Trout Springs: A Winery With a Twist

Trout Springs Winery, an award-winning winery in Greenleaf, Wisconsin, is not just a popular wine destination – it’s also a fish hatchery, a plant nursery and the only winery in the state that offers luxury camping in a vineyard. If you go into the tasting room, you can also try some of Trout Springs beers, produced off-site under the Sassy Girl label, as well as products made from freeze-dried grape skins and seeds that offer proven health benefits.

To the casual observer, this may seem like a lot under one roof, but to Steve DeBaker and his wife, Andrea, co-owners and operations managers at Trout Springs, it’s all in a day’s work.  “We’re not your usual winery,” DeBaker told The Grapevine Magazine. “We have a lot of different things going on.”

The “different things” all started in 1985 when the DeBakers bought the property for a horse ranch. “I had no other aspirations, but then I discovered an artesian well (trapped water, surrounded by layers of impermeable rocks or clay) so I started digging ponds,” DeBaker said.  “Eventually I had 13 ponds, and the next thing I knew I was in the trout business. People said it couldn’t be done with the limited currents in the ponds, but I redesigned the raceways, and, in 2012, I was the largest producer of brook trout in the state. I proved people wrong with ingenuity.” Today, DeBaker raises between 80,000 and 100,000 trout and sells the fish — always fresh — to local individuals and restaurants, along with stocking private ponds.

DeBaker’s ingenuity didn’t stop there. In 1995, after his horses passed on, he decided to plant wine grapes. “I’ve been making wines all my life,” he said. “My mom and dad made jug wine when we were kids, and we used to drink wine instead of milk.” DeBaker recalls that when he first planted his grapes, wine was a fledgling industry in Wisconsin and people thought he was crazy. Once again, he disproved the critics. While his was only the 16th bonded winery in the state, now there are over 100, with nearly 1000 acres under vine.

Hard Work & the Right Climate

Trout Springs Winery realized its first harvest in 2001. That harvest yielded one and one-half tons of grapes for red wines, and 600 pounds for whites. In 2018, after 17 years of hard work, experimentation, and increasing accolades, DeBaker harvested eight tons of grapes on five acres. “We try to limit our tonnage to one ton per acre to focus on quality and not quantity,” he said, “but this was just one helluva year.”

Trout Springs is one of the few Wisconsin wineries to grow their own grapes — all cold-hardy, French-American hybrids. DeBaker also makes wines from Vitis Vinifera grapes that he brings in from California. In total, the winery produces 26 wines, including sweet, dry, fruit wines, dessert wines, and even ice wines. All have won awards in national competitions.

DeBaker partially attributes this success to location. The vineyards sit on the Niagara Escarpment in the acclaimed Niagara wine region, which provides a temperate climate that rivals some of the world’s best grape-growing regions. With well-drained soil and poor fertility, the terroir is excellent for grape-growing. A lack of groundwater leads to vines with lower yields and vigor, ideal for production of high-quality grapes. DeBaker was instrumental in establishing the region as an official AVA, designated in 2012 as the Wisconsin Ledge AVA. Because of his leadership, Trout Springs Winery was named 2014 Winery of the Year by the Wisconsin Grape Growers Association.

To make wines, DeBaker uses tanks ranging in capacity from 50 to 700 gallons, depending on which wine he is producing. Primary fermentation occurs in 300 to 600-gallon milk vats previously used by dairy farmers. “Necessity is the mother of invention,” he laughed. He uses American and French oak barrels for aging, again depending on the wine.

Generally, DeBaker is a believer in minimal intervention in winemaking. “If you want to be a scientist, then you should go be one,” he told the Grapevine Magazine. “So many winemakers add this or adjust for that. I say let’s make a true wine that is what it is. Your job is to just help guide it along.”

In keeping with that philosophy, DeBaker does not use heavy filtration, especially in red wines. “We leave a little sediment in the reds because that’s where the lees are, and that’s what keeps the wine alive and makes it taste good,” he said. “The more you filter, the less flavor you have, and pretty soon you’re drinking Kool-Aid.” He does double filter sweet wines, however, to ensure that there is no yeast left to restart fermentation with the residual sugar.

