Vino Vino

Posted on Jun 1, 2009 :: Cover Story
Sean P. Johnson
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Russell Turco, Stone's Throw Winery, Baileys Harbor

Russell Turco’s passion for wines started early in life.

Perhaps a bit too early, as he tells it, when he and some of his teenage friends were caught up in a bit of youthful indiscretion.“When I was a kid my father caught us swiping some wine from his wine cellar,” Turco recalls in a jovial telling of the story. “I’ve been studying them for more than 40 years now.”

That study has taken him to many of the great wine regions of the globe, from Napa Valley in California to the wine producing regions of Europe, in particular Italy, which appeals to his heritage. It also led him to Door County, where more than a decade ago his passion prompted him to do more than just enjoy wine – he decided to make it himself.

Stone’s Throw Winery began in an old stone dairy barn in Baileys Harbor and has grown steadily ever since its founding 12 years ago. Additions have been made and several other buildings built, including the latest winery building, which is where you can often find Turco among the barrels of aging wines pondering his next course.

“I started with the thought that I would do about 500 cases,” Turco says. “I’m now on my third winery building in 12 years and contemplating limiting production. We could sell more, but I want to get back to the wines I used to make.”

Turco’s success with Stone’s Throw is indicative of a trend that has swept across the Door County peninsula and Northeast Wisconsin like a summer breeze. A decade ago, just a handful of wineries here produced mostly fruit wines. Today, a dozen vintners produce wines for an incredibly wide range of palates.

The Door County region may not have the weather appeal of California or other wine producing regions, yet the growth in the industry has been explosive in the past 10 years.

Prior to 2001, the Wisconsin Department of Revenue had issued winery permits to just four producers in the region. As of 2009, more than 50 permits have been issued statewide, including those in Northeast Wisconsin.

It’s no secret to Bill Chaudoir, executive director of the Door County Economic Development Corporation.

“It starts with one starting here a long time ago and building a base,” Chaudoir says. “We are a significant tourist destination for the Midwest. That is a very logical connection. It makes for a good afternoon of relaxation.”

How well have the wineries done? Door Peninsula Winery, the first one in Door County, was recently honored by the Door County Economic Development Corporation as industry of the year for 2009. (See page 33.)

Tourism is certainly an important ingredient in the success of the region’s wineries. How much the wineries add to that is hard to say, Chaudoir says. But he’s sure it is a factor in Door County visitors’ plans.

Tim Lawrie factored it in when he retired from the military after 26 years and decided to open Simon Creek Vineyard in 2003. A native of the area, he was looking for something that would bring him back to the region.

“I really wanted to do something that would complement the area and its primary industry, which of course is tourism,” Lawrie says. “Wineries and tourism are just a beautiful connection. When you travel somewhere, you go to dinner and you want to try a local wine.”

Of course, Lawrie and his staff can certainly recommend a place that carries a Simon Creek wine.
For Carrie Lautenbach Viste, wineries are a natural fit with the area’s history and tourism industry.

“Historically, this area is known for its agro-tourism. People have always traveled here to pick the cherries,” says Lautenbach Viste, who operates Orchard Country Winery in Fish Creek with her father and sister. “Now when they travel here, they want to try wines made from the local fruits.”

It was a trip to the area with friends, and his relationship with a business partner that prompted Turco to consider a winery in Door County. Long before he opened the doors to Stone’s Throw, he had visited the area and seen folks drinking local cherry and apple based wines. He sensed an opportunity to appeal to wine afficionados looking for traditional grape wines.

“I had the business plan written by the time we got back to Milwaukee,” Turco says.

It took another three years to put everything into place. One of his first missions was to expand the palate. Turco figured he would start by bringing in grapes to make traditional vinifera wines such as Zinfandel and Chardonnay.

At 50, he sold his existing business and went into winemaking full time.

Turco refers to his winemaking process as micro-vinification, which means he buys grapes in small lots from some of the top growing areas of California and has them shipped back to Door County (in trucks, in 36 hours) where the wines are made.

“What does a guy do when he retires at 50 and doesn’t have a good golf game?” Turco jokes.

While simple in theory, the practice of running a winery is a sophisticated combination of science, number crunching, marketing, alchemy and a heavy dose of patience. The product is made, but then you have to wait several months to find out whether it worked or not.

Sometimes the wine is in the bottle and still not ready. So, they wait.

It certainly seems to be working. Turco says the winery has seen growth of about 16 percent a year. To both meet that growth, and improve his product, Turco is constantly making upgrades to the winery.

When he started, the fermentation was in stainless steel tanks. Those tanks have since been replaced with four 3,200-gallon upright oak fermenting tanks.

“It changes the mouth feel of the wine,” he says.

No detail is too small. Turco has a full-time grape buyer in California whose sole job is to search out and buy the best grapes. He maintains relationships with 14 different barrel makers – whose products range from $900 to $1,400 a barrel – all in the name of finding the right barrel that will fit the flavor profile of the wine he is trying to make.

It’s not enough to get it chemically right, though there is a lab in his Door County winery to ensure that the science is sound. It has to taste right, too. Turco can often be found consulting with his winemaker, Dave Pizzala, or pulling a sample from a barrel to check the taste and feel.

