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The Weggy Winery is set in idyllic hill country near Muscoda, Wis.

Manya Kaczkowski , Special to the Star Tribune

Weekend Away: Sampling the best of Wisconsin

  • Article by: Manya Kaczkowski
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • February 1, 2013 - 1:15 PM

Wine. Cheese. Beer. They’re Wisconsin’s finest produce, and the Driftless Area of the state offers travelers the best of the best. Your sampling will take place amid scenic rolling hills dotted with old-fashioned red barns, black-and-white cows and tiny, storybook towns, some right on the banks of the Mighty Mississippi.

The Basics

The Driftless Area stretches from the Illinois border to central Wisconsin, bordered on the right and left by Interstate 39 and the Mississippi River. You could easily spend several weeks here checking out all of the artisan cheesemakers, vineyards and breweries, but here are a few must-do experiences, from Monroe to Trempealeau. (If you are heading out in wintertime, it’s best to check ahead on hours.)

 

What To Do

Start your day in a cheesy way at Monroe’s National Historic Cheesemaking Center — it’s dairy interesting! — and tour a small cheese factory from the late 1800s (open April-October; nationalhistoriccheesemakingcenter.org). Next, visit the Alp and Dell Cheese Store, to study cheese­makers from an observation deck, and get your fill of samples in the store — Butterkase, aged Gruyere and lacy Swiss. Owner Tony Zgraggen, a native of Switzerland, will yodel for customers upon request (1-608-328-3355; www.alpandellcheesestore.com). Afterward, stop in at the Minhas Craft Brewery for a peek at the World of Beer Memorabilia museum and a few ice-cold samples in the elegant tasting room (1-800-233-7205; minhasbrewery.com).

As you drive north from Monroe on Hwy. 69, you’ll begin to notice unusual architecture on homes and businesses — chalet-style, with balconies and flower boxes. The Alpine roots grow deep in this onetime Swiss colony dating to 1845, and you’ll wonder if you’re in the movie “Heidi” by the time you roll into New Glarus.

In the comfortable downtown tasting room at New Glarus Primrose Winery, you can taste a few Wisconsin varietals, perhaps selecting a bottle of flower-scented Primrose Red to take home (1-608-527-5053; newglarusprimrosewinery.com). Across Hwy. 69, the New Glarus Brewery perches atop a hill, its outdoor patio and beer garden offering spectacular views across the valley, along with live music and food on warm weekends. Inside, after checking out the huge brew kettles and production floor, it’s time to inspect a few cold ones — perhaps Black Top, with its molasses and chocolate finish, or light and fruity Raspberry Tart (1-608-527-5850; www.newglarusbrewing.com).

But don’t fill up too much on beer; there’s a lot of really good wine waiting. At Weggy Winery, set in the idyllic hill country near Muscoda, rows of fruit-laden vines line the fields outside the tasting room. During summer, the barn out back is the place to hang out for special events, including the Grape Stomp at the end of the season. Folks from all over come to witness this, ahem, smashing event — some participating in the stomp, others just to sip a glass or two of Oakey Red or Weggy White in the sunshine, with free cheese samples from surrounding farms, live music and purple feet everywhere you look (1-608-647-6600; www.weggywinery.com).

Now, if you really like drinking wine outdoors, rinse the grape skins off your toes, head over to the Mississippi River, and travel north to Trempealeau. Here you’ll find Elmaro Vineyard, one of the newest wineries in the Driftless Area. California’s got nothing on Wisconsin; at Elmaro, a lovely patio overlooks the vineyard, and helpful servers bring out plates full of artisan cheeses, crackers and meats to complement the vintages. Tasting packages are available, such as Group Therapy, for $10/person, but you can sample up to three wines for free. The selection is eclectic and memorable. Try the Marquette Rosé, and don’t miss Chocolate Truffle Pig. You may never want to go home. (1-608-534-6456; www.elmarovineyard.com)

 

Where To Sleep

The Roth House, in Soldiers Grove, is a beautiful 1896 Victorian, where you can sleep in the bedroom once occupied by Agnes Moorehead, of “Bewitched.” 1-608-624-3884; www.therothhouse.com

The Historic Trempealeau Hotel, established 1871, is a blast from the past, right on the Mississippi River. Try the walnut burger in the hotel’s restaurant. 1-608-534-6898; www.trempealeauhotel.com

 

Where To Eat

In the picturesque Monroe town square, Baumgartner’s is the state’s oldest cheese vendor — and a tavern, besides. You can order up a liver sausage and Limburger sandwich, if you like, along with a bowl of “second best chili,” because they say Mom’s chili is always the best. Ask your server to show you how those dollar bills ended up on the ceiling. 1-608-325-6157; www.baumgartnercheese.com

A romantic Swiss fondue diner awaits you at Glarner Stube in New Glarus. Dip crusty bread in hot, buttery Emmenthaler — and don’t miss the tray of homemade desserts. 1-608-527-2216; www.glarnerstube.com

 

If You Go

For a comprehensive guide to the area, visit www.driftlesswisconsin.com. Information on all of Wisconsin’s wineries can be found at www.wiswine.org. For the latest on Wisconsin cheese: www.EatWisconsinCheese.com. You’ll find a list of Wisconsin brewery tours at www.wisconsinbrewerytours.com.

 

Manya Kaczkowski is a freelance writer from Wisconsin.

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