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In Dining

Milwaukee native, Tony Rynders, has earned acclaim world-wide for producing some of the world's best luxury wines.

A chat with Tendril Wine Cellars' Tony Rynders

Wisconsin may not have a climate made for producing the best wine grapes, but its fertile soil has produced a plethora of top notch winemakers. In fact, there are enough of them that c.1880 has featured a number of them on its "All Roots Lead to Wisconsin" wine list.

One such winemaker is Milwaukee native Tony Rynders.

"I have been working since I was 16 years old," Rynders says. "My first job was working at a restaurant. In college, I worked as a bartender at a restaurant and at a wine shop. Both of these jobs provided my initial exposure to wine."

After graduating with a degree in microbiology from UW-Madison, Rynders took a job at Green Giant in eastern Washington. On weekends, he spent his time touring wineries in the Yakima and Walla Walla Valleys.

"I quit my first 'real job' three years after graduating from Madison," he says. "I went to Europe for four months and that experience sent me over the top."

By the time he returned to the U.S. – after experiencing wines from both France and Italy – he was ready to make his next career move. And this time, it would be wine.

Rynders' career in the wine industry began in the lab at Mirassou Vineyards in San Jose, Calif., where he took a job working in the lab. But he found his true calling when he began making wine.

After attending the University of California at Davis and obtaining a Master's degree in Enology and Viticulture, he worked in a wide variety of regions including the Napa Valley (Acacia Winery), northern Italy (Friuli), South Australia (Petaluma Winery) and Tuscany (Col d'Orcia). He also held positions at Argyle Winery as assistant winemaker, Hogue Cellars as red winemaker and Domaine Serene as head winemaker.

During his tenure at Domaine Serene, Rynders became one of the most highly acclaimed winemakers in America, obtaining a record number of 90+ point scores from Wine Spectator magazine. In addition to a variety of accolades, over his 10 years with the vineyard Rynders developed more than 25 different products for Domaine Serene, as well as conceptualizing and developing the syrah brand, Rockblock.

In 2008, Rynders launched his own successful wine consulting business and founded Tendril Wine Cellars, which currently focuses exclusively on small lot Oregon pinot noir.

Curious to learn more about his background – as well as things he misses about Milwaukee -- I posed a few questions to Rynders, who will be in town later this month for a wine dinner hosted by Joey Gerard's. Is it fair to say that your time at Domaine Serene really put you on the winemaker map?

Tony Rynders: I guess you could say that. However, most people in the industry would tell you that I put Domaine Serene on the winery map.

While Ken Wright (of Ken Wright Cellars) custom made their wines for the first 8 years, Domaine Serene only grew to 2000 cases. During the 10 years I was winemaker, Serene grew to more than 30,000 cases, wine quality grew and no wine was "bulked out," meaning it "didn't make the grade."

They put in the money and I provided the talent. It was a mutually beneficial relationship until I decided to leave in 2008.

But, yes, it was very important to have this type of high profile position to add credibility to my high-end winemaking businesses.

OMC: What was the biggest thing you learned while working there?

TR: I learned how to adapt my winemaking to get the most out of each and every vintage. We can have enormous variation in our growing seasons, sometimes back to back. To me, it is critical to produce consistently high quality wines each and every year. Also, working with a range of vineyard sites -- elevation, soil types, selections, aspect -- is of critical importance to get the best out of each vintage.

OMC: Can you summarize your overall winemaking philosophy?

TR: To make the best wines possible each and every year. I look to "over-deliver" on people's expectations of the wines that I make. And when one is making "luxury wines" at $50-plus, there is not much room for error.

The style of wines I like to make are rich, flavorful and fruit driven with supple tannins and balanced acidity. I like to make wines that, very simply put, taste good! My expectation is that the wines I make will be enjoyed with food.

OMC: What was your goal in founding Tendril?

TR: With Tendril, I wanted to create a wine label that was a complete reflection of me and what I really enjoy in wine. Also, importantly, this is the first time I have made wine completely from me. And I started from scratch. Tendril is my resume in liquid form.

I chose the name Tendril to imply that it is all about the grapes/vineyards … although I have found out -- much to my chagrin -- that most people don't know exactly what a tendril is and its importance to the vine.

Without tendrils, the shoots would fall to the ground and there would be no wine! I like the tendril graphic image, as well. It speaks to the current trend in fine-dining restaurant naming which is a single word representing the main focus or concept.

OMC: You've been consulting with wineries since 2008. What do you like best about the work you're doing?

TR: I like the diversity and I particularly like the creative "heavy lifting." By that I mean putting together each of the wines for my clients. At my winery I have six clients, including Tendril, and make about 8,000 cases of wine. We are small and very focused. In addition, I have a couple of clients for whom I oversee winemaking at off-site locations.

I also like weaving all together so that the projects complement each other. I refuse to take on more work than I can deliver the goods.

I love what I do and starting my own businesses has re-energized me. I am extremely fortunate.

OMC: What are you most looking forward to doing while you're "back home"?

TR: Seeing family, doing the dinner at Joey Gerard's and maybe catching a Brewers game if they are in town.

OMC: When was the last time you were here?

TR: I was back last summer. I visited my old neighborhood (Bay View), got a drink from the old iron well, and hung out down by Lake Michigan. It was pretty cool!

OMC: Is there anything you particularly miss about Milwaukee?

TR: Family, friends, sport, the ethnicity and history of the area. Living near Portland, we just don't have that.

The Oregon Food and Wine Dinner with Tony Rynders will take place on Tuesday, July 29, at Joey Gerard's Mequon, 11120 N. Cedarburg Rd., at 6:30 p.m.

Courses include chilled corn soup with Maine lobster, baby spinach salad with roasted strawberries and aged goat cheese, boar ragu, grilled flank steak with fingerling potatoes, red cabbage and chimichurri and a selection of cheese, chocolate, dried fruit and nuts for dessert.

Wine pairings include (with Rynders' commentary in italics):

  • 2012 Tendril Chardonnay (delicious … only 150 cases made)
  • 2011 Tendril "White Label" Pinot Noir (one of the best pinots from 2011 and less than 400 cases made)
  • 2011 Tendril "TightRope" Pinot Noir (this is my reserve bottling … less than 100 cases made)
  • 2011 Guadalupe Vyd Pinot Noir (this is my first single vineyard bottling at a mere 48 cases produced)

The dinner is $75 plus tax and gratuity. Reservations can be made by calling (262) 518-5500.


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