Wet your whistle at Algoma Wine Fest
The von Stiehl Winery has been wetting wine lovers' whistles since 1967, so it seemed only natural to start a festival that recognized that feat.
"Wet Whistle Wine Fest: A Celebration for the Senses" has developed into an event that benefits the Algoma Main Street Program. It is scheduled for Sept. 25-26 near the Algoma marina and the winery.
Community Improvement of Algoma puts on the two-day festival, with the aid of the von Stiehl people. On Saturday, the highlight is a Grape Stomp. Heats of the stomp actually start with a celebrity stomp at 11 a.m. and run until the finals at 5:30 p.m.
An art show, music, heritage foods and wine tasting will be offered both days. A special breakfast, called Salute to Sausages, will kick off both days of the festival.
"This is our third year of the festival," said Brad Schmiling, who owns von Stiehl along with his brother, Aric. "It's kind of hard to compare the first two years. The first year was 70 degrees and just perfect. Last year, it was in the 40s and 50s. We had a lot of people in the winery, but fewer on the grounds. We have drawn about 1,500 to 2,000 people each of the first two years."
The festival has been promoted for weeks this year with billboards at the southern end of Door County and in local media.
Big parts of the festival appeal are von Stiehl wines and the company itself. The winery is the oldest in Wisconsin.
Dr. Charles Stiehl was a physician who loved making wine. He wrapped his wines in the gauze cloth that has become a traditional trademark of many of the company's wines.
Originally from Oconomowoc, 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 is one of the first buildings built 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 Brewmaster at the time was Henry Schmiling, a Civil War veteran, who happens to be the Great Great Great Uncle of the current day owners Aric and Brad Schmiling.
Henry also is said to be one of the winery's ghosts. Anyone that has ever been alone in the winery can attest to strange sounds, footsteps, occasionally misplaced wine, open bottles and moving objects. Henry 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.
Today, that building provides a wonderful setting for the winery and gift store. Tours of the building are very popular.
Dr. Stiehl originally specialized in cherry wines, but he gradually started to branch out to make wine from other fruits. Today, the winery uses apples, plums, raspberries, blueberries, cranberries, as well as grapes and cherries for about two dozen wines.
The gauze is mixed with plaster of Paris as a wrap for many of the wines. Dr. Stiehl, who studied ancient wine making processes, was convinced it protected the wine against the effects of light and sudden temperature changes. The Schmilings say they have noticed it also serves as padding if you drop the bottle.
Dr. Stiehl sold the winery to Bill and Sandy Schmiling, the parents of Brad and Aric. The two sons bought the company from their parents.
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 continues to win awards. Earlier this year, the Taster 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 is now six years old.
Von Stiehl has come out with a special Oktoberfest wine, tied to the Wet Whistle festival, and also puts out special Ducks Unlimited collectors wines.
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 appreciates von Stiehl and the festival.
"The winery has been a big part of our downtown area and is the co-sponsor of the festival," said Mike Glime, program director for Community Improvement of Algoma.
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. The Wet Whistle festival brings people into the community and helps highlight Algoma.
"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. "The festival is part of that."
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