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Exploring the History and Good Wine of the Northleaf Winery

By Marina I. Jokic

Northleaf Winery in Milton, Wisconsin officially opened shop in February, 2009, but the history of the land goes back to 1844 when Scottish immigrants first settled there. Current co-owner and winemaker Gail Nordlof relates the history of the estate from a wheat warehouse to a blacksmith shop to an apple orchard, and finally its ultimate transformation into a vineyard.

"I remember my dad making wine in the basement at home, and he remembers his dad making wine on the back porch where he grew up, and my mom tells me I've been drinking wine since I was two years old, so I think it's just in my blood," says Nordlof. Although from first looks, it might seem as though Northleaf has long been producing superb wines, its history in viniculture has been relatively young and preceded by many metamorphoses.

About one hundred and sixty years ago, the Northleaf Winery served quite a different purpose?it was a wheat warehouse founded by a newly minted Scottish merchant John Alexander. The structure was made from a primitive form of cement called lime mortar, one of the oldest types of mortar dating back the fourth century B.C.

A generation later, in 1914, the house was converted into the Badger Garage and Machine Company, housing a blacksmith and carriage and automobile repair shop. In 1947, the Skelly and Davidson families opened their apple orchard business, the Sunnyview Apple Orchard Warehouse, with the building being included in the National Registry of Historic Places in 1978 as part of the largest group of grout buildings in the U.S.

With the closing of the orchard in 1991, the building was shortly thereafter conferred to the Milton Historical Society in 1994. The Nordlofs purchased the house in 2007, restoring it to its present glory and officially starting to sell their wine in 2009.

Nordlof recounts her husband's makeshift beer brewing in their home garage, which eventually conflicted with her own wine making aspirations. "Being a wine lover, and having the family connection, I decided to try my hand at making wine, and he turned over a corner of his brew-room to me," Nordlof says. Very soon, her wine carboys began overtaking his brew room, and it became clear that they were running short on space. Nordlof jokingly that her husband "had to build me a winery so he could get his brew-room back."

After some major renovations, Northleaf was up and running. Eight years later, the winery is thriving and the Nordlofs are constantly coming up with ideas for new wines. Their current selection includes varieties of Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Chardonnay, Muscato, Merlot, Cabarnet, and Pinot Noir among others.

"Our tasting room is a warm and inviting place," says Nordlof. Guests can find comfort while also being engaged by the staff, who are eager to suggest wines for tasting. "The tasting room is also a place where a lot of our friends gather as well as friends we haven't met yet, and lots of fun goes on there on a daily basis," Nordlof adds. Three generations of the Nordlof family currently work at the winery, making the wine, bottling it, and selling it in the tasting room.

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