Fruit of the Vine – Wining in the Heartland

CrispThe air was sweet and crisp on the morning of October 25, as Ann and I made our way toward Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin beneath a big blue sky. On board Miss Scarlett, my fully-faired touring bike, we ran the Interstate west and north, through the Madison metro, before exiting onto Highway 60 toward Lodi and points beyond. The sights and smells of autumn were all around us as we left the more urban environs behind.

Cows. I could definitely smell cows.

The village of Prairie du Sac lies on the banks of the Wisconsin River in picturesque Sauk County. While the town itself lies immediately west of the river, our first destination of the day, Wollersheim Winery, is found immediately east of the river on Wisconsin Highway 188. I’ve traveled to this winery enough times between 1986 and now to be able to get there without the aid of maps or signs. Until this day, however, my friend Ann had never been there. As a longtime fan of Wollersheim, I took great pleasure in making this introduction.

VineyardWe followed the gentle, sweeping curves of WI 188 only a short while before parts of the vineyard came into view. Less than half a mile farther, we were leaning into the winery’s main drive. There were other vehicles in the parking lot, but ours was the only motorcycle thus far. After dismounting, we locked up our helmets, gathered our phones and other necessities, and began making our way uphill toward the main building.

My wife Karen and I used to go weekending in these parts in the mid-to-late 1980’s, before our kids came along. At that time, the winery essentially consisted of an old stone building on a hill and a cave hewn into a hillside further up. The facility has grown and developed considerably since then. Additions have been built onto the original building, which is still recognizable, especially from the inside, and the grounds, once quite utilitarian in appearance, are now beautifully landscaped. Most recently a distillery has been added, where brandy is made.

Although Bob Wollersheim is no longer with us (he passed away in 2005), Philippe Coquard, the winemaker that Bob brought on in 1984 from the Beaujolais region of France, is still quite active in the day-to-day operations. Philippe is also an avid motorcyclist. I have never had the pleasure of meeting him in person, but have seen him tending to his craft during past visits.

Wine2This being Ann’s first time at Wollersheim, I made sure we took the tour, which takes about an hour. The tour includes stops at points like the fermentation and aging areas, incorporating informative videos along the way, and concludes with a guided tasting session. I grew up in a household where my father made wine, as did others in our extended family, so I am somewhat familiar with the processes, sights, and especially the smells of wine making. I caught my first whiff of fermenting grapes before Ann and I even entered the building. When we entered the fermentation room, despite being behind the glass windows of an observation area, my nose was immersed in the familiar, heady aroma. I’m reasonably sure I was smiling the whole time.

Wine1At the conclusion of our tour, Ann and I tasted a number of reds and whites, ranging from dry to semi-sweet, and concluded with a white port. Port wines are usually ruby or tawny in color, quite sweet, and fortified with brandy, making them ideal as an after-meal treat. The white port we sampled fit all aspects of this description, except for the color.

AnnWollersheim Winery also has a large shop, where visitors can purchase wines by the bottle or case, as well as all manner of wine-related utensils, vessels and apparel. Since this was our first stop of the day, with many more hours planned, we opted not to load the bike with 750 ml bottles. Perhaps next time. Instead we strolled the grounds together, making a point of stopping in to see the historic cave, where wine was once stored, before heading back down to the motorcycle and continuing our day together.

Will we be back? Given my track record so far, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised. But to anybody who is into touring rural Wisconsin and visiting wineries, I wholeheartedly recommend a visit to Wollersheim.

Ann n Me in ShadowsI already talked about our next stop in my inaugural post, made earlier this week. So next time I’ll tell you about our final, perhaps most magical destination of the day. Until then…

– MGD

All photos by Ann M. Fischler and Michael G. D’Aversa

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Once Beautiful: The Old Schoolhouse Revisited and Remembered

It sits silently on a hill at the intersection of County DL and Bluff Road...

It sits silently on a hill at the intersection of County DL and Bluff Road…

They say you can never go back. Had it been a mistake to try? I didn’t think so at the time, nor do I now, but I would be lying to say that it didn’t hurt a little to see what had become of The Old Schoolhouse, a favorite eating establishment of mine that has now stood silent for about a decade.

It was just last Sunday that my friend Ann and I had gone out on Miss Scarlett, my 2012 Victory Vision Tour, for one last ride together this season. We live 150 miles apart, so these excursions take a little bit of planning. We had selected a few key destinations for our day trip, Mother Nature cooperated with a fair-albeit-cool weather day, my wife Karen gave our endeavor her blessing, and off we went.

