WisBiz In-Depth: Von Stiehl Winery of Algoma
By Gregg Hoffmann
Dr. Charles Stiehl was a physician who also liked wine.
The good doctor started making cherry wine in his basement. A student of ancient wine-making processes, Dr. Stiehl wrapped his bottles of wine in gauze and plaster of Paris, almost as if he was casting a broken arm or leg.
Thus was born the trademark bottle of the Von Stiehl Winery in Algoma. Dr. Stiehl is no longer around, but the winery still uses the white gauze for some of its wines. The oldest winery in the state, it continues to win international awards and remains a landmark in Algoma and northeast Wisconsin.
"We have been part of Algoma since Dr. Stiehl established the winery in 1967," said Brad Schmiling, who along with his brother, Aric, now owns von Stiehl. "We are proud of the tradition we have here."
The winery bottles around 31,000 gallons of wine a year, which translates into about 13,000 cases, or around 156,000 bottles. There are about 35 to 40 bottling days per year, about once a week March through September. It takes four people to run the operation and they average about 100 cases per hour.
Von Stiehl makes several seasonal wines that are very popular. The company ships to 11 of the 50 states, but is restricted by federal laws limiting the shipment of wine.
Dr. Stiehl started by making primarily cherry wines, but the company now makes wines from apples, plums, raspberries, blueberries, cranberries, as well as the traditional cherries and grapes.
Von Stiehl continues to win awards. Earlier this year, the Tasters Guild awarded a Double Gold medal to the von Stiehl Cherry Kirsche wine. It was selected from 2,012 wines in the competition.
Stoney Creek Blush became the first wine made from Door County grapes to win a gold medal in competition in June. The von Stiehl Stoney Creek vineyard where the award-winner came from is now six years old.
Von Stiehl’s most popular wine, the Johannisberg Riesling, won six gold medals, the last one in New York City at Carnegie Hall from the American Tasting Institute.
Von Stiehl has come out with a special Oktoberfest wine, tied to the Wet Whistle Wine Festival in Algoma, and also puts out special Ducks Unlimited collectors wines.
Originally from Oconomowoc, Dr. Stiehl moved to Algoma, where he practiced medicine. He made wines in his basement, originally as a hobby, but they were so good people urged him to sell them commercially.
He eventually moved his wine-making business to the former Ahnapee Brewery building, which was built during the Civil War period and was one of the first buildings in Algoma. Two prominent Bohemian businessmen named Swaty and Stransky constructed the building around the end of the Civil War.
After they finished in 1868, it was opened as the Ahnapee Beer Brewery. The head brew master at the time was Henry Schmiling, a Civil War veteran, who happens to be the great-great-great-uncle of the current day owners. (Schmiling also is said to be one of the winery's ghosts. Reports are common of strange sounds, footsteps, occasionally misplaced wine, open bottles, and moved items. The ghost reportedly spends most of his time in the bottling room and the rathskeller.)
The brewery shut down in the 1890s, put out of business by a severe blight of the hops crop. The building was then used as a warehouse, to make fly nets for horses. In the 1920s, one of the first gas-powered washing machines, the Algoma Thermowasher, was built there.
Very thick walls in the building are made from hand-cut limestone, cut out of the local bedrock. If done today, the project would probably cost somewhere between $2 million and $3 million. These thick walls keep the wine at a stable temperature, which makes wine production much easier to control.
Bill and Sandy Schmiling, parents of the current owners, bought the winery from Dr. Stiehl. Their sons then bought the company from them. "We were more or less brought up in the business, so it seemed like a natural," Brad said.
Aric went to graduate school at Michigan State to study enology, the science of making wine. The brothers have expanded the winery's selection of wines.
Thousands tour the von Stiehl facility every year. It is closely tied to other landmarks in Algoma. A path from the winery towards the lake offers a view of the Algoma lighthouse. The Farm Market Kitchen, which sells homemade farm market products during the summer season, is another nearby landmark. Along the beach is the Harbor Walkway trail that leads to the Algoma Chamber of Commerce and a variety of shops.
For the last three years, von Stiehl has joined with Community Improvement of Algoma to sponsor the Wet Whistle Wine Festival, which benefits the Algoma Main Street Program. This year’s festival is scheduled for Sept. 25 – 26.
Schmiling sees the company's participation in the Wet Whistle festival as one way to give back to a community that has provided a warm home. Algoma, in turn, appreciates von Stiehl .
"The winery has been a big part of our downtown," said Mike Glime, program director for Community Improvement of Algoma. "It is part of this community."
Funding for the festival and some of the projects that come from it also are aided by a state Department of Tourism grant. The Main Street Program is a project of the Department of Commerce.
Through it, Community Improvement has been able to provide grants for signs and other design and physical improvements downtown, Glime said.
"We're trying to carve out a niche and make Algoma a destination, not just a stop on the way to and from Door County," Glime said.
Von Stiehl Winery has been one reason people have made Algoma a destination for almost four decades.