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Wineries pour award-winning service for success

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Anna Marie Lux
March 8, 2015

On a dreary Saturday in January, visitors are filing in and out of the tasting room at Staller Estate Vineyard and Winery in Walworth County's town of Richmond.

"Normally, this is our slow season," said Joe Staller, who owns and operates the business with his wife, Wendy.

Not anymore.

The Stallers have seen an uptick in business this year and last as the economy claws back to recovery.

"People are discovering how enjoyable it is to come to a winery," Joe said.

He reflects what other Wisconsin vintners are saying.

"People are looking for an experience," said Gail Nordlof of Northleaf Winery in Milton. "Unless you have the customer service, a good product isn't enough anymore."

She owns the business with her husband, John.

Along with producing award-winning wines, the owners of Northleaf and Staller Estate say the key to success is customer service.

The Nordlofs are in the business of offering memorable visits.

One of their specialties is wine and chocolate pairings.

"We make chocolates specifically to go with our wines," Gail said. "So our pairings are unique."

In the tasting room, the winery also offers wine and cheese pairings and chances to paint your own wine glass or lighted wine bottle and to make your own wine stopper or wine charms.

The Nordlofs run a bistro next door, which serves food and has a huge deck for outdoor eating, live music, weddings and parties. A single guesthouse is above the bistro for winery guests who want to stay for a while.

"People come here and find many reasons to stay," Gail said. "It's like a little oasis."

The Nordlofs restored and added an addition to the historic building that was Sunnyview Apple Orchard's warehouse for 40 years.

In 2009, they opened the winery in the Great Recession.

"There was no going back," Gail recalled.

Sales grew each year until the Highway 26 bypass opened in August 2013.

"Then sales dropped 25 percent," Gail said. "We are working hard to come back. We are close, but it's been a long haul."

Their tasting room is often full.

"We are always finding creative ways to draw people," Gail said. "We are always trying new things to keep them coming back."

The Nordlofs find new customers by word of mouth, web searches, television advertising and also by offering deals through Groupon, LivingSocial and Travelzoo.

"We engage our existing customers with email marketing, social media and an event schedule," Gail said.

The family-run winery has three generations crafting about 25 wines in small batches at any given time. Gail and John make everything from Cabernet to Green Apple Riesling to Cherry Port, mostly with fruit from California. Their daughter Jaimie Dewey is manager of the tasting room. Their son Bruce bottles with them, and six of their grandchildren have worked at the winery.

A former software developer, Gail began making wine at home. When the old warehouse came up for sale, she envisioned a winery.

"It has been such a journey that we have done together," she said of herself and John. "They say, if you are fond of something you do, you will never work a day in your life. This is hard work, but it is fun."

Wendy and Joe Staller have been producing top-notch wines since 2007 and opened to the public in 2008.

"We've grown 10 percent each year we have been in business," Joe said. "I didn't know what to expect when we opened. I prayed the customers would come and enjoy the product."

For three years, they have crafted wine with grapes from their own vineyard.

They also have a contract with growers and bring in as many Wisconsin grapes as possible.

"The winemaking process starts in the vineyard," Joe said. "You can't take bad grapes and turn them into good wine. We like to call it wine growing."

The Stallers have won more than 50 international awards for their wines. Last year, they earned a double gold medal for a dry red wine, "Estate Reserve."

Joe and Wendy give visitors an overview of the entire winemaking experience from ground to glass.

They offer tours of the vineyard and winery, wine tasting and wine and food pairing.

"Wendy and I are very passionate about the experience we provide and personally welcome each guest," Joe said. "We hope every customer leaves a friend."

The wine industry is doing well and growing quickly in Wisconsin and the United States, Joe said.

"The U.S. is developing a European type of wine industry where each region produces excellent wines based on the grape varieties that flourish in the region," Joe said. "U.S. consumers are embracing these excellent wines."

He works full time away from the business as a polymer chemist, while Wendy is the winery's general manager. They have four children.

As a student at the UW-Whitewater, Joe worked on a dairy farm for room and board.

"I always had a dream of living on a farm and raising a family on a farm," he said. "Our winery is a creative way to have a farm-family experience."

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