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Organic Viticulturist
Milwaukee native Dan Rinke uses a biodynamic process to grow grapes at Johan Vineyards in Oregon


December 2014

Dan Rinke, winemaker and vineyard manager at Johan Vineyards,  checks some grapes 

Dan Rinke doesnít get home to Brew Town too often. The West Allis Central High School grad is busy making wine in Oregon.

Rinke, 38, is the winemaker and vineyard manager of Johan Vineyards in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. He was first exposed to wines as a business student at Milwaukee Area Technical College, when he worked at the Milwaukee Yacht Club as a bartender. "I didnít really appreciate it because at 19, I was only sniffing it," he jokes.

He got a job as one of the opening bartenders at the Brett Favre Steakhouse, and during the training, he tasted all the wines he would be pouring. "There was one wine I really took to," he recalls. "It was an extremely nice wine ó a 1994 St. Supery Merlot." St. Supery is an estate-grown vineyard in Napa Valley. "Itís a great entry level wine for people who donít really like wine. Itís super fruity and really made for easy drinking."

As a bartender, Rinke initially thought he might get into the restaurant business, but after watching the hours restaurant managers put in at the steakhouse, he decided against it. It was taking a job at Discount Liquor that steered him completely toward wine. "That was really my crash course on wine and on world wines," he says. "Their selection is ridiculously good, and when I started working there in 1998, it was one of the best wine shops in the city."

The Greguska family, who owns the store, took Rinke under their wings. Frank and Irene owned the store at the time, and their son Tom ran the wine department. "He really helped me out in learning a lot about wine by going to tastings with him," Rinke says. "I would say I didnít like a wine, and Tom said, ĎItís not about what you like but that you learn the flavors so that you can help customers pick out the wines they like.í He had a lot of insightful points like that."

After working at Discount Liquor, Rinke took a job at a wine distribution company. While he enjoyed working with wines, he found himself drawn more to artisanal producers than the big wineries his distribution company was focused on. "Iím more of an introvert. It takes a certain personality to be a salesman, and it definitely didnít fit my personality," Rinke says.

Still, because he was good at his job, he had one of the better sales routes, so when winemakers and wine operations personnel came to town, he got to take them on ride-alongs to make sales calls. "I started asking questions, and they all told me to go to school," he says. "They told me that if I wanted to be a lab person, I should go to the University of California-Davis, but if I wanted to drive a forklift (and do more hands-on winemaking), go to Fresno. I applied to Fresno."

Rinke got accepted and had planned to study winemaking. But one last wine dinner with noted biodynamic winemaker Michel Charpoutier caused him to change his course. "He told me, ĎWhy would you want to go to learn to make wine? You should go to school to learn how to grow grapes. If you learn how to grow really good grapes, the wine will make itself,í" Rinke says. The following Monday, Rinke switched his major to viticulture.

After graduating, Rinkeís first job was as an assistant winemaker and vineyard liaison at Domaine Alfred in Californiaís Central Coast. He then moved to the Santa Cruz Mountains to work at Rhys Vineyards, an up-and-coming pinot noir producer. After working there for a year, he saw a job posting for an organic winemaker and grape grower at Johan, and he asked the owner, Dag Johan Sundby, "Why not do it biodynamically?"

Dag agreed, and since being hired in 2007, Rinke has been growing Demeter-certified biodynamic grapes. Biodynamic farming views a farm or vineyard as a self-contained and self-sustaining organism and follows a stricter, more holistic approach than organic farming. "Itís much more difficult to grow grapes than to make wine, but it depends on the wines youíre making," Rinke says. "If youíre making the more natural wines, not putting tons of additives into it, it doesnít take too much. You just have to give the wine a little helping hand."

The federal government allows 120 different additives to wine. Some are derived from grape products, but a lot of them come from things like isinglass, which is derived from the dried swim bladders of fish. "Itís a fining agent for pulling proteins out of wine," Rinke explains. If you are making organically certified wines, any additive must be organic, and for biodynamic wines, you can only add sulfur, tartaric acid and sugar.

Rinke says he loves growing pinot noir grapes and making pinot noir wines ó thus the reason for being in the Willamette Valley ó but he also likes experimenting with other grapes like blaufrankisch, a red German variety that he calls "very exciting" and grŁner veltliner. "Itís really thrilling to me," he says. "I drink a lot of Austrian grŁners, so itís fun in that, being an Oregon producer, Iím not set in any set of expectations. It gives me a lot of creative flexibility."

Rinke also adores making orange wine, an orange or cognac-hued wine that is made from white grapes aged in contact with their skins. In a sense, itís a white wine thatís aged like a red wine. Traditionally, orange wines are made in Georgia (the country), Italy and Slovenia, and they sometimes have very tannic and very earthy tastes to them. "I want to create something in that genre thatís delicious and extremely interesting," Rinke says. "I see a lot of (orange) wines that are interesting to me, but I donít think they have as wide an appeal. I want to bridge that gap to make an interesting and different wine that is still more of a widely accepted wine."

Rinkeís wines are, not surprisingly, sold throughout Milwaukee in restaurants and in stores. Kil@wat and Meritage serve his wines, and they are, of course, sold at Discount Liquor locations throughout the greater Milwaukee area.


This story ran in the December 2014 issue of: