FEATURE: Uncorking the Chippewa Valley Wine Scene

Yes, Wisconsin is beer country, but wine lovers who look closely will find palate-pleasing restaurants, retailers, wine bars, and vineyards aplenty.

Katie Vagnino, photos by Andrea Paulseth, Hanna Agar

It took everything in me not to cry out in horror.

I knew that bars in Eau Claire would be a little different than the ones I was used to on the East Coast (for instance, l had been warned that many were cash-only), but nothing could have prepared me for this: a 6 oz. plastic container, sealed with peel-off foil, and allegedly filled with red wine.

“You said Cabernet, right?” the bartender asked, confused by my dismayed expression. “We have other kinds, too, if you want something else.”

“Do they all … come like this?”

“Yeah, but I can pour it in a glass for you, if you want?”

My companion, a Wisconsin native who was enjoying a Spotted Cow, started chuckling. Scanning the bar and seeing mostly pint glasses, beer bottles, and cans, I realized that acclimating to Eau Claire might be more challenging than I had anticipated. I sighed and ordered a cider.

Fast-forward almost three years, and I’m happy to say I have found a few spots to get my wine fix that don’t involve peel-off foil. The Chippewa Valley may never be an oenophile’s paradise, but it isn’t a wine wasteland, either – and according to those who work in the industry, it’s improving all the time. Still, the fate of Splash, the short-lived wine bar on Water Street that closed in 2014, begs the question: Is there a viable wine scene here?

Mona Lisa's

MONA LISA’S RESTAURANT, EAU CLAIRE
MONA LISA’S RESTAURANT, EAU CLAIRE

When I first moved to Eau Claire, I remember driving around town and feeling heartened upon seeing the word “WINE” in giant letters in the front window of Mona Lisa’s (428 Water St.). It’s the place most folks associate with wine for a number of reasons: the popular Tuesday tasting series in the summer, the annual wine sale in November, the sheer number of bottles on their list (currently close to 200), just to name a few. Even the glassware (Fortessa crystal) is top-of-the-line, beloved by sommeliers. Mona Lisa’s has been a fixture of the food and wine scene since it opened in 1994, so I figured if anyone would have something to say about wine culture in the Chippewa Valley, it would be Lisa Aspenson, who co-owns the Mediterranean/Italian eatery with her partner, John Mogenson.

Aspenson confirmed that their wine sales top liquor and beer sales by a sizeable margin, and that that has always been the case. A quick scan of their nearly 20 wines available by-the-glass offers a clue as to why; there’s a range of price points, a variety of regions represented, and a balance of less well-known varietals (Grüner Veltliner) and classic crowd-pleasers (Merlot). It’s an accessible list, designed to please wine snobs like me as well as your great-aunt Pat who likes an ice cube in her Pinot Grigio.

“My list is curated kind of like the wind,” Aspenson says, laughing, when I ask her about how she chooses wines (fun fact: she writes the tasting notes, too). The glass pour list changes weekly in the summer and about every two weeks otherwise, because Aspenson likes to be able to offer her clientele wines they won’t find elsewhere. “When oaked Chardonnay was popular, we were selling unoaked Chardonnay,” she says with pride. This is also one of the reasons why she is not a fan of the keg systems that have proliferated on the West Coast. While the wine stays fresh and drinkable for longer, saving restaurants money, it’s considerably more difficult to switch up the selection on a regular basis. So don’t expect the next Aspenson/Mogenson business venture, a restaurant opening next door on Water Street “sometime in 2016,” to have wine on tap, novel as that may sound.

Above all else, Aspenson wants diners to be able to trust the recommendations of her staff, so servers are encouraged to learn (and taste!) as much as possible in order to develop their palates. She’s also on hand herself most nights to suggest food-friendly pairings. Guiding people as they venture beyond their most-likely-Moscato comfort zones is one of her favorite parts of the job.  Tell her what you usually drink, and she’ll pour you something in the same ballpark (but maybe closer to home plate).

The Coffee Grounds

THE COFFEE GROUNDS, EAU CLAIRE
THE COFFEE GROUNDS, EAU CLAIRE

Another longtime staple in the Chippewa Valley wine community is The Coffee Grounds (4212 Southtowne Drive), which just celebrated its 25th anniversary this month. I first heard about it from a guy I met on OkCupid – although we only went one date, he will always hold a special place in my heart for that valuable intel. As the name suggests, coffee remains central, but wine sales are now also robust, making up 30 percent of the business’s annual revenue. Based on how much I alone buy there, I’m actually surprised that number isn’t higher.

