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Life on the Frontier
by Greg Norton
Magazine Issue: U.S. Vol. 5.6

Wine Trends in Wisconsin

About a year ago, my wife Sarah and I decided to buy a restaurant... in Wisconsin... in rural western Wisconsin, 135th Ave., uptown Bay City: population 282. It’s called The Nortons’ Restaurant (original, I know), and it’s the best little restaurant in a pole barn. Not on the river. Not on the highway. Right where nobody knows we’re here. Perfect.

Prior to this restaurant gig, I’d spent seven years buying wine for the Staghead, located just across the Mississippi in Red Wing, Minnesota. Once I crossed the river, though, I stepped into a whole new world; a new world of distributors with a new set of rules for the “who” and “what” of the wine world. What a long, strange trip it’s been.

For example: There are some wines I can easily buy across the river in Minnesota but can’t get on this side in Wisconsin (Roshambo). Some wines that aren’t available in Minnesota (K Vintners) are readily accessed in Wisconsin. And some wines that I’ve managed to track down through exhaustive searching somehow take months and months to show up on my doorstep.

Then there are wines in Minnesota that are highly allocated. You need to play “the game” with the distributor to get a couple preciously allocated bottles. In other words, you gotta take a bunch of crap they’re stuck with to get the good bottles you want. But on this side of the river, you can show up at a trade tasting where they pour what would’ve been your entire year’s allocation in Minnesota. “Hell, we’ve got pallets of this stuff. How much do you want?”

It’s just a frickin’ river!

Over the past year, we’ve tried to introduce our customers to new and different wines. During the summer months our goal is to pour more pinks. We’ve been very successful with delicious juice from southern Italy (Quattroventi Rosato de Puglia), Spain (Marques de Caceres Rioja Rosado), France (Domaine de la Petite Cassagne Costierres de Nimes) and our perennial California favorite Bonny Doon Vin Gris de Cigare. We’ve seen our customers drink more pinot noirs from Oregon’s Willamette Valley (Oregon’s been on a run of great vintages). Our faves are Adelsheim, Ponzi, Elk Cove and St. Innocent. Oregon’s producing some great whites as well, like Elk Cove pinot gris, Adelsheim Tocai Friulano and Ponzi Arneis.

Wines from Spain - great wines and incredible values - have also been selling quite well. Old vine garnacha (grenache) from Las Rocas de San Alejandro, monastrell (mourvedre) from Altos de la Hoya, and tempranillo from Termes flew off our list this past year.

Our goal at The Nortons’ is to keep wine affordable. Our per-bottle markup is a mere $6 to $10 over suggested retail, with prices around $5 for a six-ounce pour. We feel great wine should be affordable, and by keeping our prices down, people are more willing to experiment and try new things. So when you find us here in the middle of nowhere, you’ll be rewarded with great food and great wines at prices that won’t break the bank.

Greg Norton is a founding member of Husker Du. The band has been hailed by Spin magazine as one of the top 10 most influential acts of the 80s. After the band broke up, Norton took various restaurant jobs, ranging from dishwasher to waiter. After learning to cook, he worked in various restaurants around the Twin Cities. In fall 1995, Norton opened the kitchen at Staghead in Red Wing, where he also worked as wine buyer. In 2003, Norton opened The Nortons’ Restaurant. Future plans include a musical diversion with David King of The Bad Plus.

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