History Embraced, at Root of Success at von Stiehl Winery
The oldest winery in Wisconsin is housed in a handsome, well-tended building of hand-cut limestone and brick. On a foggy morning in September, the von Stiehl structure sits above Lake Michigan like a stately goddess surveying her cloud kingdom. Inside, with dark wooden cabinetry, burgundy drapes and wrought-iron seats, the sense of place and history is palpable. And no wonder; this edifice has been part of Algoma history since 1868, serving the community as a brewery, a factory and a warehouse. But the place really came into its own in 1967 when a local physician, Dr. Charles Stiehl, bought the building to expand his cherry-growing hobby into a wine-making endeavor. Stiehl gained fame for wines made from Door County cherries and apples, and the winery became a frequent stop along the peninsula’s tourist route. In 1981, he sold it to Bill and Sandy Schmiling, who added plum, pear, raspberry, blackberry and cranberry wines to the company’s repertoire, and then went on to add grape wines, too. Their sons,
Brad and Aric, who grew up in the business, have owned it since 2003.
Fast forward another decade and that bring us to today, and to more of the story from the Schmiling brothers.
Terese: What are Aric’s and your jobs at von Stiehl?
Brad: My official job is to ‘run the business.’ I take care of marketing and advertising, new brands and new projects. I also manage our wholesaler relationships. Aric is the winemaker so he oversees everything that has to do with production. He’s also the winemaker for Captain’s Walk Winery (Green Bay) and Harbor Ridge Winery (Egg Harbor).
Terese: How has von Stiehl grown or changed over the years?
Brad: In the 60s, 70s, and 80s we just made fruit wines. In the 90s we introduced grape wines. Now we produce around 75 percent grape and 25 percent fruit wines. Unfortunately, many locals still see us as the place that just makes cherry wine. In 2007, we started a second winery in Green Bay named Captain’s Walk Winery. In Algoma, we expanded in 2010 into a production facility across the road from the original winery. This year we opened Ahnapee Brewery. The tap room is two doors east of the von Stiehl tasting room.
Terese: Von Stiehl is part of the Door County Wine Trail, which guides visitors to seven wineries on the peninsula. How did that start?
Brad: We were one of the founding members in the winter of 2011. We wanted to come together to form a unified voice for our industry. We also wanted to work together to promote and bring more guests through each of our doors. It has taken us some time to lay the foundation for the organization, but we are now seeing a lot of guests coming through as part of our passport promotion.
Terese: You and your brother have worked together for decades. What was it like when you were young?
Brad: We grew up in the business much like kids grow up on a Wisconsin dairy farm. When we were old enough to lift empty cases, we did. When we were old enough to lift full cases, we stocked. We were the landscapers, painters, tankscrubbers. We pretty much did whatever needed to be done.
Terese: How do you like being in business with your brother now?
Brad: Our relationship works well. The key to working with family is to let each decision lie with the person who knows the most about the area in which that decision is made. Also, a high mutual respect for each other is important.
Terese: Are other family members involved in the winery?
[Our] parents own the Stony Creek Vineyard, a planting of Marquette, Marechal Foch, and Frontenac grapes. This is a fulltime job for my father in the summer. My wife, Shaun, also works in the vineyard. Everybody helps for the major events.
Terese: I understand that your great great great great uncle, Henry Schmiling, once owned the brewery that was housed in the von Stiehl building. Is that for real?
Brad: That is for real. He was a Civil War veteran…. His army discharge papers hang at the top of our staircase outside my office door. We know that he specialized in lagers because the brewery was built with special European style lagering tunnels. We refer to one of our ghosts as Henry.
Terese: Here’s a question for Aric—which wine is the most satisfying to make?
Aric: That’s a toss-up between any of our dry reds and the Cherry Bounce. For the reds, taking fresh clusters of grapes and getting them to the bottle usually two to three years later is very rewarding because of all the time and effort that goes into that wine along the way. It makes all of that work more fun knowing all of the enjoyment people get out of it!
Terese: Tell us a little about the decision to open the Captain’s Walk Winery in Green Bay.
Brad: In 2006 we looked at the Green Bay area. A lot of things were beginning to happen downtown so it made sense to be a part of that action. There was a 150-yearold Italianate house that I drove by in 2000 and thought “that would make a great winery.” I found it again in 2006 with a “for sale” sign on it and it had to be! Aric was excited to develop a line of elite wines to be sold mainly at the winery, and we had a talented employee who lived in Green Bay that would be the perfect person to run the winery. His name is P.J. Koehler and we developed Captain’s Walk Winery to fit his personality. The winery has reached its goals since opening in 2007. We added a sun room/event space and more production room in 2012. Because it’s an old house we seek to make guests feel at home
Terese: One final question, for both of you. How do you spend your time off from the winery (assuming you get any!)?
Aric: My wife and two daughters enjoy being outside with nature and being in and around the water. We also enjoy biking and are getting into fishing a little more now that the girls are getting older.
Brad: I’m a Meyer Theatre board member, so in the winter months it’s nice to enjoy the downtown Green Bay atmosphere. My wife and I spend time in Madison for short trips, and Savannah, Georgia for longer vacations.
Anywhere that welcomes foodies.
Suggestions from von Stiehl’s Tasting Bar
A MATCH MADE IN WISCONSIN
Julie Hathaway works at the von Stiehl’s tasting bar, writes wine descriptions and other material, and does “anything else that needs to be done around the winery.” Here are some of Julie’s suggestions for wine and food pairings:
Stony Creek Rosé
Made of Marechal Foch and Frontenac grapes from the Schmiling vineyard just north of the Kewaunee/ Door County line, it has great color and the flavor just pops. Salmon seems the logical choice since it’s so prevalent in Door County, and there’s nothing prettier than a platter of grilled fresh salmon next to a glass of rosé.
Our new dry red made in Wisconsin from Wisconsin grapes and aged in Wisconsin oak barrels. We suggest a grilled New York strip or perhaps lamb. Stews are a natural, as are cassoulets.
I’d follow the same rules [as for Sylvester], but I might also throw in Brad’s suggestion of “chocolate chip cookies and a good book.” Some people are surprised at the notion of pairing dry reds with chocolate, but I’ve never had a disappointed customer upon trying it!
Doc’s Cherry Bounce
Intensely cherry, almost chocolatyrich in aroma and taste…a dessert in itself. It would be happily complemented by anything heavy, rich, and chocolate.