It’s the details of the business that drive Turco. He wants his customers to have the best experience possible so that they will not only come back, but will recommend his wines to others. He counts Las Vegas developer Steve Wynn among his business influences.

In fact, when on the road to Vegas or another locale, Turco also keeps notes in a moleskin notebook. They might be tasting notes, or information on how napkins were displayed at a restaurant somewhere. But they are all ideas for improving his business.

“When I walk through the business, I want to find something wrong because that, to me, is an opportunity to make something right,” Turco says.

He follows three simple principles he has learned from his previous businesses: Focus, commit and concentrate.

That’s not to say problems don’t occur from time to time, such as the story of the lost barrel. While working with a 2006 vintage of Zinfandel, one of the barrels was misplaced. It was not until earlier this year that Pizzala found the barrel. Well aged, Stone’s Throw will release bottles of “lost barrel” Zinfandel later this year.

“We make them to sell, but sometimes it is hard to let them go,” Turco says.

Where they let them go is in the tasting room.

As the wineries of the region have evolved, so have the tasting rooms. Stone’s Throw just remodeled its tasting room and is offering “wine camps” on scheduled Saturdays, Simon Creek offers live bands on its back deck overlooking the vineyard on weekend afternoons, and many other Door County wineries have added to the amenities as well as the wine lists.

It’s also where the winemakers get to meet and educate their customers.

“That part of it is very rewarding,” Lawrie says. “It’s especially rewarding when they come in and discover something they never thought they would like.”

At Door Peninsula Winery, the granddaddy of the Door County wineries, customers can make their pick of samples from 54 different labels produced by the winery, from fruit wines to traditional grape wines to blends, says General Manager Rob Pollman.

Pollman has had the unique opportunity of watching the industry grow. For many years, Door Peninsula was the only winery in Door County. Yet, he welcomes the competition.

“It doesn’t seem to matter how many there are, we just keep growing,” Pollman said.

Then there is the food. It seems a natural evolution for the wineries to offer food that complements the wines they have available. For most, the scale is small, whether it is cheeses or sandwiches.

Stone’s Throw began serving tapas – finger foods of Spanish origin – in its tasting room in early May. Other wineries seem poised to follow. Door Peninsula Winery may have outdone them all, with the launch of its Bistro 42 Restaurant and Wine Bar.

“It just gives people another reason to come here,” Pollman says. “It’s also another outlet to showcase our wines.”

While many of the wineries have not gone as far as launching a restaurant, combining food and wine plays an important part in the myriad of events each one hosts, ranging from concerts to barbecues to seasonal festivals centered on wine.

It’s all part of enhancing the wine tasting experience, says Maria Milano, co-owner of Parallel 44 Vineyard and Winery in Kewaunee County.

“When you drink wine, it’s one experience. When you eat, it’s another. When you combine the two, you get a third,” Milano says.

Another avenue Parallel 44 has pursued is a wine school, where food and wine pairings are discussed. Several other wineries have developed wine clubs or other avenues for tasting and discussing wines.

As the various wineries of Northeast Wisconsin have grown, they have developed very different approaches to winemaking.

Stone’s Throw, for example, has developed as a California winery that just happens to be located in Wisconsin. Others have leaned heavily on the area’s traditional fruit wines, while still others, including Simon Creek and Parallel 44, have introduced their own vineyards and are producing local wines from local grapes.

To grow or not to grow wine grapes seems to be the latest question facing the industry.

For Turco, the decision was an easy one. While vines have been planted, the viniferous grapes that Stone’s Throw uses for its wineries, in his opinion, do not do well in Door County. Aside from the cold, there is not enough soil depth for the tap root to function as it should, he says.

At Parallel 44, they have had better luck. They have had vines for French hybrid grapes in the ground since 2005 and produced their first estate vintages in 2007 and 2008. Interestingly enough, Parallel 44 takes its name from the latitude it is located on, which is the same as the wine producing regions of Bordeaux and Tuscany. The growing season may not be the same, but the soil conditions are similar.

Lawrie says Simon Creek has had vines in the ground for six years and has also produced estate vintages. He said the soil from an alluvial deposit has provided good enough depth for most of the vines to prosper.

Even Door Peninsula Winery, which has always been known for its cherry wines, has vines in the ground. Four of the first six varieties are thriving and the winery plans to add more, Pollman says.

With all of the successes, there are still obstacles the wineries have to overcome. The most recent is the decision by the state of Wisconsin that forces the wineries to use third-party distributors to market their wines around the state and country.

Most of the owners grumble about the new law, but have taken steps to comply. The statewide association has formed a cooperative to handle the distribution that most of the wineries have joined. A few of the other wineries have sought out other distributors.

Despite the legislative headaches, Turco can’t imagine doing anything else. A newlywed, his wife Lisa is a “foodie and a great chef.” It seems to be a good pairing.

“This is so much fun, I wish I had done it 40 years ago, but 40 years ago it would not have worked,” Turco says. “I keep saying I’m going to stop, but I can’t. There are fine wines here now, and we have been a part of that.”