Logic would tell you that Tangled Hickory Wine Bar and Bistro shouldn’t be in Viroqua, Wis. (population 4,400). The small town rests on a hilltop in the Driftless Region of southwest Wisconsin, about 3½ hours by car from Minneapolis. But there it was, in the heart of downtown, offering bistro-style dishes, craft beers and cocktails. We settled in on the non-music side of the bistro for a quiet drink, but the snippets of music from the other side of the wall soon had us wandering over to see what was going on.
That’s when we discovered the second of what would be many surprising discoveries in Viroqua. The musician was a classical guitarist, next to him sat a flutist and joining them, in a jam session that had the appearance of going through the night, was a changing group of guitarists, drummers and singers. The music was unique — I picked up on just one cover song during the evening — and would have provided pleasant background ambience in another setting. The Tangled Hickory, however, has a loyal following of music fans who applauded such musical nuances as a successful transition through difficult key changes.
We were in town for the July 4th weekend, which featured the Driftless Music Festival, the Viroqua Triathlon and the weekly farmers market, whose more than 50 vendors include Amish farmers and craft soda brewers.
The seeds for Viroqua’s unique culture may have been planted in 1988 when a small group of like-minded farmers created Organic Valley, a farmer-owned cooperative based in nearby La Farge. Now a leader in the national organic foods movement, the company had more than $850 million in sales in 2012 and has infused the region with a culture of appreciation for organic food, small family farms and unique foods.
Viroqua is about 40 miles east of La Crosse, Wis., on Hwy. 14, in bucolic Vernon County.
What to do
Hit the farmers market: The Saturday morning farmers market features 50 local farmers and vendors. Try a craft-brewed ginger soda, fresh-baked pizza featuring produce and herbs grown on the farm and cooked in a portable wood-fired pizza oven, Amish jams and handmade baskets, fresh organic produce, local cheeses and maple syrup. It runs through October on Main St. (1-608-637-2575; www.viroqua-wisconsin.com/quality/downtown).
Go fly fishing: Vernon County has more than 200 miles of high-quality trout streams. The two most celebrated ones, the West Fork of the Kickapoo and the Timber Coulee, are less than 10 miles from Viroqua.
Paddle: The nearby shallow, wandering Kickapoo River has drawn canoeists for decades.
Pedal: The Sparta-Elroy State Bike Trail is a short distance to the north, but riders who enjoy hills have an endless selection of low-traffic, paved roads that wander from intimate coulees to wind-swept ridgelines (www.elroy-sparta-trail.com).
Tour by car: Drive quiet roads through a blend of woodlots, farm fields and scenic farmsteads. The rolling, maple-covered hills and intimate coulees or valleys are especially beautiful during fall color season.
Catch a show at the Temple Theater: Restored to its original classical revival decor, this 1922 landmark now features live music, theater and comedy (220 S. Main St.; 1-608-637-8190; www.temple-theatre.com).
Where to Eat
Driftless Cafe: Featuring local and organic ingredients, the Driftless Cafe offers a changing seasonal menu of pizza, soups and salads, appetizer plates such as hummus with bread and rice crackers, homemade pies, wine and craft beers (118 W. Court St.; 1-608-637-7778; www.driftlesscafe.com).
Tangled Hickory Wine Bar and Bistro: The bistro’s main dishes change nightly, reflecting the seasonal offerings of the area. Also on the menu are a Wisconsin cheese plate, bacon-wrapped jalapeño boats filled with Wisconsin cream cheese, chocolate truffles, craft beers, cocktails and wine. Its wine and gift store sells a selection of wines from the region and beyond, plus chocolates, decanters and other items (120 S. Main St.; 1-608-637-3031; www.tangledhickory.com).
Where to Stay
Viroqua Heritage Inn Bed and Breakfast is near the heart of downtown (220 and 217 E. Jefferson St., 1-888-443-7466, www.herinn.com). Peach Tree Farm, a historic log cabin in the hills outside of Viroqua, has six bedrooms (1-608-634-3845, www.peachtreefarm.com). Other options include Midway Motel Viroqua (850 N. Main St., 1-608-637-2929, www.midwaymotelviroqua.net); Vernon Inn and Suites (1325 N. Main St., 1-800-501-0664, www.vernoninnandsuites.com); and Hickory Hill Motel (S5539 Hwy. 14; 1-608-637-3104; www.hickoryhillmotel.com).
If You Go
To learn more about Viroqua, go to the town website at www.viroqua-wisconsin.com; it includes information on the town’s history, a full calendar of community events and a link to the Viroqua tourism site.
Doug Shidell is a writer in Minneapolis.