A toast… to theatre, marketing, chemistry, wine

In late summer in Northeast Wisconsin, UW-Green Bay graduates and brothers Aric and Brad Schmiling delight in the metamorphosis… grapes change color, fill with natural sugar and expand to ideal size, perfect for harvesting, stomping, fermenting, tasting and celebrating.

It is the culmination of a season and another successful year for the Schmilings, second-generation owners of von Stiehl Winery in Algoma and entrepreneurs and partners in the newer Captain’s Walk Winery in Green Bay.

The brothers are only two of a growing number of UW-Green Bay graduates leading the charge to put Northeast Wisconsin on the map for grape growing and wine making. (More on this, later, but we’ll start with the Schmilings.)

The two grew up at the storied von Stiehl Winery, purchased by their parents in 1981 from its namesake, Dr. Charles Stiehl. As boys they enjoyed their upbringing, but thought they’d follow their own paths. Aric wanted a career in the natural sciences, possibly the DNR, and Brad pursued technical theatre. Aric was the first to realize there was something pretty special about the wine business.

“A conversation with a family friend helped me realize how much I loved it,” he recalls. “I became determined that I could really help make a mark for Algoma and Wisconsin wines. I switched my major and minor, and from that moment have been focused on making the best wines that I possibly can.”

He graduated in 1995 in marketing and chemistry and studied at Michigan State in enology and viticulture — winemaking and grape growing.

Brother Brad took “the long way home.” Graduating in 1997 with a personal degree in theatre engineering and design, he spent some time with a theatre lighting company in Madison before being tugged back to his roots, with a little help from “Doc” Stiehl.

Brad had fretted that his theatre degree probably wasn’t a good primer for running a winery. In his soft-spoken tone mastered from decades of soothing the troubled, Doc stated the contrary. “Wine is all about romance,” he said. “It’s all about putting on a show.”

In 2007, the Schmilings expanded their “cast and playhouse,” purchasing a beautifully restored Italianate Victorian home in downtown Green Bay. There, they opened Captain’s Walk Winery, where they have purposely nurtured a culture that is intentionally non-snobbish. Take events such as the annual Fundue Wine Fest (next up in May of 2014), where pirate attire is welcome, laughter is a requirement and joy is expected.

PJ Koehler, a 1998 UW-Green Bay graduate in Human Biology who studied nutrition and food science, is the assistant winemaker and general manager at Captain’s Walk.

They have also started making beer in Algoma under the name Ahnapee Brewery with a Tap Room just two doors down from von Stiehl Winery.

While Brad says he can point to more failed endeavors than successful ones, the Wet Whistle Wine Fest in Algoma is a crowning achievement. The mid-September festival draws more than 2,000 people to a grape-stomping, music-filled, costume-wearing celebration in Algoma, with profits committed to the community improvement of Algoma.

Each of the brothers can point to specific lessons learned during their undergraduate experience that helped them prepare for life after college.

“I found that a theatre degree prepares one for life in many ways that another degree might not,” Brad says. “I learned to think on my feet in times of stress. I learned to deal with a lot of different personalities in a positive uplifting manner. I learned from Lou Erdmann that it doesn’t matter what type of show I want to do, it matters what an audience will pay to see. He taught the importance of creating a buzz, the importance of promotion; the importance of running a theater like a business. I learned from Mike Ingraham how to make things look great and to think through a project before beginning.”

Adds Aric, “My undergrad experience prepared me for the incredible amount of multitasking that I have to do here as a co-owner and head winemaker. When you are juggling classes with quizzes, exams, labs, and extra projects while trying to have a personal life as well as a job it teaches you how to prepare for the rest of your life. You learn how to prioritize and manage your time, be focused and detailed, and also to respect the people you live and work with.

“There is one saying that Brad and I live by as owners of this business and that is, ‘Do what you need to do, when you need to do it, whether you want to or not.’”

The roster of UW-Green Bay graduates in the wine business is growing.
Joe Callow ’09 is the owner of the new Forgotten Fire Winery near Peshtigo.

Andrew Hilliard ’88 is the managing director of Beau Joubert Vineyard and Winery in the Stellenbosch Wine Region of South Africa.

Andrea Luoma DeBaker, co-owner of Trout Spring Winery in Greenleaf, attended UWGB for two years in the 1980s and Colleen “Cully” Sheahan ’86, is close friend of the DeBakers and a steady volunteer at Trout Springs.

Sheahan says it is her Eco U heritage that attracts her to the work of Trout Springs which tries to use environmentally friendly growing practices. Trout Springs was named the 2012 Winery of the Year by the Wisconsin Grape Growers Association for diligence in leading an effort for 11 counties in eastern Wisconsin to be named an official American Viticultural Area (AVA) called the “Wisconsin Ledge.”

The recognition helps the counties distinguish and market themselves in a smaller-scale, northern-tier nod to the success of such storied and heavily hyped wine regions as the Napa Valley of California. There are 15 wineries that make up the Wisconsin Ledge.

Brad Schmiling’s advice to today’s UW-Green Bay students

Brad Schmiling of the von Stiehl and Captain’s Walk wineries admits he took an unconventional path to entrepreneurial success. Maybe that’s why he’s such an advocate of things he learned along the way — at UW-Green Bay, in college and professional theatre, and as a small business owner.

He says he shares the following observations with current students and recent grads:
• You can work an insane number of hours in theatre and not get paid — same with a business.
• When you don’t have time to sleep, eat well. (Michael Ingraham during KCACTF ’94)
• All of the professors in theatre went by their first name; gaining respect starts by showing that you’re nobody special.
• As a young adult, you have to make a choice between following your dream job to a big city or living near your family. Rarely can you have both and what you do isn’t necessarily as important as who you’re with.
• Some of the biggest influencers of your life are only with you for a short time. Listen well.
• From striking sets as a crew leader to managing others — the best idea is rarely yours. Present the problem and listen to the people around you. They probably have a better idea, and they will follow through in their work if they believe in the solution.
• If you have the biggest set of keys, you have the biggest load of responsibilities.
• Your assistants are often more capable of accomplishing work than you. Think ahead. Keep the jobs rolling to them so they don’t get stagnant, bored, and leave.
• Start with prayer. Ask for wisdom. Don’t force an open door shut or a closed door open: “God can make more happen when you stand still and wait on him than you can make happen when you run at full speed,” Schmiling says.
• Don’t get hung up on the money. You didn’t start with any and you won’t finish with any.
• Pop Tarts, vending machine hamburgers, and microwave potatoes may make easy meals, but your body will pay for it.