By Emily Bialkowski
Call it the American Dream, call it fate or call it crazy, but Brad Helstad is knee deep in the wine making business in La Crescent after a jet-setting career with a national airline.
Helstad grew up in La Crosse and completed his bachelor’s degree there as well. After college two of his buddies headed to Dallas for work, and Helstad visited them for Thanksgiving dinner in 1989.
“It was my first time out of the area,” Helstad admitted.
The trip helped him take notice of a world he never knew. The warm weather and opportunity to see more than Wisconsin prompted Helstad to seek employment in Dallas. He secured a job with the airline in their computer networking department and set off on an adventurous time in his life.
“I was a jet-setter. I’d fly to New York and Los Angeles,” Helstad said. “For 14 years I didn’t own anything, and I remember I wanted a plot of land to put my feet on,” he said.
Fast forward to 2002. Helstad’s father saw an article about grape growing and work the University of Minnesota was doing on developing hardy varieties of vines capable of withstanding tough winters.
In 2003 Helstad’s parents purchased 200 of these cold tolerant vines and planted them on their scenic acreage behind Dresbach Dam in La Crescent.
That same year Helstad endured a layoff from the airline and headed back home.
The big switch
Helstad’s parents grew up on farms, but the La Crosse native obviously didn’t.
“To go from computer networking to farming – it was a big switch,” Helstad said. “There’s a lot more to farming than planting and watching it grow.”
It does take a few years to produce a viable crop of grapes for wine making. By 2007 Helstad was quite satisfied with the year’s produce, but his dad needed more.
“Now you need to make the wine,” Helstad recalled of his father’s reaction.
A chemist brother pitched in and offered his fermenting knowledge.
“The simple version is you grow the grapes, crush the grapes and add yeast,” Helstad said.
But, the science of wine making is not actually that simple and people get college degrees in the business.
After several crash courses in farming, fermenting and distribution, Helstad is on his way to marketing a very lovely set of vintages.
The winery now produces Frontenac, a red, full-bodied table wine; Frontenac Gris, a crisp, light-bodied rose; La Crescent, a crisp, light bodied white; and Marquette, their flagship full bodied, red wine.
River View Vineyard & Winery has two acres of vineyards, and Helstad purchases additional grapes strictly from Minnesota to complete production.
He is currently self marketing in Minnesota while researching the statutes that govern alcohol sales in surrounding states.
“To cross over state lines I have to join a distributor or join a winery co-op,” Helstad said. “Since we kind of just opened the winery this year I haven’t tried to push hard. That’s a whole new avenue; that’s the next step.
The entrepreneurial spirit is both strong and challenging, according to Helstad.
“Boy, it’s a process… I really empathize with small businesses. It’s fun but a lot of work, and you need a team of consultants – or join a group – to get ideas and support,” he said.
River View Vineyard & Winery is open to the public on Saturday and Sunday from May through October from 1 to 6 p.m. Their wines run $10 apiece, $15 for the Marquette.
Contact Emily Bialkowski at [email protected]