Uncorking a Success Story

By John Halverson

She was going to go to pharmacy school. He was going to be a vet. They fell in love and started a winery instead. That’s the short story of Wendy and Joe Staller and the Staller Estate Winery.

The longer version started some 20 years ago when both were students at UW-Whitewater. They were completing double majors in chemistry and biology and were headed toward conventional careers in established fields where risk was at a minimum.

Before their career and lifestyle detour into the wine business Wendy didn’t even drink wine, and she says, Joe had a passion for beer.

Their career path changed when Joe got an internship working for what used to be Randy’s Restaurant and Fun Hunters Brewery in Whitewater. As a final project he created a new beer for the restaurant. “The beer sold so well that Randy decided to offer him a position brewing beer for him every Sunday,” Wendy says. That lasted four years.

Meanwhile, Joe was brewing beer at home, too, “but we didn’t want to turn our kitchen into a hot sweaty, brewery,” Wendy says, so home brewing came to an end, and they turned their attention to wine.

What did her parents say about the sudden switch in priorities from their steadier, more traditional career goals? She laughs, then answers the question: “Are you crazy?!”

As it turned out, they were crazy — crazy smart. Staller Estate Winery will celebrate its 11th anniversary this year.

A PASSION, NOT A JOB

We met Wendy in a sun-drenched room overlooking the Staller’s vineyard, where the grapes are tantalizingly close. It was a busy day, so she was tending to customers when we arrived.

Wendy’s a rarity in the winemaking world, a female vintner. And her energy is infectious. On this particular day, she rose at 4:30 a.m. and was still full of energy at midday. She’s the type of woman whose personality encourages sharing, who makes you feel better when you leave than when you came — even without the wine.

After their career goals changed, Wendy planted a vineyard at a family friend’s house. “They were kind enough to give up their backyard for growing grapes,” she says.

Joe landed another internship, this time at a winery and Wendy took wine- making courses at the University of California Davis.

After almost a year of hunting for property, the Stallers finally found the land they wanted, a farmstead between Delavan and Whitewater. It was familiar territory, not far from where they were brought up. Joe is from Germantown and his family is from the Fort Atkinson and Janesville area. Wendy’s roots are in Milwaukee and, later, East Troy, where she moved when she was 11.

Joe grew up on a dairy farm, so when the idea of a winery came about, he was adept enough to able to adapt dairy equipment for some wine making purposes. “My husband is the driving force, the inquisitive engineer brain. He likes to know how things work,” Wendy says.

Wendy quit the job she had at an analytical lab and took on milking cows so she could spend more time remodeling what would become their winery.

Their degrees in science didn’t go to waste. Joe has a full-time job as a research and development chemist. In his spare time, he’s working on projects around the winery or bottling.

And their degrees helped them in the wine business. “It’s helpful because I am able to do any kind of testing on the wine myself instead of sending it off to a lab,” Wendy says.

Wendy is a talented cook, too, and those skills in the kitchen translate to the wine-making as well.

Wendy says she loves her job despite the long hours which can begin at 5 a.m. and run through 1 a.m. the next day, and she can put in as many as 40 hours over three days during a week when they are bottling.

Nonetheless, “It doesn’t feel like a job,” she says.

Despite the long hours, the couple also finds time to raise four children, ages 3 to 17. Told she looks nowhere near old enough to have a 17-year-old, Wendy says it’s the wine that keeps her looking so young. She jokes, “Everyone talks about greens, I say drink wine!”

Are their children interested in the business? While they know enough about the business by being Stallers, according to Wendy, the older one has already made up her mind. “No, she’s majoring in marketing,” Wendy says. “We encouraged her to do her own thing.”

As for her own insatiable energy, Wendy adds: “I’ll do it until I can’t do it anymore, which probably means when I’m 90. It is our hobby that got slightly out of control.”

RED OR WHITE?

The Stallers spend most of their time in May through September in the vineyard tending to the vines in order to get good grapes. “This requires lots of pruning, thinning, suckering and hedge trimming and harvesting,” Wendy says.

Because they don’t grow enough of their own grapes, they do make some use of contract growers in Wisconsin and northern Illinois.

“Once the grapes are picked, if we are making white wine then they go through our crusher destemmer and then into the bladder press where we press the juice out,” Wendy explains. “If we are making red wines then those grapes go through the crusher destemmer and then we put them in our 1,300-gallon tanks to ferment on the skins. The longer that the juice has contact with the skins the deeper the color.”

The juice goes into the tank and then the yeast is added for fermenting, which typically takes seven to 10 days.

“Once the wine is ready to be bottled, which can be anywhere from four months to two years, we run it through a plate and frame filter and then we bottle it,” Wendy says.

But the work doesn’t end there. That’s because the Stallers are as emphatic about recycling as they are about wine-making. “We compost everything and put it back out in the vineyard in the spring as added nutrients for those grape vines. “The nice thing is that anything from start to finish is reused. Whether it is out in the vineyard from grapes that we will not use, to cuttings, to any pumice out of our press, stems out of the crusher destemmer, or any sediment from the bottom of the tanks — everything is reused.”

The Stallers grow red and white cold climate, winter-hardy grape varietals such as Frontenac and Marechal Foch, both of which are red, and La Crescent (white). A typical grape harvest is about 126,400 pounds, enough for 40,000 to 50,000 bottles a year.

Their most popular wines are Estate Blanc, Maiden Blush, Estate Reserve, Lady In Red and Richmond Rouge.

CATERING AND MORE

Staller Estate Winery also hosts wine and dine events and catering for fund-raisers.

The winery partners with the Black Sheep Restaurant in Whitewater. “We currently have six dinners that we do with The Black Sheep yearly,” Wendy says. Four of those dinners are wine and dines. “This is where we do a five- course meal that gets paired with six different wines.”

The Black Sheep does the food course and their chef talks about the food and the Stallers talk about their wines. “We talk about how it is made and why we choose it to pair with a certain course,” Wendy says.

Staller Estate Winery also has a Fire and Wine grilling series in June and August. “This is a bit different than the wine and dine,” Wendy says. “It is typically a three- to four-course meal and instead of wine we have wine drinks that we make to go with each course. This is great because everyone can take the food and wine pairing information home with them.”

Staller Estate Winery is open daily June through August and Wednesday to Sunday, September through May.

The winery offers complimentary wine tastings and wine flights. There are also wine and chocolate flights where different chocolate truffles are offered with each wine.

Picnic platters come with freshly baked French baguette, meat, cheese, signature olive blend, dried fruits and nuts, and preserves. “We also have a charcuterie board that we do occasionally which has everything the platter has but comes with five preselected meats and cheeses,” Wendy says.

The winery also hosts bachelorette parties, birthdays, weddings, showers, bus tours and corporate events.

Staller Estate Winery sells 99 percent of their wines from their in-house store. Word of mouth is their best advertising, says Wendy.

And apparently all the talking is working. Ninety-seven percent of Trip Advisor customers rate Staller Estate Winery excellent or very good.

A ROADMAP TO ‘THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE’

Staller Estates is not in Napa Valley nor Italy, the areas usually associated with wineries.

While it seems to be in the middle of nowhere, that’s part of the appeal — a leisurely drive through the countryside that ends with a glass or two of wine.

Traveling west from Delavan, take a right at the intersection of State Highways 11 and 89 and take Highway 89 until you reach the Duck Inn on your right, turn right on County Road A, and the winery is the first driveway on your left. From Lake Geneva, take U.S. Highway 12 to County Road A, then west 10 miles. The winery is on your right.

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