By Mel Grau
A new spin on the farm-to-table foodie trend, the Great River Road Wine Trail is perfect for young adventurers looking to sip on local wines and explore eclectic eateries. Unlike older wineries in Wisconsin that relied on imported grapes, the vineyards along the Trail resulted from scientific breakthroughs in cold-hardy grape varietals. Armed with new grapes able to withstand Wisconsin’s winters, Wisconsin farmers recently transformed the Mississippi River Valley into the newest, locally grown vineyard vacation hotspot. Many of the 11 award-winning wineries on the Trail offer free wine flights, live music and charming farm family foundations. Plus, venturing to each is a rite of passage—you get a stamp on your winery passport for each one you visit.
Locally grown grapes just taste better, and though each vineyard offers quality wine, below is a sample itinerary that gives any wine connoisseur something new to try.
Start out the day at Elmaro Winery. With complimentary tastings and family friends manning the bar, Elmaro will help introduce you to Wisconsin’s cold hybrid grapes. Marquette Rosé and La Crescent—both multiple award-winners—are great starters. Save a glass to enjoy outside next to the vines, and be sure to play one of Elmaro’s group table games.
Stop 2 – The Historic Trempealeau Hotel – Trempealeau
Stop for lunch at one of Wisconsin’s great relics, the Historic Trempealeau Hotel. More than 140 years old, the hotel’s lunch menu is surprisingly contemporary. Everything is made from scratch, but the must-eat is the infamous walnut burger. It’s healthy and organic and, quite simply, delicious. Another local favorite is the sweet potato hash with chorizo. Whatever you order, enjoy your meal idly gazing at the Mississippi from the hotel’s screened porch.
Stop 3 – Seven Hawks Vineyards – Fountain City
Just 20 miles north of Trempealeau, Seven Hawks Vineyards bucks the traditional settings of many wine tastings. Instead, the Seven Hawks tasting room is located in the heart of downtown Fountain City. Though the winery’s grapes are grown north of Fountain City in one of the largest vineyards in the Midwest, the owners chose to create a social gathering place for guests to taste their award-winning wines like Smiling Moon or Hunters Blend. Climb to the second floor patio to toast the town.
Stop 4 – Danzinger Vineyards – Alma
A farming family founded Danzinger atop the river bluffs, and they joke it’s their retirement project. Now they work 60 hours a week instead of 80. But their dedication pays off—Danzinger won the 2013 Winery of the Year from the Wisconsin Winery Association. The winery also wins the title for best view on the Trail. Gaze at the Mississippi River from above and dare to try one of Danzinger’s fruity wines like King Cranberry or Deep Currants.
Stop 5 – Harbor View Café – Pepin
Travel from the bluffs down to Lake Pepin’s marina for dinner at Harbor View Café. You can’t miss the blue sidings and hot pink chairs welcoming you from the patio. The Café denotes the daily menu on a chalkboard, but yearly favorites include the spring lamb or buffalo. The always-fresh food is worth savoring, but the detailed interior deserves attention too. Packed with books, the café is more like an overstuffed library than a restaurant.
Cap off the night with a fanciful finale at Villa Bellezza. Though you’ll be drinking homemade Wisconsin wine, you’ll feel transported to the Italian countryside with the winery’s stucco and stone buildings, red tile roofs, colonnades and porticos. While sitting in the central piazza, sip on Zitella amidst the sleeping grapes. Also keep in mind Bellezza typically offers free samples of their newest wines—and they’re always worth trying.
Looking for more wineries? They're aplenty in Wisconsin!