Converting a machine shop to a winery

December 15, 2008
| By Pete Daly |
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MUSKEGON — "I'm no sommelier," said Donald Stolarz, grinning. But he is definitely an oenologist — as well as a millwright.

Stolarz, a 48-year-old businessman from the Muskegon area who knows how to make things out of steel, took his wine-making hobby and his machine shop and put them together to start Lake Effect Winery. Now he is making wine in industrial-sized quantities and has just begun selling it through retail stores in the Muskegon area.

"I saw what was happening to the economy in Michigan about five years ago," he said, referring to the overall decrease in manufacturing. "A guy couldn't make any money anymore," running a small, independent business providing rigging/millwright services to area industrial plants.

"So I did a complete change of business," he said.

R.P. Contractors — his rigging/millwright business based in a small factory near his home in the Cloverville area of Fruitport Township, east of Muskegon — once employed up to 18 people at its peak. Stolarz removed all the industrial equipment from his 40-by-80-foot factory and thoroughly cleaned, refurbished and refinished the interior. He officially launched his wine-making business in 2006 but actual production did not begin until 2007.

"It takes a long time to get all your licenses in order," he said.

His efforts so far have resulted in about 2,000 12-bottle cases of wine, some of which just began appearing on retailers' shelves late this fall. Nearly all of his fermentation vats are full, and he has enough wine ready now for about 10,000 cases.

Stolarz said his wine is aged a minimum of one year and some will age for two or three years before it is bottled.

He built most of his bottling equipment, using his skills as a millwright, and can put up about 5,000 bottles, or about a thousand gallons of wine, in one eight-hour day, with help from his daughters and friends.

Stolarz said there are about 60 wineries in Michigan now but his product, he believes, has health advantages that give it a market niche of its own. For one thing, he does not use sulfites, which many vintners add to their wine to help preserve it. He said some people — himself included — are allergic to sulfites.

The other difference is his use of fruits and berries, rather than grapes. In particular, he focuses on "fruits that are high in antioxidants," he said. His wines are made from cherries, blueberries, apples, pears, raspberries, elderberries, black currants and aronia, also known as chokeberry — not to be confused with choke cherry. Chokeberry is not a tree: It is a woody shrub that grows up to 6 feet high and is popular as an ornamental; it also has growing popularity as a nutritional food crop.

According to a publication of Iowa State University, the chokeberry — aronia melanocarpa — is becoming popular because of its health benefits. "In fact," states the publication, "aronia berries contain higher levels of antioxidants, polyphenols, and anthocyanins than elderberries, cranberries, blueberries, grapes and most other fruit."

All Lake Effect wines are quite dry. Stolarz said he does not add any sweetener, and he concedes that the dryness of his wines may take some getting used to by people who prefer sweet wines.

The Cheese Lady, a cheese shop in downtown Muskegon, is the latest retailer to add Lake Effect wines to its shelves. Wayne's Deli & Beverage also carries them, as do a few other shops. Stolarz recommends a price point for his wines between $12 and $16.

When Stolarz isn't in his wine factory, he's on the road trying to interest more retailers in his wines. He said he's usually up by 5 a.m. every day except Sunday, and soon after is in his winery. Late in the morning, he heads out on his sales calls and finishes up the day with a couple more hours back in the winery.

Although he anticipates hiring full-time employees at some point, he is pretty much a one-man operation except when there is bottling to be done. His 17-year-old daughter Charlene, a senior at Fruitport High, is thinking about attending Purdue to study oenology — the science of making wine. An older daughter, Christina, who lives in Connecticut, came up with the name "Lake Effect" and helps out when she's home visiting. Another older daughter who is a professional writer in southeast Michigan has helped with the marketing communications.

The public had a chance to taste Lake Effect wines at the International Wine & Food Festival at DeVos Place, where they appeared to be very well received, according to Stolarz. He hopes to open a tasting shop someday, perhaps at the nearby Lakes Mall, but the winery itself is off-limits to the public. The focus there is strictly on production.

When asked how much he has invested in his winery, Stolarz laughed and said, "A lot!"

"I started with the dirtiest place on earth," he joked. Every square inch of the former machine shop was pressure washed and a new ceiling was installed along with thick insulation on the ceiling and walls because a winery must be cool in the summer. The floor was blasted clean with steel shot and then painted with several coats of finish that will prevent the acids in the fruit juice from eating away at the concrete. He installed new lighting that is completely washable and fitted with lenses that reduce ultraviolet rays, which are bad for wine. He has polyethylene vats stacked nearly to the ceiling on heavy steel storage racks that had been previously installed in a Sam's Club. The three tiers of sturdy racks handily support 56 1,000-gallon fermentation vats.

"Every bit of square footage is being used efficiently," he said. "To get that kind of production through that little building would be impossible without that racking."

He bought some equipment and some he improvised. He bought a 10-horsepower three-phase grinder to prepare his fruit for the fermentation tanks, and a new $35,000 belt-fed stainless steel pressing machine that separates the liquid from the pulp, for the final stage of fermentation. The pressing machine is a type originally designed for use in wastewater treatment plants; it's perfect for the Lake Effect winery because it can be easily cleaned to meet strict food processing requirements, and it uses food grade lubricants.

Stolarz said he hopes to sell from 8,000 to 10,000 cases of wine in 2009. He said it will be at least a couple of years before his venture is really generating a return on investment, but he's not worried. Like making good wine, it just takes time.

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