BARNEVELD, Wis. – When Peter Botham planted his first grape vines in 1989 there were only a handful of wineries in Wisconsin.
Botham converted a former dairy farm turned beef ranch into a vineyard and a few years later a winery. The changes since then have been stark and dramatic. Distribution laws have been altered. Botham has downsized his vineyard in favor of quality over quantity. He and his wife, Sarah Botham, were jolted but survived the Great Recession of 2008 and its lingering aftermath. Meanwhile the number of wineries in the state has exploded to more than 120, the vast majority of those in the past 15 years.
But the Bothams have endured and will even survive this year’s weather punches that have limited the growth of their 7 acres of Marechal Foch and Léon Millot red grapes. Extreme cold this past winter and unseasonable temperatures in May and June were accompanied by deluges of rain. That has left so little fruit on the vines it won’t pay for the Bothams to conduct a harvest. The fruit that is there is stunted.
So this season the Botham Vineyards & Winery will adjust once again. The Bothams typically buy about 80 percent of their grape juice from a New York wholesaler. The remaining 20 percent of grapes come from their own vineyard. Peter Botham said he believes he has enough wine aging to handle demand so he won’t increase his juice order this year.
“There have been way more good days than there have been bad days,” he said. “I really wouldn’t change anything. This has just been one of those years. It’s been a great way to make a living. It’s been rewarding and we have a great life.”
Botham was raised in the city. But he has the rural attitude that has come to define agriculture producers in Wisconsin – whether they grow corn, soybeans or wheat; raise milk cows or pigs; plant vegetables or have orchards filled with apples and cherries.
Peter Botham grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he studied art and history. He took a job at an East Coast winery doing a variety of jobs before catching the entrepreneurial bug. That’s when he approached his parents about using their former beef-cattle farm in Iowa County for a winery. He schooled himself on wine-making. He had detailed conversations with Philippe Coquard, an experienced French-born winemaker.
Dr. Richard Botham, a Madison surgeon, and his wife, Margaret, began buying the farmland in 1967, accumulating 1,000 acres where until 1975 they raised Herefords. The land surrounding the vineyard and winery became permanently reserved for prairie land in 2002. The Nature Conservancy purchased 892 acres from the Bothams to add to 79 acres that had been purchased in 1997 from Harold Thomas. The acquisitions created the Barneveld Prairie, which is filled with wild flowers, native grasses, oak savannas and wooded draws.
The prairie adds to the ambiance of the winery, where the first wines were bottled in 1993. The tasting room opened the following year. A new $350,000 winery-production facility was added in 2002. It includes a bottling system, ample room for aging tanks, plenty of storage and a loading dock. At its peak the winery had about 14 acres in vineyards; it produced as many as 25,000 gallons of wine a year. Currently Peter and Sarah Botham have 7 acres in vines and typically produce 10,000 to 15,000 gallons of wine each year.
‘A lot more careful’
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The adjustments to the business began in the late 1990s. But they became more extensive in 2008 when the national economy took a dive.
“It taught me to be a lot more careful about how you run your business,” Peter Botham said as he relaxed on a wicker sofa on the expansive and shaded front porch of his four-bedroom farmhouse. “Up until then there was just constant growth and there was always money. There just weren’t any worries.”
Sarah Botham said, “We had enough fat to get lean. We could trim here and trim there without being really detrimental to our product, to our employees, to our customer experience. We had built a big-enough business that was stable enough that if we were smart (and) could withstand it.”
Of all the wine consumed in Wisconsin, only about 4 percent is produced in the state. Ryan Prellwitz, president of the Wisconsin Wineries Association, said he believes there is room for more. Wisconsin winemakers are whittling away at market share from wineries in California, Michigan and international imports.
“If we got to 10 percent that would be a huge amount of growth,” said Prellwitz, who makes about 20,000 gallons of wine each year at his Vines & Rushes Winery near Ripon, Wisconsin. “More wineries isn’t necessarily a negative thing. People are making these destinations as part of regional tourism. It’s definitely been a positive. The ones that haven’t grasped that concept may struggle.”
The Bothams have fully embraced the tourism aspect of their business. The views are stunning, and there’s outside seating, wine tastings and music. The tasting room features products from other producers such as chocolate and honey. Sarah Botham’s own line of flavored cottonseed cooking oil is included.
But the stars of the operation are the award-winning wines, which in the beginning were delivered to accounts by Peter Botham using his old black Dodge Ram pickup truck. Later he used a white Chevy cargo van before changing to a distributor.
“I didn’t have a cover on it, so I could only deliver on nice days,” said Peter Botham. “I’ve seen a lot of change. What it was like when I started and what it is now is like two entirely different animals.”
Visit www.bothamvineyards.com for more information.