by Bill and Mary Weaver
Villa Bellezza, a stunning, picturesque winery reminiscent of classical Italian villas, which opened in 2012, is supported by 12 acres of vineyards near Pepin, WI. Viticulture in Wisconsin?
Wisconsin might sound like an unlikely climate for grape growing, but winery president in charge of sales and marketing, Julianne Dahlen, describes the area of the Upper Mississippi Valley (in Minnesota as well as Wisconsin), as an emerging wine and grape growing region. “This beautiful valley, known as the ‘driftless area’ or bluff area, escaped the glaciers of the last ice age. The Mississippi River provides a unique climate, steep hills with good air drainage, and well-drained silt, clay, or sandy soils that are ideal for viticulture,” she noted. “It’s exciting to be part of this emerging industry. We hope more wineries open on both sides of the Upper Mississippi. Villa Bellezza is, by production, one of the largest wineries in Wisconsin. We crushed 80 tons of grapes last year and expect more this year, with new sections of vineyards just coming into production.”
This northern viticulture industry, developed within the past 20 years, is made possible by the extremely cold-hardy grape varieties developed and introduced by the University of Minnesota and by an amateur breeder, Elmer Swenson.
Villa Bellezza, producing wines using traditional methods combined with modern scientific techniques, began as a long-nurtured dream of Derick and Julianne Dahlen, he an energy executive and she having enjoyed a long career in marketing and sales.
The Dahlens and their five daughters had found a welcoming community and camaraderie at wineries in Italy, where they were virtually adopted into one large, warm, Italian extended family. Their long-time dream has been to create a meeting place that fosters the same kind of warm, close relationships among their customers in a winery of their own. Villa Bellezza is the culmination of that dream.
Not timid, the Dahlens dreamed large and built large, right from the start, using an architectural plan designed by Derick Dahlen.
Their ‘dream of a winery’ includes a Great Hall, which can seat as many as 320, with an indoor balcony looking down on the main floor where a bride and groom can dance alone above their guests; a Tower Reception Salon for pre-dinner wine receptions or dancing; a spacious tasting room (in a building on the property that had once been a bank. The wine storage is in the former bank vault!); a bridal suite where the bride and attendants have the opportunity to peek out at guests arriving on the piazza below; a private corporate space for executive breakouts; the open piazza itself, used for dining, socializing, and dancing; and a fully equipped winery which, in its first year of operation, had already won recognition and prizes for its wines in several competitions around the country.
For weddings, the operation offers a ‘ceremony in the vines,’ with the bride and groom’s choice of sites in the vineyards. Thanks to Julianne Dahlen’s expertise in marketing, and the couple’s careful planning and preparation, their private event spaces are mostly booked, not only for the rest of 2013, but also for 2014.
“We have 16 weddings booked for 2014 alone,” she noted, quite a coup for a brand new establishment. “We hosted the Pepin High School Prom this past May. Next, we want to work on developing more public events.”
Derick Dahlen, chief winemaker, “has been making wines for family and friends for quite a while,” continued Julianne, “from a vineyard he and I planted by hand near our vacation home ten years ago, with our daughters helping with watering and planting as well.”
The freshly harvested grapes are mechanically crushed at once to preserve the best quality. Although some of their wines are still aged in traditional oak barrels, “Derick decided there were enough advantages to step away from tradition and use a more high-tech approach for other wines, which are aged in stainless steel. The stainless steel barrels give an advantage in air locking, in ease of testing, and in controlling the environment in which the wine ages,” Julianne explains. “Derek also has a rather elaborate filtration process, a cross-flow filtration system, which is a large piece of German equipment. Proper filtration preserves the purity of the wine. It takes 2.5 hours to run 1500 gallons of raw wine. Our wine is filtered several times, including right before it’s bottled.”
The Dahlens have neatly solved the problem of needing seasonal labor for short periods by cross-training all their employees, so that in addition to their usual jobs, each one also has the opportunity to harvest grapes, bottle wine, and prune in the vineyards.
“It’s a plus when an employee can tell a customer, ‘I bottled this wine myself,’ or ‘I helped to pick the grapes used to make this wine.’” Villa Bellezza’s grapes have been hand-picked up to this point, but some of the grapes they buy from other vineyards are mechanically harvested. “Derek is in the process of deciding which mechanical harvester will best suit our operation. This will greatly speed harvesting in the future.”
The Dahlens are happy with the business they’ve created. “It’s a good place to spend the second half of our lives,” Julianne commented. “Derick still holds his executive job in Minneapolis, but hopes to spend more and more time here in the coming years, creating new wines. Our daughters in New York keep ‘farm clothes’ here, planning to help in the vineyards when they visit. We picked the area because of its beauty. It’s near Minneapolis, but when you arrive here, you feel like you’re in a very different place.”
by Bill and Mary Weaver