As you enter Vines & Rushes Winery you see a contrast of new and old. Accents from recycled barn wood and handmade furniture pop against the newly-finished walls, creating a perfect blend of modern and rustic.
Just surpassing their fourth anniversary, the winery has already undergone an expansion due to its popularity and need to grow. Even though the building is new, the connection the winery has to agriculture and community is not.
“My original intention was to grow grapes as a commodity, with wine making as a hobby,” said Ryan Prellwitz, Fond du Lac County Farm Bureau member and owner of Vines & Rushes. “I started making wine mostly out of curiosity.”
The winery sits on the multigenerational Prellwitz farm just outside of Ripon, which started as a dairy and crop farm in the 1940s. Ryan’s parents, Chuck and Diane, stopped dairy farming in the early 1990s and jumped into the produce business. The farm still has about 600 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat but also has 12 acres of strawberries, five acres of grapes and one acre of raspberries.
Chuck takes care of the grains and strawberries with the help of Ryan’s brother, Andy. Ryan’s uncle, Jeff grows the raspberries and Ryan manages the grapes, wine production and winery.
“We have 5,000 to 10,000 people come out during the strawberry season,” Prellwitz said. “This interaction with customers suits our family well between our personalities and capabilities. We like to have people on the farm so we can talk and interact with them.”
That appreciation for customer interaction at the strawberry farm has spilled over to the winery.
“Today’s customers are wondering how do I get closer to my product and how do I connect with the people who make it?” Prellwitz said.
Currently, the winery has 15 part-time employees but it’s a tough crew to join.
“We are picky with who we add to the family,” Prellwitz explained. “The relationship between the employee and the customer is crucial to their experience. That’s also why we are open seven days a week, because we need to be open for our customers. We are a destination.”
Prellwitz says 100 percent of the wines and ciders they produce come from Wisconsin. Twenty percent of the grapes are grown on the farm while 80 percent come from other vineyards throughout the state.
“We’ve found that customers are willing to spend a little more on a product they know is local,” he added. “When we have a chance to tell a story or explain the history, it makes their experience even better.”
To say the business has seen growth in its four years is an understatement.
The first year the winery bottled nearly 10,000 bottles with the first crop of grapes. This year they bottled about 40,000 bottles of wine.
“Finding a good quality wine from Wisconsin grapes is something that surprises people,” Prellwitz said. “My goal is to make a wine that people wouldn’t expect to find here.”
You can tell by the looks on the faces of those walking through the door that they are pleasantly surprised, which ultimately leads to the growth of the winery.
Unexpected growth is a common issue for small business owners. Prellwitz says small businesses sometimes think they have to work alone, but working together is a much larger payoff.
“It’s either survive together or die alone,” he said.
Since the winery purchases grapes from around the state, having relationships with other wineries and grape growers is crucial. Prellwitz credits the relationships he has built to the associations he is a part of.
As founding president of the Wisconsin Grape Growers Association, Prellwitz led the newly-formed group and chose what its educational focus would be.
“In this industry, education is really the cheapest insurance you can buy,” Prellwitz said. “The association gives an opportunity to establish a grape curriculum and build relationships around the state.”
After seven years as president, Prellwitz passed the baton and now serves as the vice president of the Wisconsin Winery Association.
Being a father, winemaker and business owner, Prellwitz keeps busy but enjoys the diversity.
“I grew up on a farm where every day was something different,” he said. “I don’t do well being stuck in an office doing the same thing. I get to work with wine, employees, the vineyard and the industry.”
His off-farm experience of working in IT and marketing has come in handy for the growing business.
Prellwitz smiled, “You just don’t know where life is going to lead you, so why try to orchestrate it?”
Something Prellwitz takes great pride in is sharing the story of winemaking, his family and community.
Ryan and his wife, Megan, have two daughters Nolia and Sadie. These three women in his life have been honored with wines of their own. Sweet Nolia is a uniquely-sweet white wine. Sadie’s Charm is a light-bodied white wine. The newly-released Frontenac Port wine, was given Megan’s nickname Megnolia, in honor of the couple’s 10-year anniversary.
Each wine at Vines & Rushes has a story that’s tied to the family, community or commodity. For example, Little White Red is a tribute to Ripon’s place in history as the birthplace of the Republican Party.
The most popular pick, Wiskonsan, represents the Prellwitz family’s heritage as farmers and Wiskonsanites. The alternate spelling of Wisconsin comes from first Governor James Doty who insisted on the alternative spelling. The blend of strawberries and grapes showcases the farm’s story.
Even the name Vines & Rushes has a significant meaning.
‘Rushes’ comes from Rush Lake, a 2,729-acre prairie pot hole lake in Fond du Lac County but the idea for Vines & Rushes came from a book called “Roots and Rushes” put together by a woman in the Rush Lake community. “Roots and Rushes” is a collection of history, photos and memories that serves as the perfect backbone for the winery.
“It inspired the name because this is literally and figuratively where our roots are,” Prellwitz said.
Story by Amy Eckelberg. Original version appeared in the February|March 2017 issue of Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation’s Rural Route.