What separates The Coffee Grounds from other wine retailers in the area is the focus on small producers; 90 percent of the inventory comes from wineries that put out fewer than 10,000 cases a year, with a majority yielding only 3,000-5,000 cases total. To put that into perspective, Australian behemoth Yellow Tail sells roughly 8 million cases a year in the U.S. alone. Owner and wine guru Eric Nelson likes to work with family-owned operations and has visited about half of the vineyards represented in his store. He estimates that he tastes around 750 to 1,000 wines a year, 350 of which end up making it onto his shelves. 

The selection at the Coffee Grounds is completely different than what you’ll find at any of the supermarket chains or liquor stores – and it won’t break the bank. “I look for wines that over-deliver for the price point,” Nelson explains. It’s quite easy to find something delectable for under $10; I would personally recommend a red from Chile or Argentina. For a few dollars more than what you’d pay for mass-market domestic label (Rex Goliath, anyone?), you can buy a bottle that’s truly outstanding and will impress your spouse/roommate/cat. The best values, though, are the $12-$15 bottles – according to Nelson, once you’re in that range, you can expect the wines to have more character and structure, as well as traces of the terroir (the land where the grapes were grown). And if you’re really looking to splurge, there is a reserve temperature-controlled cellar with bottles priced in the $50-$2,000 range.

The Coffee Grounds also boasts a cute little bar with a few beers on tap as well as four reds and four whites by the glass for $6 a pop. Or you can buy any bottle and pay a corkage fee to drink it in house. They also host a monthly event called Cork & Fork, where after a brief talk – usually given by a wine rep or distributor – you get to enjoy delicious food sourced from local farms and dairies, and sample the wines you’ve just learned about.

Nelson is encouraged by the recent spike in wine curiosity, which he attributes to the wineries that have cropped up nearby in the past decade. He describes his current customer base as “adventuresome” and eager to learn more about what they’re drinking. Word has apparently gotten out, too – it is not uncommon, Nelson says, for folks from the Twin Cities to stop in to purchase wine – and beer. (I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that The Coffee Grounds also has an extensive specialty beer selection. When my friends from Minneapolis visit, they stock up on the most obscure stuff they can find.)

From the Vine

FROM THE VINE WINE ROOM, EAU CLAIRE
FROM THE VINE WINE ROOM, EAU CLAIRE

If you Google “wine bar Eau Claire,” as I did soon after relocating, the first hit is From the Vine Wine Room (2526 Golf Road). Over a glass of Zinfandel, I chatted with owner Kathy Nuenke, who five years ago this July decided to find out if a wine bar could survive in a beer-saturated market. After 29 years working as an accountant for the public health department, Nuenke was ready for a change, and the success of wine-centric venues in Appleton and La Crosse gave her hope that if she poured it, they (the winos) would come. And indeed, they have – especially women, who were (and still are) her primary demographic.

“I wanted to provide a place for women to relax with friends, and not be bothered by the hockey game on TV,” Nuenke says. On weeknights, it’s a mostly after-work crowd, but on weekends, she sees a lot of couples on first dates. A few folks have even gotten engaged (hopefully not on the first date). Some evenings, Nuenke brings in local musicians, but nothing too boisterous. Nuenke believes wine-drinking, like wine-making, should be a slow, unhurried experience, and she wants her guests to savor each sip.

From the Vine is the perfect place to experiment: You can choose from 19 different flights, each consisting of three two-ounce samples grouped together by region, varietal, and flavor profile. Flights start at just $5, and affordability is important to Nuenke, who admits that she used to make her own wine because she was “too cheap to buy it.” Unlike at Mona Lisa’s and The Coffee Grounds, Wisconsin wineries, such as Elmaro and Belle Vinez, are represented among the 65 wines, almost all of which can be ordered by the glass. The list changes frequently, and discontinued vintages end up on a discount rack – I scored a very-marked-down bottle of Muscadet on my way out.

In addition to numerous wines from California and Washington, From the Vine has a few interesting Old World offerings from Europe and South America. Bold red blends and the sweeter flights are perennial bestsellers, though Nuenke prefers buttery Chardonnays and is searching for a French Malbec to add to her roster. Regardless of palate, she’s invested in “helping people on their journeys,” so don’t be embarrassed if your favorite wines are pink and bubbly. If that’s the case, try the Riesling flight, or a glass of the Pierre Sparr Gewürztraminer. 

For those looking to up their wine cred, From the Vine hosts classes on the second Monday of every month. For $20, you can taste four different wines and learn how to talk about tannins and aromas without sounding dumb.

