“If it tastes good, it is good.” That’s the measure of a quality wine according to Alwyn Fitzgerald, founder of Fisher King Winery.
Earlier this year, Fisher King moved from Mount Horeb to 1105 Laser Street, Verona, in the Liberty Business Park along Highway M and near Highway 18 and 151. The Verona tasting room is about three times the size, and visitors can view wine being created in stainless steel tanks ranging in size from 80 to 1,100 gallons.
After 35 years in the corporate world, Alwyn opened his winery in Mount Horeb in 2011. He started out brewing beer but had wanted to create a winery for a long time. As a hobbyist, he began producing wine in his basement. To perfect his skills, Alwyn was involved in programs through Michigan State University; wine-making courses at Carbondale, Illinois; and as part of the certificate program at the University of California, Davis. Alwyn credits mentors Philippe Coquard of Wollersheim Winery in Prairie du Sac and Alan Dillard of Limestone Creek Winery in southern Illinois with helping him to improve his proficiency.
Alwyn first started using the Fisher King name when he was purchasing ingredients and equipment in 2006. Being an avid reader, he would occasionally come across the mythological Fisher King and became fascinated with the legend. The character is present in pagan mythology as a connection between the land and its people. In winter, the Fisher King is at his weakest, but with the arrival of spring, his health is renewed and the land rejuvenated. By summer, the land and its people are hale and hearty. In this spirit, the grapes are harvested and Fisher King wine is produced.
Alwyn is passionate about promoting the buy local movement. He believes more and more of today’s consumers want to know where their food and drink are coming from. “People respond positively to a local enterprise. Our customers like that our wines taste really good and we’re supporting local farmers,” he says. About 65 percent of Fisher King wine is produced from grapes grown in the southern third of Wisconsin. Wisconsin grapes are not like the classic grapes of France, where the climate is more temperate. Grapes grown here are hybrids having fruity, berry-like flavors; a light body; and higher acidity.
Alwyn is a fan of the Marquette grape varietal that was developed at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. This cold-hardy grape, resistant to mold and mildew, is able to survive through a harsh Wisconsin winter. Its high sugar content and moderate acidity make Marquette desirable in the winery. Fisher King’s Marquette (dry red wine) has won gold and silver industry awards in 2013, 2014, and 2015.
Other award-winning wines include Meadow Song Moscato and Blue Rapture, light sweet white wines that were honored in 2013, 2014, and 2016, and White Whisper and Saint Pepin, semisweet whites that received recognition in 2014 and 2016. In addition to Marquette, the other red wine that has earned industry accolades is Troll Town Red, a Pinot Noir-style dry wine that earned a double-gold medal from the American Wine Society in 2014. Fisher King was also named the 2015 Wisconsin Winery of the Year at the New York International Wine Competition.
Along with the medal winners, Alwyn recommends Perfection Port, fortified with premium oak-aged brandy, for sipping in front of a roaring fire. This wine pairs well with dark chocolate and stronger-flavored, savory cheeses. Also for winter, he points to Glühwein, a hot, spiced red wine his mother served to customers of his parents’ Christmas tree farm in western Massachusetts. Customers at the tasting room can sample this seasonal specialty and purchase a packet of spices to make their own Glühwein at home with the appropriate wine suggested by Alwyn.
Alwyn also serves as president of the Wisconsin Winery Association. He maintains that Wisconsin has a great deal of room to grow its wine business. In 2000, Wisconsin had just 13 permitted wineries; now there are upwards of 140. “Having more wineries in Wisconsin will give customers a choice and more of a range of things to try,” he says.
According to a study undertaken in 2012 by the University of Wisconsin–Madison Department of Agricultural & Applied Economics, the economic impact of Wisconsin’s wine industry was about $150 million. A 2015 Michigan State University study shows that when direct spending on wine tourism is factored in, the impact increases another $50 million. “The old model of a winery in a rural area where people visit to sample and then buy a bottle or two to take out for off-site consumption is being turned on its ear,” Alwyn states. “People want to come and linger. See the production process, stay for special events.”
At Fisher King Winery, live music and other entertainment is offered several nights per week. Local musicians are regularly featured on Friday nights and oftentimes on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. This past summer and fall, Fisher King was also designated the exclusive wine provider at Breese Stevens Field, an outdoor venue for concerts, sporting events, public markets, fish fries, and movies near downtown Madison.
After six years in business, Alywn finds two aspects of his operation have been most fulfilling. When he first opened, he converted an old, dilapidated building in Mount Horeb that had been a plumbing supply store into a beautiful, upscale space and built a loyal following of customers who packed the venue, thus necessitating the move to a new, larger location. Second, Alwyn remarks, “I marvel at the group of people I have working for me. They care about the winery and are stepping up to take on more responsibility. It’s great to see staff vested in the winery’s success, and allows me to delegate an increasing number of functions to others.” For example, Alwyn gave the title and responsibility of head winemaker to Bill Lancaster.
Fisher King Winery made 8,000 gallons of wine in 2016, up from 6,000 gallons in 2015. The wines can be purchased in over 150 locations around Wisconsin. Alwyn suggests giving the gift of local wine for the holidays, whether as an individual to a friend or family member or as a business to customers in a gift basket. Wines can be ordered online at fisherkingwinery.com. Before giving that gift, Alwyn encourages people to come to the tasting room, where about a dozen wines are served along with craft beer. Cheese and sausage sampler plates, as well as truffles, chocolates, and artisan breads, are on the menu. Visitors can sample five wines for $7. The tasting room is open Monday through Wednesday, noon to 7:00 p.m.; Thursday and Friday, noon to 9:00 p.m.; Saturday, 11:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.; and Sunday, noon to 6:00 p.m.
Jeanne Engle is a freelance writer.