not seeking out Spätlese (Riesling), they’re probably drinking wine with very little sugar in it, that could almost be perceived as not sweet at all.

There’s a vocabulary disconnect and there’s a perception disconnect. If you have a wine that doesn’t have any sugar in it but has amazing, tropical, ripe fruit flavors in it, it’s not sweet. But it’s pleasing to people who connect those flavors with the perception of sweetness in their brains.

It’s been an interesting part of selling these kinds of wines in Wisconsin. Some people come in and they truly just want sugar, and that’s fine. They may not even try any of the wines if we lead with, “These wines don’t have any residual sugar.”

But once you start to have conversations with people who proclaim to only like sweet wines, it’s very uncommon that they won’t find one wine that’s like, “Oh, OK, I get it!” We say, just try it, you might be surprised.

It’s the same with people who (say they) don’t like sweet wine. If you have a high enough acid Riesling and the right food, suddenly it all makes sense. It goes both ways.

What are you doing now to accommodate and plan for climate change?

Simply making wine here is a statement. I’m hoping that most of these wines stay in the state, which means that they didn’t have to be trucked across the country or come across an ocean on a shipping container, in order for people to enjoy complex, well-made, thoughtful wines.

We are also fairly well insulated from the most disturbing parts of what we would see in climate change, which would be rising sea levels, extended periods of drought. On the west coast, they’ve had fires that have been devastating. If you lose a vineyard to fire, it’s gone.

We’ll see bigger swings during shoulder seasons. This year I didn’t get to make much Brianna, because we went from 50 degrees to 90 degrees overnight. We might see stronger storms.

It sounds like making wine here is hard in different ways than on the west coast.

Every single year, we get thrown something that none of us have seen. We might have a weird pollination year, or we’re seeing new bugs, like the spotted lantern fly. There’s stuff we don’t hear about from the West Coast because they don’t have to deal with it.

What I’m mostly concerned with is preserving open spaces and undeveloped land, because it’s important to encourage biodiversity for our farming systems.

How are you getting the message out about these wines?

We still haven’t reached critical mass. The early adopters have figured it out, and that’s due to people like Andrea (Hillsey, owner of Square Wine) and Brad and Allison (Kruse) at Nonfiction in Milwaukee, and Justin Spaller at Chromatic Wine, and social media.

Most of our visitors to the tasting room are still coming from city centers, where they may have seen it on a shelf or have heard of it. We do get people who walk in just because they found a winery near them, and that’s always fun, because you don’t know what they might be expecting, because they’ve never heard of us really. And then a lot of interest is coming from the coast.

What do you hope for the future of American Wine Project?

The barrier to entry to get into the wine industry in this region is low. This is a family project, not a vanity project. My goal is to be able to farm better and make better wine every single year, and sell it, so I can make a decent living and retire with some level of dignity.

I would love to have more of a presence in the state. It would be a dream for people to look at the lineup of wines in their wine shop and have my wine next to the Chardonnay … and have somebody say, “You know what, this is this is local, so this is the one I want,” and know there’s no risk involved with that. I want consumers to understand what’s possible here.

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