Wollersheim Wine Cave Unveiled After 150 Years
Around 1850, Hungarian Count Agoston Haraszthy dug a wine cave at the current site of Wollersheim Winery. Haraszthy left soon thereafter to be the first commercial grape grower in Sonoma County, California. On June 21st, the Count’s old wine cave in Sauk City, Wisconsin was unveiled to the public after being sealed for more than 150 years.
“It was really exciting to excavate and renovate the wine cave,” Wollersheim vice president and marketing director Julie Coquard told a group of more than 200 gathered for the ribbon cutting ceremony. “Opening Haraszthy’s wine cave is not only important for American viticulture, but it’s very significant for my family.”
Julie’s parents, Bob and JoAnn Wollersheim purchased the winery from the Kehl family in 1972. At that time, the inner part of the cave that Haraszthy built had long ago collapsed, becoming filled with dirt and tree roots. The outer part of the cave was built by the Kehl’s and they lived in it during the 1850’s while their family home was constructed. That home is open for visitors at Wollersheim today.
Julie said that her late father’s journal contained notes from the early ’70s about fixing the wine cave. According to Julie, Bob Wollersheim had written in his journal that “money was tight” and he would “come back in August” to address the wine cave issues. But Bob Wollersheim never got a chance to attend to the wine cave. He was too busy growing Wollersheim to become Wisconsin’s largest winery and one of the largest in the Midwest.
According to Wollersheim winemaker, Philippe Coquard, excavating the wine cave and making it safe for visitors presented many challenges. Haraszthy’s part of the cave is built 55 feet into a porous sandstone hillside which had been undermined by tree roots. (The Kehl family also added on to the cave at least twice.)
Digging by hand until they could squeeze a Bobcat into the opening, workers removed tons of rock and dirt. Parts of the roof then had to be reinforced with mortar, concrete and rebar. A custom wood arch entry with glass doors was added to keep the elements out.
While Haraszthy’s wine cave is relatively small, its role in the history of American wine is great. Haraszthy did not enjoy much success growing grapes in Wisconsin, but he prospered there. Foreshadowing the beer drinking and beer making culture of the Badger State, the Count was the first to plant hops in Wisconsin. He was also the founder of Sauk City and opened the first ferry across the Wisconsin River which runs through town.
Using funds he gathered in Wisconsin, Haraszthy joined the westward migration of the mid-1800’s. He founded Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma County which is still open today. At Buena Vista, Haraszthy planted some of the first vinifera cuttings in the United States which he had shipped from Europe.
Near the Wollersheim wine cave will be a garden and an oak tree which will be called “Bob’s Garden.” The garden is in honor of Bob Wollersheim who made his dream, and the dream of Agoston Haraszthy, a reality and thereby shaped the history of Midwest wine.
The Wollersheim Wine Cave is open to the public from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. throughout the summer. The wine cave contains a museum with artifacts from the 1800’s and 1900’s. There are also displays describing the history of the winery from Haraszthy’s arrival to the present day.