Stopping to see what had once been The Old Schoolhouse was an afterthought at best, a last-minute decision made while en route to Devil’s Lake State Park (more on that in another post). This entire area, north and west of Madison, Wisconsin, had been a favorite weekending destination for Karen and me in the years 1 to 7 BC (before children). Often on the spur of the moment, we would pack a bag, jump in the car and head north for an overnighter. We would stop at Wollersheim Winery in Prairie du Sac and then tour the countryside for the afternoon. I had learned about The Old Schoolhouse, as well as the winery, in a locally published book, now long lost, called (I think) My Wisconsin and the purpose of our first weekend trip out thataway had been to find these two places.

This place I’m telling you about was then a sandwich shop housed in an old one-room schoolhouse located just outside the entrance to Devil’s Head Ski Resort. A jailhouse and chapel had also been added on, but were not yet being used when we had first discovered this establishment, and there was an old train caboose parked outside. The place was decorated with many antique toys and school implements and positively exuded charm. A sign outside proclaimed, “If the colonel had our chicken recipe, he’d have been a general!” The food was great, too. I used to get something called the Super Club, which was too big to bite vertically, but oh so delicious. Karen’s favorite was a French Dip on a homemade roll that refused to release the au jus once dipped.

In the years that followed, The Old Schoolhouse grew into a supper club, utilizing all three buildings. Karen and I ate supper there with friends once, on our way back from someplace else. I remember white tablecloths, cloth napkins and nice flatware. The food was still excellent, but the original coziness of my favorite lunch stop had given way to something else, I think. That turned out to be our last time there.

In the years that followed, kids came, life got quite a bit busier and things like discretionary income and romantic spur-of-the-moment getaways became a thing of the past. At one point, in 2003, I took up motorcycling, which soon evolved into motorcycle touring, something that remains a passion of mine to this day. From the very start, Karen has wholeheartedly supported my involvement in the hobby, but does not partake in it herself, for a variety of reasons. One day, five or more years ago, I found myself leading a group of about ten bikes down County DL and pulled up in front of The Old Schoolhouse – possibly intending for my group to have lunch there. It was closed. It was for sale. I stopped to tell everybody about the place. Then we rode on, but I still recall the heavy feeling in my heart.

I made inquiries. The owner, up in years, retired and had been trying to sell the place since 1999. As far as I can tell, it was still operating as late as 2005. Then things get sketchy. An attempt to sell it at auction was made in 2013, apparently unsuccessful. At the time, I briefly fantasized about buying the place myself but was saved by an utter lack of funds. In reality, I didn’t want to run the place; I just wanted to be able to go there again and enjoy The Old Schoolhouse as it once was.

...in a state of long-term disuse.

…in a state of long-term disuse.

Fast forward to last Sunday. I knew we would be going near the location on our way to our intended stops for the day. I told Ann a little bit about the place beforehand and I remember her asking me, “Is it haunted?”

To which I replied, “It haunts me.”

“I want to see it.”

Still the final decision wasn’t made until we were cruising north on Sunday afternoon.

I leaned back and asked, “Do you still want to see The Old Schoolhouse? It might not be pretty.”

“Do you?”

“I don’t know.” That was the truth, to be sure. I still remembered what it had felt like the last time. But Ann is a long-time friend and I so wanted to share things like this with her. Besides, maybe we would discover that somebody was doing something with the place again. But I still wasn’t sure.

“It’s up to you.” Great. I said nothing more as we continued plying the simply beautiful roads that are Wisconsin Highways 78 and 113. Fall colors abounded in every direction.

The junction sign for County DL (as in Devil’s Lake) appeared and in an instant, all doubt about what I was going to do immediately fell away.

I leaned back into my passenger’s space once more to declare,“I’m gonna’ take a little detour.”

“Okay.”

We leaned right and turned east onto DL, temporarily moving away from the state park and toward a place I absolutely knew I had to see again. At the intersection of County DL and Bluff Road, I saw the place and what it had become. If it is possible for ones heart to simultaneously leap and fall, that’s exactly what happened to me then and there. We pulled in, dismounted and walked around the property together. I beheld a decade of silence in the form of peeling paint, rotting wood, and faded memories. Could anybody bring it back from this sorry state? It would take one hell of an investment and very solid business plan to even try. But all I wanted to do at that point was tell Ann of my happy memories of what this place once was.

And I think she understood what I was trying to convey, yet at the same time she was mesmerized by what she saw in the sheer beauty of the wilderness that surrounded us. A daughter of the American Revolution by definition, Ann’s ancestors came here before this country became a country. Gazing out at the forested hills, she offered, “This is pretty much the same way it was back then.” She was right, of course, and it was so beautiful. In that moment of exchange, she and I stood there, each appreciating what the other was seeing.

All photos in this post courtesy of Ann Fischler.

All photos in this post courtesy of Ann Fischler.

I had seen enough. After one last longing glance around, we climbed aboard Miss Scarlett and were soon back on our way to our next destination. Unless something changes, I doubt that I will ever feel such a strong desire to go back there again. We came, we saw, we understood. And for now at least, that’s enough.