The Art of Wine Making: From Hobby to Thriving Family Business

September 12, 2023
All photos by Pieper Porch Winery & Vineyard Pieper Porch Winery & Vineyard tasting room

Around 88% of U.S. Americans have a hobby of some kind. Of those, 27% have started making money from a hobby, and another 55% said they’d like to turn their hobby into a profitable business. Todd and Kathy Pieper did just that in 2012, establishing Pieper Porch Winery & Vineyard, nestled on 11 scenic acres on the outskirts of Mukwonago, overlooking the Vernon Marsh.

With a passion for the beverage Ernest Hemingway called “one of the most civilized things in the world,” the Piepers pursued opening a winery in Wisconsin with the goal to turn Todd’s eight years as a hobbyist winemaker into a business.

Turning a Hobby into a Thriving Business

His dream had always been to build his winemaking into a business, but it wasn’t until he won several really big awards that Todd realized his dream really could come true. “Our Pineapple Peach Mango wine won Best of Show at a winery competition in 2011, and, traditionally, the Best of Show at that event is a great wine. When we won it, that was our ’aha moment.’ We knew we had something,” said Todd.

At the time, both Todd and Kathy had fulltime jobs, Todd as an IT manager at a major software and technology solutions company and Kathy running a free medical clinic. They brought their customer service skills to the business, along with an entrepreneurial spirit Todd built early on, working for his mother’s antique store and, later, a local balloon business. When Kathy joined the family, she also worked in these businesses and gleaned great insight into what is needed to be successful in a small business.

Originally, the Piepers almost bought a winery in Trempealeau County. The owner of that winery was a mentor to Todd as he was honing his winemaking skills and recipes. Luckily for Waukesha County, when that opportunity didn’t materialize, the Piepers purchased the property in Mukwonago, bordering the Vernon Marsh.

Their home and winery were built according to all commercial standards. “We always say we built a winery and stuck a home on top of it. It was always our intention to have our home and winery together,” said Kathy. 

There are more than 237 wineries in Wisconsin. In order to be designated as a winery, the business must secure a winery permit in Wisconsin and the wine must be produced and bottled on the winery premises. 

The winery opened in 2012 with eight wines, the tasting room and acres of beautiful outside space. “The first year we were open, it was just Todd and I and our daughter,” said Kathy. “But within the first month of opening the winery, we could tell that one of us had to be here full time and our plan of both of us working at our jobs for a few more years wasn’t going to happen.” Kathy quit her job to focus full time on the winery business. Todd’s goal was to quit his job after seven years, but he did it in five. 

The business has grown primarily through word of mouth and promotion by gifting for charitable events. Several local news outlets did profiles on the business when it first opened. “People still walk into the winery with the news articles in their hands from 12 years ago that are just now visiting for the first time,” said Kathy.

“We started with a hand corker and a very small bottle filler. Over the years, we purchased the additional equipment to automate the process. We grew carefully. The winery has always been a family business,” shared Todd. In addition to family members, their staff includes friends and customers.

Unlike many wine houses throughout Waukesha County, the Pieper Porch winery offers a different experience where customers can enjoy tasting a wine flight inside the winery or outside overlooking the vineyard. While Pieper Porch doesn’t offer food options, they do encourage carry-ins and many customers get creative with their wine and food pairings. 

The Art of Winemaking

Winemaking is a skill that doesn’t required a science background, but winemakers do need to follow a recipe, do research and a lot of trial and error. Todd is a self-taught winemaker, honing his skills through experimentation, and also through fellow winemakers he meets through associations such as Wisconsin Vintners Association. He started making wine in his basement, leaning on family and friends as tasters to help him refine his recipes. And along the way, there were some good ones and some not so good ones. 

The winery has produced about 50 different wines, each of which requires a different type of fruit and fruit juices – grape, peach, lemon, elderberry, cranberry, apple and more. Although Pieper Porch grows grapes on their property, they also bring in juice and grapes from suppliers, including locally sourced cranberry and cherry juice. “Most of our grapes come out of the west coast – California or Washington or Oregon – where we can get a bigger varietal of grapes,” shared Kathy. The winery produces about 3,000 cases of wine each year.

“We used to introduce three or four new wines every year. But through the years, we’ve had to stop making some of those wines, the less popular ones. Now, we make one or two new wines every year, but also retire wines every year because, logistically, we don’t have the room to keep all these wines!” said Kathy. “We’ll typically produce four or five cases of each new wine and, depending on how it goes, we either keep producing it or retire it,” added Todd.

There is rarely a new wine that Pieper Porch introduces that is bad. But there is one that came out last year that wasn’t great, Mint Chocolate Chip, a clear case of when “more is not better,” Kathy said, especially when it comes to mint. Some people loved it and it sold out, but it’s not on the list of available wines today.

One of their popular wines, Watermelon, took a few tries to perfect. “We went to the grocery store, bought a bunch of watermelons, and fermented them. It was all alcohol,” laughed Todd. “You have to learn how to get enough fruit flavor into the wine. Watermelon is so watery, the first batch was all water, sugar and alcohol! Several batches later, we got it right and it’s one of our most popular wines to this day.”

“Our number one selling wine is Lemon, which is one of the first wines we produced, and an award winner. Many of the reds have become really popular. The sweeter wines all sell well, and several are in the top 5 to 10 most popular,” said Kathy.

The Wisconsin wine palette tends to be for sweeter wines. “What we’re seeing now for trends in wine tastes in Wisconsin, and I think nationally, too, is that 60% are drinking sweet wines, and 40 percent are drinking dry wines,” Kathy shared.

In addition to selling wine directly from the winery, Pieper Porch sells its product at E and S Sweets in the Village of Mukwonago, Spring City Wine House in Waukesha, Heidi’s Hobbies, Floral and Gifts in Palmyra, Fazio’s in Elm Grove and Eagle BP in Eagle. They also ship wines via Vino Shipper.