Bye the Willow

BYE THE WILLOW, CHIPPEWA FALLS
BYE THE WILLOW, CHIPPEWA FALLS

After the Picket Fence Antique Mall closed its doors in 2013, the 100-year-old building at the corner of Willow and High Streets in Chippewa Falls became a notorious eyesore – until it was bought by Dawn and Amy Bye in May 2014. A little over a year before, on a road trip to Nashville to celebrate Amy’s 20th birthday, the mother-daughter duo came up with the idea to open an event space and wine bar in their hometown. Like Nuenke, the Byes also envisioned a predominantly female clientele and wanted to create a place where women could comfortably chat over drinks after work. Bye the Willow opened in October 2014 and has become a popular destination, and not just for lady wine drinkers like me. Since the Chippewa Falls City Council granted them a full liquor license last summer, they have been attracting a more diverse crowd.

To call them a “wine bar” is a little inaccurate: In addition to the more than 40 wines available by the glass and bottle, they also boast an impressive selection of craft beers and signature cocktails. Still, wine is central to their business, and they’ve even secured a few exclusives from their distributor; for instance, Bye the Willow is the only place in Chippewa that pours the award-winning Angeline Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley region in California. Other honorable mentions: Campus Oaks “Old Vine” Zinfandel, made from grapes grown on 80+-year-old vines, and Ramón Bilbao Crianza, which is an ideal introduction to Spanish reds (and also happens to be Amy’s personal favorite).

Dawn admits that when they first opened, the learning curve was steep; she knew what she liked to drink, but not much about wine buying or selling. Now, after a lot of tasting, both her knowledge and palate have evolved – whereas she used to stick to sweet white wines, she now prefers bold, fruit-forward Cabs and red blends. To help others expand their horizons, Bye the Willow offers a tasting flight with eight wines, and will also let you sample anything on their list before committing to a glass.

The Byes feel encouraged by the response they’ve received so far; Amy says that although Chippewa will always be “a Leinie’s town,” they have a number of regulars who love the contemporary-yet-cozy ambience. “We want people to feel like they’re in someone’s living room,” Dawn explains. Someone with fairly sophisticated taste: It’s apparently not unusual for guests to exclaim something along the lines of “I can’t believe we’re in Chippewa Falls right now!”

The Rev

The rumors are true: Barstow Street is about to get its very own legit wine bar with the opening of the Rev (short for The Revolutionary). Benny Haas, owner of The Plus, is transforming the space next door (formerly benny HaHa, 204 S. Barstow St.) into a venue that he promises will be “not stodgy.” Plans include a tasting counter, flights, a tapas menu, and even rentable wine lockers for those who’ve run out of room in their personal cellars or just like the idea of an off-site secret stash.

Haas will focus on domestic wines, in keeping with his Americana theme and a vibe he describes as “modern rustic.” As the name implies, he wants to “overthrow” the stereotypes people have about wine (that it’s for fancy, pretentious types; that there are rules about what to drink and how to drink it). For starters, he’s installing a tap system for the 18 or so wines that will be featured in flights and available by the glass, to take a little of the pomp and circumstance out of the experience (and maximize freshness). However, bottles will still be on hand for those who wish to be old school.

The Rev will also offer its own take on the paint-and-sip model, allowing customers to create art at their tables while imbibing, which could be a real lifesaver on interminable bad dates. (Nothing in common? Just smile and keep painting!) I know my brushwork certainly improves after a few glasses of vino, as does my dancing.      

Perhaps most excitingly, the Rev will be able to do off-sales of wine until midnight. No beer or hard liquor will be served; for that, you’ll have to go next door to the Plus.

• • •

So it seems like things are looking up for wine enthusiasts like me. And for those interested in the winemaking process, there are a dozen wineries within an hour’s drive of the Chippewa Valley, plus Infinity Beverages (which doesn’t farm its own grapes, but does everything else). People may not associate wine with Wisconsin, but we are actually part of a certified American Viticultural Area (AVA). In 2009, the Upper Mississippi Valley region (which, in addition to Wisconsin, includes parts of Minnesota, Illinois, and Iowa) received its official designation from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. When you think about it, it makes perfect sense: We already make the best cheese in the world – now we’re making wine to go with it.

If I could travel back in time and talk to that bewildered girl on a barstool, I would tell her to not be concerned – there’s plenty of decent wine to be found here if you know where to look and who to ask. Rosé season, a.k.a. the summer, is almost upon us, and I for one can’t wait to picnic by the river with a bottle or two. Cheers!

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