Interview with Fawn Creek Winery's Dan Hanson and Jim Genrich

Fawn Creek Winery is a family run business that has been producing a variety of fine wines in the Dells for the past two years.  

Recently, I had the chance to spend the morning with two of the six owners, Dan Hanson and Jim Genrich, who showed me around the wine making facility, explained the wine making process, and poured me samples of their delicious offerings.

CHRIS DEARMAN: So tell me a little about how you got into the wine making business here in the Wisconsin Dells.  

DAN HANSON: My folks are from the Dells. My mom and dad were both born and raised in the Dells. My sister Sue also lives in the Dells. We basically have six partners here at the winery, me and my wife Diane, my Brother-in-law Dan Haberkorn and his wife Sally, Jim Genrich, and also my sister Susan Hanson. All family. It’s a family run business. We’ve owned it for about two years, taking over business operations of the former Tourdot Winery, which my sister was a part owner, in January 2011.

That’s pretty neat to be able to run a successful business with your family. Is this everyone’s primary employment, or do you have other jobs as well?

We all work forty hour a week jobs. My sister Sue is an emergency room nurse over in Sauk County, so she works Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. I’m semi-retired, so I work Monday & Tuesdays. And then we all come up every weekend. So that’s how it works. Our brother-in-law Jim, he actually has a vineyard over in Portage. So he has a wine background. As well as my sister who was running it before. I do the accounting and sales. We all do different jobs here.

How long has this place been around for?

My dad actually built this building, he and my brother-in-law. They built everything in here. Built the deck, cabinets, shelves. Under Tourdot it was open for two years, so the building is about five years old.

How did you come up with the name Fawn Creek? My family used to have a vacation home down the road on Fawn Lake. I’m assuming there is a Fawn Creek around here?

That’s actually an interesting story. I didn’t even know Fawn Lake was here when I named it – I just came up with Fawn Creek for some reason. Just thought it sounded cool. The first day me and Diana were driving here, we saw a sign that said Fawn Lake, and was like – wow, that’s really weird!

Everyone thinks we named it Fawn Creek because of Fawn Lake, but it was just totally a coincidence, totally out of the blue. Maybe subconsciously I named it this because my uncle, who lived in Texas, lived on Fawn Creek Drive or something. But when we found out Fawn Lake here, and we saw a creek running out, I was like – hopefully that’s called Fawn Creek! – but it’s not. (laughs)

I noticed the vineyard out back. How big is it, and do you grow all the grapes for the wine you make here?

We have a three acre vineyard that we started a little over a year ago. We basically are going to have two varieties of grapes that we’re going to use to make our own estate wines out of. We’re growing a Prairie Star, which is for a white wine, and Frontenac, which is for a red wine. We’re about two years away, so were probably looking at 2015 when we’ll be able to offer our own estate wines that are grown from grapes from our own property.

So where do you get your grapes from now?

Right now, all our grapes come from Lodi, California. We buy through a broker out there, so it all comes crushed and de-stemmed. All the wine is then made here using the Australian Method, which means it’s created in stainless steel tank, which we have eleven of.

Is there a reason you choose stainless steel tanks instead of barrels?

Most wineries in California, the old-school way, is that they use barrels. The reason we went with stainless steel tanks is because the cost to get into the business. If you want to use oak barrels, the cost for them is quite high, Two hundred to two hundred and fifty gallon oak barrels are very expensive. Also, you can only use each barrel for one specific type of wine.  

For instance, let’s say you make a Chardonnay wine and you put it in an oak barrel. That oak barrel can only be used for Chardonnay forever, or you would contaminate the flavors. In the wine process you have to rack wines (move them), removing all the sediment after fermentation. All the dead stuff sits at the bottom. So with an oak barrel, you would have to move it into another Chardonnay oak barrel. Here, we can move it from one tank to an empty one, clean it out, and then we can put a Merlot in one that had a Chardonnay before. So that’s the reason behind using stainless steel.

That makes sense. So, how many varieties of wine do you make here?

Presently, we make thirteen wines. We have two seasonal wines; our Summer Sun, which is a tropical Viognier – that’s a summer wine, and then we have our Blackberry, which is our seasonal fall wine. Then we have our whites: a Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, and semi-sweet Riesling. Our reds are: Merlot, Zinfandel, and Cabernet Sauvignon.  Then, really our niche in the marketplace, is our fruit-flavored table wines, where we have a blackberry Merlot, our tropical Viognier, a raspberry Pinot Noir, a Strawberry Zinfandel, our Kilburn Red – which is a cranberry Shiraz, and then we have a Peach Chardonnay as well. We carry those all the time.

