It was 1989 when Peter Botham began his romantic life in wine, except it took several years for the wine to appear, and a few years, too, for him to find romance.
Don’t worry, though — it all ends happily.
The enduring image of those first years after Botham planted vines on his family’s cattle farm just south of Barneveld is of a man standing alone in a field, wondering at low moments what he got himself into.
“It was a little daunting,” Botham, 57, said this week.
He cleared stumps and rocks, pounded stakes, strung wire, and presumably had plenty of time to consider the example of Count Agoston Haraszthy. The Hungarian nobleman grew grapes on a hillside west of Prairie du Sac in the 1840s. Soon, weary of the harsh winters, Haraszthy moved west, where he is credited with founding the California wine industry before being eaten by alligators in Nicaragua.
A century and a half later, Botham was determined to make a go of it in Wisconsin. He made a friend of Philippe Coquard, the winemaker at Wollersheim Wines, located on the site abandoned by the Hungarian count. In 1993, Coquard said of Botham, “He works very hard. He’s picking up quickly.”
That was the year Botham harvested his first grapes, for wine that was bottled and sold at the Botham Vineyards’ tasting room in 1994. By that time, Botham’s most important collaboration had begun. He’d reached out to local public relations executive Sarah Fletcher for help gearing up for his public launch. Fletcher had a rule about not dating clients. Maybe it wasn’t exactly a date when Peter asked, “Can you drive a tractor?” They married in August 1995, and have a son, Mills, who is a junior at Madison West High School.
What it means is that after 25 years, Peter Botham’s romantic dream of a life in wine has actually happened. These days he likes nothing more than taking sunset walks through the vineyard with his wife and son. The work is still hard, but the vineyard and winery have grown substantially. In 2001, a Botham wine, Big Stuff Red — taken from an early nickname for Mills, who was born eight weeks premature — earned a Double Gold Medal at the prestigious San Francisco International Wine Competition. Only 67 Double Gold Medals were awarded that year out of 3,160 entries.
“That’s when I knew we had really hit our stride,” Botham said.
This summer, in a nod to those first vines going in the ground in 1989, the Bothams are planning a season-long 25th anniversary celebration that will include a bash on June 28 featuring music by Primitive Culture.
The sounds when Peter worked summers on the farm as a boy came from the cattle. The property was owned by his dad, the well-known Madison surgeon Richard Botham. Peter developed an interest in wine while attending UW-Madison. “On the consumer side,” he said.
Restless after college, Botham headed east, and worked a few jobs before landing at a winery in the Baltimore area, where he stayed three years.
“There was a thriving wine industry,” he said. “It was a good place to learn.”
When he decided to start a vineyard on the family farm near Barneveld, his father loaned him some money, and with Peter’s step-mother, Maggie, pitched in to help.
“It couldn’t have happened without him,” Peter said, though the loan has been repaid, the last of it this year, to a trust, since Richard passed away in November 2010.
After those first uncertain years, waiting for the vines to mature so the grapes could be picked — “years without a single penny going in the right direction,” Botham noted — the winery opened its tasting room in 1994, “and the business grew steadily,” he said.
In 2002 — the year after the Double Gold Medal from San Francisco — the Bothams took a big step and built a new winery to replace the existing facility, which was a refitted farm building.
The new 5,000-square-foot winery included a fully automated bottling line, additional fermenting space and a weather-sealed loading dock. They had already begun an annual vintage car celebration and other special events, many including music, designed to draw people to the vineyard and expose them to the wine.
In 2006, Botham signed a distribution deal with Fond du Lac-based Badger Liquor, the state’s largest distributor, which eventually brought the winery’s annual production to close to 30,000 gallons.
The economic downturn in 2008 hit the industry hard. But Botham has recovered, and is now producing around 20,000 gallons of wine a year, 10 varieties, evenly split between red and white.
The 25th anniversary has them excited for the coming summer. Things are busy. Sarah still operates her marketing and public relations firm, Botham, Ink. The winery will be introducing new bottle labels, and they’ve started a new company, Acala Farms, which produces and distributes flavor-infused cottonseed oils — which handle heat much better than olive oil — for cooking. Next month, for the first time, they will also begin taking reservations for weddings at the vineyard.
“It has worked out better than I could have dreamed,” Peter said, thinking back to when it began in 1989. A few of those first vines have endured. It’s all enough to make you wonder if that Hungarian count should have stayed in Wisconsin.