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Wine grapes thrive on old dairy where alfalfa and corn used to grow

By Peter Weinschenk

The wine I sipped was red and fullbodied. It was smooth on the palette without bitterness. It had great body, a deep red color and accent flavors, like peppercorns. You wanted to take another sip.

This wine is what Edgar native Debi Gust-Boerema and Martin Boerema, both of Wausau, and her son, David Lemmer, also of Wausau, have been working towards for the past six years. It is a fine California-styled wine made from grapes harvested at Muskrat Creek Vineyard, town of Rietbrock, and fermented and bottled in their home.

The vineyard is located on 18 acres that Debi Gust-Boerema inherited from her parents, Red and Peggy Gust, and features approximately 1,500 meticulously cared for grape vine plants that slope across a hill that once grew alfalfa and corn silage.

The vineyard grows a variety of northern climate grapes developed by the University of Minnesota, including Frontenac, Frontenac Blanc, Marquette, Petitte Pearl, Itasca and Brianna.

Debi Gust-Boerema wasn’t born a wine lover. As a kid, her parents would serve her fruity Mogen-David wine at special occasions, but she appreciated the alcoholic beverage cut with Seven-Up so it “went down easier.”

After spending years working at Myriad Flowers International in Carpinteria, Calif., Gust-Boerema developed a taste for fine, dry wines. “I tend to like a Pinot Grigio,” she said. This interest in wine turned into three rows of grapes on land rented from her brother, Mike, who owns and operates a pumpkin patch, Pumpkin Hollow, facing CTH H north of Edgar.

Husband Martin pushed the vineyard idea along. A native of Holland, he is an international consultant for Signify, a subsidiary of Phillips Corp., and expert on growing plants (including cannabis) with artificial light. His territory is North America.

Martin Boerema is a product of the Dutch government’s decision in the 1970’s to reinvigorate the Dutch agricultural industry with new technology. The country ranks second in the world for ag exports and sells 90 percent of the world’s greenhouses. Martin was trained to be part of that agricultural

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VINEYARD OPERATORS - From left to right, Martin Boerema, Debi Gust-Boerema and David Lemmer run the 1,500 plant Muskrat Creek Vineyard in the town of Riebrock.

2019 Red Marquette Vineyard

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With grit and persistence, the Boeremas turned a couple rows of grapes into a small vineyard. Muskrat Creek Vineyard produced nearly six tons of grapes this past year. Crates of grapes were sold to a number of wineries around Wisconsin.

It wasn’t easy, however, to get to this level of production. The Boeremas have suffered freeze-outs, bird damage and plant diseases.

Most distressing, they said, was seeing their grapes hurt when an unnamed cooperative sprayed the herbicide 2,4-D on a neighboring field and the chemical drifted onto their young grape plants. The cooperative, backed up by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, initially refused compensating the Boeremas for their loss. The Boeremas threatened the cooperative with court action that would force the company to show its grape mitigation plan required by the chemical’s label. The plan didn’t exist and the cooperative settled with the Boeremas out of court.

The Boeremas, however, had to dig up 200 grape plants, toss them in a trench and replant them to move past the 2,4-D damage.

Finding buyers for grapes, the Boeremas said, has not always been easy. In year five of the vineyard, the couple had grapes to sell, but no buyers. Rather than destroy the grapes, they trucked their harvest down to Wisconsin Rapids Cold Storage, where they kept them frozen for the following year’s sales. This time, they were lucky. In the next year, the Polar Vortex wiped out grapes across the Midwest and wineries were begging for wine grapes. The Boeremas sold their entire crop.

This past year, Muskrat Creek Vineyard sold most of its production to Ziegler’s Winery in Fond du Lac. The winery appreciates the color and cleanliness of the vineyard’s grapes. Looking to the future, the Boeremas are thinking about commercial wine production, and possibly, construction of a tasting room on the vineyard grounds.

These days, the Boeremas, along with help from Lemmer and others, are having fun toiling in the vineyard they created.

The tasks are never ending. There is pruning the vines and training them to a single cordon system. There is mulching the grapes, spraying systemic fungicides. There is planting new varieties of grapes and mowing the grass. There is putting up the bird netting and harvesting the grapes. There is planting flowers all over the vineyard to make it an inviting, happy place to be.

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The Boerema wine cellar Vineyard

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This is all part of what Martin Boerema says is a “no holding back” approach to grape production.

“A good grower is interested in the plant and feels the pulse of the plant,” he said. “A good grower can pull a distressed plant out of a diseased condition. You have to give it everything you got.”

Debi Gust-Boerema doesn’t think a glass of wine is an elixir of youth, but does claim that work at the vineyard is keeping her young at heart.

“We are trying to live younger,” she said. “We are acting like we are living in our 40’s.”

TRAINING THE NEXT GENERATION - Muskrat Creek Vineyard co-owner Debi Gust-Boerema lets grandson Maximus sample wine grapes harvested last fall.