Do you bottle them here?

Everything is bottled here. Everything is made by hand in here as well – all the yeast is put in, everything is done right here. Our first year, which was 2011, we bottled 28,000 bottles – and last year we did 52,000 bottles. We just went through an expansion where we doubled out tank size, so now we have the capacity to do about 100,000 bottles a year. I believe this year we should do about 70,000.

Wow, with all those glass bottles around here, is there ever any breakage?

Oh yeah, we break bottles! (laughs)

Do you just sell wine here at the winery, or do you sell it in stores as well?

We’re carried throughout the state. We’re handled in the Fox Valley right now, and primarily the western side of the state.

Out of the thirteen, which is your personal favorite?

My personal favorite is our dry Riesling – which is made in a California style (not too sweet).

Which would you say is the most popular of the Fawn Creek wines?

Just Peachy – which is a Peach Chardonnay. Then our 2nd would be the Summer Sun, which is our tropical Viognier, our seasonal wine. Those two would be our top sellers.

Do you get a lot of people that do that swirling the wine around in their mouth and then spit it out thing?

No, nobody spits it out – that’s only on TV! (laugh)

I always thought that was a stupid thing - seems like a waste to me! Are there any other favorites?

Well with locals, our Kilbourn Red is popular because we donate a dollar of every bottle sold to the Kilburn Volunteer Fire Department. Diane and I live in Waterford, Jim lives in Elgin (Illinois), Sue in town, and Sally and Dan live in Pardeeville. Since a lot of us don’t live in the immediate area, we tried to do something for the community. Last year was the first year we did it, and we gave them a check for $4100. They’ll be getting another one again this year. 

Since you’re a bit off the beaten path, about ten miles from the hustle and bustle of downtown Dells, what have you done to make people aware of the winery?

Well, we have a lot of signage. We also market with the Visitor’s Bureau, plus all the time-shares, we heavily hit those. Have give-away programs with them. But probably fifty percent of our customers come from Google. If you Google “winery in Wisconsin Dells” and we pop up first – us and Wollersheim winery (which is about 30 miles from the Dells in Prairie du Sac, WI).

Speaking of Wollersheim, do you have any friendly competition with them?

No, Wollersheim is the big-boy on the block – there is nobody in Wisconsin like Wollersheim. They were just voted the winery of the year. They’re old school. They have the caves and the 1800’s building – it’s nothing like where we’re at.

You just concentrate on carving your own niche?


Can you tell me anything that stands out that was memorable or out of the ordinary over the past two years?

Last September we had our 1st wedding. We had ninety guests, and the bride and groom got married right in the vineyard. The reception was in the building and on the deck. That was our first wedding, and we got one or two more planned. It’s not really something were pushing to do in the summer months, but in April, May, September and October we don’t mind doing them.

Can you tell me a little about your future plans?

This summer we’re going to be expanding our deck. Right now it handles ninety-six people.  With the new deck we figure we can fit another sixty to seventy, so we’ll be able to hold about one hundred and fifty people total. We have music Memorial Day through September – every Saturday and Sunday in the afternoons.

We’re also putting a thirty by sixty cement pad which can either be a party tent or an additional tasting area. Right now we can only fit about fifteen people at a time for a tasting in the winter due to being inside. So once we add the new additions, we’ll be able to go to seventy-four people in the summer.

We’re also having a BBQ and Blues Fest where blues bands will play, and we’ll serve pulled pork and BBQ on July 29th. Then August 10th is going to be our 1st annual Hawaiian Luau Pig roast. Our 3rd annual Fall Fest is on October 5th – where we have crafters set up here, and it’s kind of an end of the season blowout party. It’s going to be a fun season!

Dan thanks for taking the time to show me around and answer my questions. You have a pretty cool place here, and I’m sure I’ll be coming back in the summer.
Jim Genrich is part owner and official winemaker of Fawn Creek Winery.  He grew up in Portage, WI and I learned that he currently lives in my hometown of Elgin, IL, only a few blocks from my childhood home. Jim was kind enough to explain the winemaking process in depth to me, as well as pour numerous samples of his creations during my tasting.

So, how did you learn to make wine?

JIM GENRICH:  A lot was from making wine at home – a lot of online learning, a lot of books, and then pure experimentation. I also have about one hundred and fifty vines at my mom’s in Portage.

