There was a time when Milwaukee was derided for its lack of culinary depth. We were long on Germanic food, nailed knackwurst, eintopf, and kartoffelpuffer, but according to the national food press, short on most other manner of what was considered gourmet. For better or worse, despite some artful cookery at the haute level as compared to other American cities of our size, Milwaukee still didn’t rank.

Yes, there were renowned restaurants like the unimpeachable Grenadier’s or Sanford; The English Room held sway in the grand style that most of us cannot even understand anymore; Fleur de Lis and Frenchie’s all had their moments. Even though luminaries like Julia Child and her ilk knew Milwaukee had the chops, we kept our light under a bushel and well hid.

In 1984, Sandy D’Amato—who later opened Sanford with his wife Angie—served as the executive chef at the fine dining restaurant John Byron’s. After submitting a menu and recipe to Food & Wine Magazine, he was phoned out of the blue by the editor. The question he was asked was not, “How would you describe your philosophy on cuisine?” No. It was, “What are you doing making that kind of food in Milwaukee?” If perception is reality, then Milwaukee at the time was a flyover city with little more to offer than bratwursts and schnitzel as landmarks. It’s funny how time changes perspective. That is now a food nostalgia-laced past. In the past six to eight years, Milwaukee is achieving national dining press, developing clever dining apps, and having chefs short-listed for the Best Chef Midwest James Beard Award. (One of them has reached the semi-finals enough times that he jokes he’s the Susan Lucci of the award.)

Where there is food, there is often wine. They go together, like coffee and cigarettes, cake and ice cream, civility and a good home life. And much like the ascension of food in this city, the wine notoriety in Milwaukee has evolved as well. On April 20, a gaggle of winemakers under the moniker of The Quintessential Tour will descend upon the city, sipping, supping and discussing the fruits of their labors and vines for a juggernaut of wine dinners. Thirty winemakers, and 13 dinners will be held in a variety of locations, all in a single night. It’s a pretty big deal, not only for foodies, oenophiles, gluttons, and drunks, but for Milwaukee. Sometimes it’s cool that the rest of whole notices how awesome you are.

For years, this cohort of wine makers—not the reps, sales team, and PR mavens, but the fathers and daughters, the fifth generation-ers, and the “gruff hands from working the vines in every season but January” wine makers—did not stop in Milwaukee. They hit cities like Washington D.C., Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas and Denver. Heard of them? Me too. Our fair city was not on their radar. This year, they skip Chicago to come to Milwaukee, which is a major coup. This is because, as one winemaker told me, “Your restaurants have gotten so good. There is so much talk about your city in our community. We just had to come and look into it!”

So why go to a wine dinner?

It’s the best way to know the wine, any wine. You can’t hear some of these people’s stories and not be affected. It is in their blood. They literally dream about their wine and their vines. Wine making is a labor of love, a suspension of disbelief and alchemy. The financial model is fraught with peril. Don’t you want to hang out with more people who “aren’t in it for the money?” It’s a history lesson. The story of wine is the story of humanity and our early years—the Levant, Europe, Asia, even the British Isles. They all have starring roles in this tale, and it’s a good one, full of twists and turns through the centuries.

It is all grass roots. These 30 winemakers are heading here because they have heard about our dining scene. How advanced, varied, and vibrant is it? Let the answer to their enthusiasm not be crickets. Chefs love this sort of thing. Yeah, they have their menus, but this is an opportunity to play, to be challenged by the pairings, to work with ingredients they might not otherwise explore. This is a good thing.

Need some recommendations on where to go? I get asked all too often what my favorite restaurant in Milwaukee is, and I will never touch that one. It’s way too political. However, I asked a good friend who has worked most of his professional life in the service industry and is tight with this wine event where I should go. He didn’t know I was taking such diligent notes. Here are his off-the-cuff thoughts, word for word:

Amilinda: “I think it’s pretty cool food. I love the passion and love in new restaurants, especially this one.”

Goodkind: “Dude, there will be two barolo producers and a grappa producer there. Katie [Rose] will be making grappa drinks before and after.”

Pastiche: “Ferry Lacombe is a kickass rosé maker from Provence, plus Georges Lorentz is from Gustave Lorentz. Alsace legend.”

Movida: “As far as getting more than your money’s worth, this is the place.”

Eddie Martini’s: “Those guys are pros and not enough people drink Cru Beaujolais.”

