Staller Estate Surprises with Supple Wines
Story by Kristine Hansen
When visitors drive up the gravel road to Staller Estate Winery, off County Highway A in Delavan, co-owner Wendy Staller wants them to bowl over in shock.
“I know a lot of people feel, being out in the country, they’re just going to get this little mom-and-pop shop, which we are, but we’re also a winery,” the 33-year-old Staller says. “A lot of people are not sure when they pull up. It really surprises them, based on what they see from the outside.”
The view from the outside is indeed rustic and not likely to inspire visions of a slick Napa Valley-style winery. But once inside visitors notice a glossy, sophisticated tasting room with a bar-height counter and a spacious room filled with little trinkets – from art to culinary goods, much of it carrying Wisconsin roots, and dozens of wine-related gadgets – for sale. Upon arrival, patrons can not only sip through a flight of Staller wines but also linger over wine and truffle pairings, as well as spring for a picnic platter featuring a baguette, dried fruits, olives and choice of cheese. It’s also possible to bring your own picnic lunch and dine right next to the winery’s estate vineyard, a rare treat in this agricultural zone that hasn’t, until now, been home to a vineyard.
Live music fills the attached gazebo on Saturday afternoons throughout the summer and a Wine & Dine multi-course meal (pairing Staller wines with food from The Black Sheep, a fine-dining, farm-to-table restaurant in nearby Whitewater) is hosted on the second Sunday of each month year-round, for $40 per person. New this year is a Saturday afternoon concert series with a different musical group each week; a chamber orchestra has committed to five of the concerts already.
A former dairy barn (red, of course) and part of an orchard that once housed hogs and chickens is now ground central for a winery producing award-winning wines using only cold-climate grapes. In the shell of a machine shed built in the 1960s, Wendy and her husband Joe carved out a new life into the building, creating a winemaking facility that put out their first vintage in the fall of 2007. That same year they planted rows of vines on a two-acre plot behind the winery; the Port grapes were ready to harvest last fall after the typical three- to five-year maturation period and other varietals will be picked beginning this fall. Until then they’ll continue to rely on grapes from contract growers in Southern Wisconsin; Durand, Ill; and Upstate New York. So far, the couple has earned 50 awards for their wines. The tasting room opened in May of 2008.
Upon arrival, patrons can not only sip through a flight of Staller wines but also linger over wine and truffle pairings, as well as spring for a picnic platter featuring a baguette, dried fruits, olives and choice of cheese.
“We were home winemakers and actually, as we started off, my husband was a home brewer and interned at a local brewery,” explains Wendy, who has studied winemaking in California numerous times since launching the winery, intent on being connected to the country’s Mother Lode of viticulture and oenology. “I’ve gone out to UC-Davis, too, to take a class in being a certified wine judge.”
While they may have began with just five wines, now the selections for visitors to the tasting room number around 15. “We’ve really broadened the wines as far as having more, drier whites and dessert wines too,” says Wendy. Current top-sellers are “Lady in Red” (a semi-dry red with soft tannins and raspberry notes) and “Horizon Cuvee” (semidry white with hints of grapefruit).
She points to her husband as the one who got their winery dream off the ground. “He’s one of those very inquisitive people who likes to know how things work,” she says. Yet the business venture has pleased them both. While Joe holds down a full-time job as a research and development chemist at Epic Resins, Wendy staffs the winery on an almost daily basis. “I enjoy gardening. I love cooking. I thought everything kind of goes together. Why not try winemaking?” Wendy recalls about their earlier conversations before taking the plunge to open the winery.
The couple – who met as biology and chemistry students at UW-Whitewater, where they both graduated from in 2003 – is raising their young children in a white farmhouse next door. “It’s a short commute to work for me,” quips Wendy. “It’s something that we wanted to have for our children, to grow up on a farm.”
Growing up in Milwaukee, and then East Troy, she never quite fell in love with city living, which is why being a winery owner on a gorgeous swatch of land suits her well.
During childhood and even into college Joe, who is from Germantown, spent a lot of time kicking back – including milking cows – at a friend’s dairy farm.
Keeping a small farming business viable makes the couple proud. “There’s a lot of farms that are disappearing or becoming commercialized,” says Wendy. This includes a 5,000-cow dairy farm up the road from their winery. It’s a stark contrast to the two-acre vineyard tucked behind Staller Estate Winery (an additional acre of grapes are grown and harvested on a friend’s farm nearby). In Wisconsin, says Wendy, the wine industry has grown so much there are now 90 wineries and not enough grape growers in the state to supply them.
This fall the Stallers plan to release their first wine made with estate grapes: a port that will be bottled in September and sold through the tasting room shortly after. It’s a sweet finale to a story that has enriched their lives in many ways and added serious credibility to Wisconsin’s grape-growing culture.
Staller Estate Winery
W8896 County Road A,
Delavan, WI 53115
Hours: 11am-6pm daily (May through September), 11am-6pm Tuesday through Sunday (October through December) and 11am-6pm Wednesday through Sunday (January through April)