I’m a novice to winemaking, so can you walk me through the process from start to finish?

Well, we get a concentrate from California, and then we constitute that concentrate. It comes in a sixty-four bricks – and at sixty-four bricks it’s impervious to any bacteria, yeast, mold, or anything. We then take and reconstitute it to twenty-three bricks. When I talk about sixty-four bricks…

Yeah, what the heck is a brick – I guessing it’s not the ones used to build houses right?

No, it means sixty-four percent sugar – essentially it’s the measure of sugar concentrate in there.

Now do you add stuff to it to get the different flavors, or does it come already with various flavoring?

It depends on what we’re making. If it’s one of the varietals, then it’s just the straight grape juice we’re using. Then we ferment it. Most of them we ferment dry, or with our Riesling we do two forms – we do a dry, as well as a semi-sweet Riesling. We do that by stopping the process, so it still has some of the residual sugar of the grapes inside there, which gives it a little bit sweeter taste to it.

So how long does the whole process take?

The varietals – we’re running pretty close to about 70 days. When we put it in primary for fermentation, it takes two to three weeks. So it’s 14-21 days to do primary fermentation – that’s where the yeast converts the sugar.

And you put the yeast in there?

Yes, we put the yeast in there, and it converts the sugar into carbon dioxide – essentially, alcohol. Those are the two main components.  There are a few other things that come off, but were looking for the alcohol in there. The carbon dioxide goes out the top of the tanks through a one way valve – it escapes out of there. That takes about fourteen to twenty-one days. Then we transfer it all out, because when the yeast runs out of food, the yeast dies and falls to the bottom of the tank. Once it falls to the bottom of the tank, what we do is we take the good liquid, the wine that we want, and we transfer it all to another tank. We always have to have one tank empty in the building at all times, because we always have to have the ability to transfer from this tank to another one.

So essentially, we have eleven tanks in there, but we can only have ten of them full at any point in time. So when we rack it, we transfer it from one tank to another, leaving the sediment and stuff on the bottom of the tank. Then I drain that, and it goes to a holding tank outside. It can’t go directly into our septic because it has the yeast and stuff in there. It goes into the holding tank and then we have that pumped periodically and removed.

What happens once you move the good liquid to the empty tank?

So the good wine goes to a new tank, and then the next part of the process is secondary fermentation. Not necessarily all the yeast has died, there might be a little bit of sugar left in there, so we give that another probably two weeks to finish up any fermentation that would be done and completed.

Do you have to keep the tanks at a certain temperature?

Typically we keep most of them at sixty-five to seventy degrees. That’s where we want to keep most of them at. When the yeast gets going in there, they actually heat up quite a bit inside. Yeast dies at about one hundred and four to one hundred and five degrees Fahrenheit. Maybe slightly higher, one hundred and ten degrees or so, but if it gets too hot the yeast will die. If it gets too cold, less than fifty degrees, then it won’t reproduce and won’t do their job either. So we try to keep it in an environment that is sixty-five to seventy degrees.  

Do you have control over how high the alcohol content gets?

Around twelve to thirteen percent alcohol – we have tools to monitor the alcohol content. For table wines we can’t go over fourteen percent. We usually shoot for twelve to twelve and a half so we have a little bit of room there. In case the yeast ends up being a little more efficient than we expected it to be.

I’m sure there are rules on how high it can go?

Yes, federal regulation – it’s all licensing.

So what happens after the secondary fermentation?

Secondary fermentation takes about two weeks, and then what happens after that is our clearing time – where we put some things in there to allow the solids to clear from the wine, and then filtering. We want most of the solids to fall down naturally to the bottom of the tank, and then right before we bottle it though, we filter it with a particle filter. The wine if forced through the filter, and any of the solids or undesirables get caught, so it comes out clear.

Dan walked me through the bottling process, but I forgot to ask, do you guys “age” the wine, or wait a certain period of time before selling them?

Most of the varietals we put in the bottles after seventy days, then it will rest in the basement until we determine it has come into itself. We usually try to do six months or longer. Six months to a year for the varietals, and the fruits, we usually do those within two weeks. They are made to be made bottled and drank shortly thereafter. They are meant to be drunk within a year, but the fruit ones are in the tanks for about forty days.

What’s your personal favorite?

The dry Riesling and the Chardonnay for the whites. For the reds, the Merlot itself.  For the fruits, Just Peachy – it almost tastes like you’re biting into a fresh peach!

Thank you Jim for explaining the process and letting me taste all this great wine!