Vineyard adds new, successful dimension to Prellwitz family farm
RIPON – Ryan C. Prellwitz takes pride in his heritage as a generational farm family and has found a way to remain on his family’s former dairy farm near Ripon by slowly developing a successful grape-growing and wine-making business known as Vines & Rushes Winery.
His family milked cows on their farm until he was nine-years old and then began their focus on corn and soybeans. In the early 90’s, they began working with alternative crops with a focus on strawberries. For 26 years they ran a pick-your-own and pre-picked strawberry operation with thousands of customers visiting their farm each year.
In 2006, at the age of 23, Prellwitz started exploring the idea of coming back to the farm after an eight-year career in information technology.
Before his return, he explored various options for adding additional value to the farm so it could support two families. He came up with the idea of raising grapes. After extensive research Prellwitz discovered that grapes required less acreage and were a higher-value crop.
They developed the vineyard slowly, planting 50 vines in 2007 and then adding 200 vines in 2008. This gave him the opportunity to form a better understanding of the workload, process and protocols of grape-growing. In the following years they added more vines that now cover more than 5 acres.
After gaining an understanding of the agricultural side of grape growing and experimenting with making wine at home, Prellwitz began investigating the creation of a commercial winery on the farm. His parents encouraged him in their willingness to provide land as collateral and Vines and Rushes Winery was founded with the first vintage wine being made in 2012.
The business continued to grow. From producing 2000 gallons of wine the first year to now producing about 18,000 gallons of wine in 2021 using his grapes and grapes grown on other Wisconsin farms.
What started with just Prellwitz working in the tasting room, the vineyard and doing the winemaking, grew to a staff of over 30 part-time and full-time employees providing customer experiences seven days a week year-round.
There have been four building expansions to accommodate the growing business and the square footage of the facility has grown from 4000 sq. ft in 2012 to 12,000 sq ft.
Challenges in developing a business
Developing a business like this is not without its challenges. First, the winery business in Wisconsin does not have a strong history. With no previous experience in grape growing or wine-making, Prellwitz needed to educate himself on how to succeed.
An advantage, however, is his experience as an entrepreneur and background in small business, agriculture, information technology and marketing.
A second challenge is the time lapse between the investment in planting grapes and the time they generate income as wine made from the grapes. Grapes grown and harvested in 2021 will likely be bottled in 2022 and sold sometime between 2022 and 2024, depending on the style of wine and existing inventory.
That presents a challenge for developing a product line-up, engaging a customer base and selling enough products to pay the bills.
Add to that, the challenges of sourcing grapes from Wisconsin only (by choice) and a goal of increasing production volume to accommodate increasing customer demand. Prellwitz says that makes capital funding a challenge.
Prellwitz's technology background has helped him in seeking ways to improve crop production, increase production and decrease the workload. His experience with his family’s pick-your-own strawberry business has also helped him to understand the importance of growing quality fruit and providing the on-farm experience customers are seeking.
Growing quality fruit
Hybrid grape varieties have been intentionally bred for generations with a focus around those that can survive the upper Midwest’s harsh winters. Prellwitz has planted some old varieties and some very new varieties with the goal of making high quality wine.
Winemaking practices have also been refined to be more environmentally efficient while increasing quality and continuing to provide customers with the product they seek.
Vines and Rushes vineyard has been dry-farmed since planting – meaning no additional watering of vines has been done. Providing moisture at the surface often results in the vine's tap root failing to reach deep enough for moisture, requiring a long-term dependence on irrigation.
The vineyard also grows fescue grass between rows. The grass limits the vigor of the vine so it will focus on developing higher quality fruit rather than growing more foliage. Fescue grass also helps to control weeds so no herbicide is needed and it eliminates soil erosion.
The limited vigor of the vineyard also lessens the need for fungicides due to better air movement between the plants. The Prellwitz's closely monitor plants and identify issues through the Integrated Pest Management system.
Prellwitz has also employed the benefits of technology in fighting fruit scavenging birds from the vineyard. After trying numerous methods to keep the birds at bay, they have found the best success using an aerial drone to chase them away – eliminating the need for expensive netting.
Well-rounded business plan
As a part of Prellwitz's marketing strategy, the business has grown to include an on-site restaurant that serves thousands of customers a year. In addition to their wine, customers enjoy wood-fired Neapolitan style pizza, beer on-tap, and live music shows. The family also hosts a number of unique public and private events.
Prellwitz’s wife, Megan and their three children Nolia, 10; Sadie, 7; and Olin, 3 regularly help out at the winery, washing dishes, busing tables and greeting customers.
The couple says they are thankful for the encouragement and assistance they have gotten from Ryan’s parents, family and friends as they developed their business. Prellwitz he credits his employees for giving their best effort in providing customers with delicious wine, food and a great experience at their expansive rural facility located at 410 County E, Ripon, WI .