Focusing on Sustainability

In running his total operations, DeBaker is a big proponent of sustainability. “Economically, it just makes good sense,” he said. When he first started Trout Springs Winery,said he produced heat by burning wood, coal and fuel oil. In 2014, after considering solar and wind as renewable energy resources, he opted for a geothermal system. He tapped into the ground and pond water to generate energy for heating and air conditioning for the winery and his home next door. DeBaker claims he has reduced his carbon footprint by 68 percent.

DeBaker has also developed an innovative method for reducing spraying in his vineyard. He “employs” a flock of 50 Americana chickens that eat any insect that moves in the vineyard, reducing his spray pattern by 75 percent. These free-range chickens lay blue eggs, which DeBaker sells in the winery. (The Americana chickens lay blue eggs naturally, not from eating grapes.) Because of DeBaker’s sustainability practices, Trout Springs Winery was granted a Green Masters Program Certification from the Wisconsin Sustainable Business Council in 2016.

Something for Everyone

With its good wines — not to mention the trout farm — Trout Springs Winery has generated much interest, both locally and internationally. “We are open all year,” DeBaker said, “and we have 10,000 to 15,000 visitors annually. We’re a little off the beaten track, but people find us.  They come from all over the world.”

In the tasting room, visitors find not just the acclaimed wines, but also a craft beer made from a recipe belonging to DeBaker’s grandfather in Belgium, found in his attic after he passed. DeBaker can’t legally brew the beer on site because Trout Springs is licensed as a winery, so he has it made exclusively for him by Fox River Brewing Company. The winery sells the beer – a cream ale, an amber ale, and a barrel-aged nitro stout – by the glass and in growlers. “We make it in 300-gallon batches,” he said. “It goes out pretty fast. When we get low, we have them brew another batch.”

In the tasting room that one can also find Trout Spring’s grape powder, a dietary supplement that contains polyphenols and antioxidants including resveratrol, which may help reduce the risk of heart disease and high blood pressure. The winery sells the powder in a capsule form called For Goodness Grapes and claims that one bottle — a month’s supply— provides as many benefits as seven and a half bottles of red wine. They also infuse the powder into cheese, Healthy Choyce Cheddar, with six ounces offering the same benefits as a glass of wine, and their Wine Bar, created in partnership with Seroogy’s Chocolates in Green Bay. Each bar provides similar health benefits of three glasses of red wine.

The tasting room, equipped with a commercial kitchen, also provides a venue for weddings, receptions and full dinners, with wine and beer available. Two or three times a year the winery offers wine dinners, with a local chef providing a four-course meal featuring local farm-to-table produce and, of course, Trout Spring Winery wines. The tasting room accommodates seating for up to 64, with tents available for larger events.

Then there is the “Air B&B” in the vineyard, which give new meaning to camping, or “glamping” as Trout Springs Winery calls it. The facility is an 18-foot platform tent with a queen-sized bed, furniture, flush toilet, lights, microwave and refrigerator. Visitors can add on meals, including breakfast on the pergola, or they can cook dinner or breakfast at the campsite. The experience can be as private or connected as they like. DeBaker said the facility is very popular and stays booked throughout the spring-fall season. “We decided to build this two years ago as an experiment,” he said. “And it’s true: If you build it, they will come.”

As DeBaker looks to the future, he seems content to stay right where he is. He plans to hold annual production to 3,000 cases per year, with 98 percent of that sold on site, so there’s no need for a distributor. Nor is there a call for staff. Trout Springs Winery is indeed a “Mom and Pop” operation, with volunteers who help with harvesting and bottling.  “I believe you need to do what you can and do it well,” he said. “We don’t try to compete with the Kendall Jacksons or the Turning Leafs. At some point, you just have to find your happy place. They’re only two of us, and we’re pretty good with where we’re at. The joy is in the journey.”

For more information on the Trout Farms Winery and tasting room hours, visit their website at www.troutspringswinery.com