Here’s the whole kit of the tour stop’s offerings in Milwaukee. Also, though I won’t weigh on my favorite place to dine, I did add an asterisk to the spots I have had great wine service, boast laudable sommeliers, or a legit cellar.

315 E. Wisconsin Ave., (414) 369-3653
Featured wineries: Casa de vila Nova, Quinta do Vallado
Winemakers: Bernardo Lencastre, Joao Rochette Ribeiro
Time: 6:30 p.m., $100 per person

Artisan 179
179 W. Wisconsin Ave. (Pewaukee), (414) 771-6680
Featured wineries: Vinicola Perini/Macaw, Vina Koyle, Matetic Vineyards
Winemakers: Pablo Perini, Alfonso Undurraga, Antonio Bunster
Time: 6 p.m., $110 per person

925 E. Wells St., (414) 765-1166
Featured wineries: La Mannella, Vino dei Fratelli Manzone, Ascevi
Winemakers: Tommaso Cortonesi, Franco Luisi, Gianpaolo Manzone
Time: 6:30 p.m., $75 per person

Bavette La Boucherie
330 E. Menomonee St., (414) 273-3375
Featured wineries: Bodegas Muriel, Vina Eguia
Winemaker: Javier Murua
Time: 6 p.m., $95 per person

Eddie Martini’s
8612 W. Watertown Plank Rd. (Wauwatosa), (414) 771-6680
Featured winery: Georges Duboeuf
Winemaker: Romaine Teyteau
6 p.m., $95 per person

2457 S. Wentworth Ave., (414) 763-4706
Featured wineries: Attilio Ghisolfi, Luca Bosio, Bel Colle, Villa de Varda
Winemakers: Gianmarco Ghisolfi, Francesco Balocco, Luca Trivelatto, Michele Dolzan
6 p.m., $100 per person

Mason Street Grill*
425 E. Mason St., (414) 298-3131
Featured wineries: Henry’s Drive and Shirvington
Winemakers: Kim Longbottom, Mark Shirvington
6:30 p.m., $79 per person

Milwaukee Chophouse
633 N. 5th St., (414) 226-2467
Featured winery: Valentin Bianchi
Winemaker: Raul Bianchi
6:30 p.m., $75 per person

524 S. 2nd St., (414) 224-5300
Featured wineries: Garcia Figuero, Bodegas Farina
Winemakers: Felipe Martin Cabezon, Manu Farina Perez
6 p.m., $75 per person

Parkside 23
2300 Pilgrim Square Dr. (Brookfield), (262) 784-7275
Featured winery: Ironstone
Winemaker: Joan Kautz
6 p.m., $100 per person

Pastiche Bistro*
3001 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., (414) 482-1446
Featured wineries: Gustave Lorentz, Ferry-Lacombe
Winemakers: Georges Lorentz, Alexandra Pinot
6 p.m., $95 per person

6025 Douglas Ave. (Caledonia), (262) 681-5465
Featured wineries: Eponymous, Two Angels
Winemakers: Bob Pepi, Steve Kreps, Jr.
6 p.m., $100 per person

The Union House Restaurant
S42 W31320 Hwy. 83 (Genesee Depot), (262) 968-4281
Featured wineries: Kay Brothers, Paringa/3 Rings and Simonsig
Winemakers: Michael Wehrs, Alan Hickinbotham, Johan Malan
6 p.m., $95 per person

About The Author

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Kyle Cherek is host of the twice Emmy-nominated television show Wisconsin Foodie, currently running in its eighth season on PBS and broadcast primetime to over 8.2 million households. A born-and-bred Wisconsinite, he has been sitting up and taking nourishment since the Nixon administration. He sees the Midwest as a font of history, craftsmanship, and artisanal dispositions; all of which are continually pushing national culinary and sustainability trends forward. As host of Wisconsin Foodie, Kyle profiles these food treasures and chronicles the story of food through regional chefs, farmers, and artisans. Kyle has made regular appearances on The Travel Channel and Food Network, and is a frequent media contributor to Public Radio, NPR, CBS, and NBC. His widely-acclaimed video web series, Chef Talk With Kyle Cherek, features candid, forthright and often amusing conversations with some of America's most engaging chefs. In an effort to raise the people's consciousness about food and sustainability, he regularly hosts cooking demonstrations and presents at culinary events. When not telling the story of where our food comes from and how it shapes us, he is busy enjoying farmers' markets; geeking out over culinary history books; perfecting his five or so kitchen moves whilst cooking with his family; or patiently waiting for the chance to say, "Let's look at the dessert menu, shall we?"