By EMILIE THIESSEN, Staff Writer
Chris and Terri Ellering have never been the kind of people to sit idle.
Chris has spent most of his life in the grain business. Terri did photography for 30 years. And after 12 years of raising elk on their 20-acre property in Melrose, the Ellerings sold them and started something completely new yet again – they are now six years into what they hope will be a long journey with wine-making.
“All we are trying to do is make the best of our talents in many different ways,” Chris said.
When the Ellerings bought their 20-acre property outside of Melrose in 1993, they planned on raising elk for many years. But when a chronic wasting disease scare sprouted in the early 2000s, the Ellerings were forced to sell the herd. The couple was left with a home sitting on a large piece of property that they didn’t know what to do with.
After hearing about an increasing number of vineyards popping up in Minnesota — a place not commonly associated with wine, Terri said – Chris brought up the idea of purchasing grape plants for a vineyard. Terri told Chris she would have to think about it.
“You hear of grandpa having grapes over his arbor, but planting a whole vineyard?” Terri asked Chris when he proposed the idea.
But only a few hours after first mentioning it to Terri, Chris was already well on his way to ordering the first 110 plants. By 2005, the couple had planted their first acre of grapes.
Grape plants need a full two years to mature enough to produce good quality grapes, Terri said, so the first batch of grapes was sold to a local winery in 2007.
The couple had no intention of opening a winery themselves — operating a vineyard, running a home photography studio, managing a grain elevator and taking care of hog and turkey farms was enough for the already busy family.
“I was burning the candle at both ends,” Terri said.
But after a few years of selling their own grapes, Terri began to recognize the great potential of a winery, and realized it may actually force her to slow down a bit with other projects. So she quit her professional photography business and invested all her time and money into the vineyard and new winery.
The doors to the new Whispering Oaks Winery opened in 2011 on their property in Melrose. Their fall 2010 harvest was the first to be grown and bottled at the same location, and Chris said things couldn’t be going better. In fact, the prospect of expansion is already on the horizon, though their main goal is to keep the business small and manageable.
“This is all we can do for a mom-and-pop operation, and that is all we really wanted to establish this as,” Chris said.
The Ellerings have produced six types of wine this year at the new winery — Fontenac Gris, Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Imagine, Serenity and the only red wine, Marquette — and were able to bottle more than 1,000 cases of wine.
For many wineries, that amount is just a drop in the bucket, Terri said, but she is content with being a smaller operation. “When we are out of wine, we are out of wine,” she said, stressing that their goal is quality, not quantity. “That work that we do in the vineyard is to produce really good quality grapes.”
Looking into the future, the Ellerings said they are looking forward to whatever comes their way. The couple said they are very aware that life almost never goes exactly how people want it to — they would still be calling themselves elk farmers if it hadn’t been for the chronic wasting disease scare, they remind themselves – but Chris said he never stops planning and thinking of new ideas for the future.
“We are not afraid to try new things.,” he said. “And I learned a long time ago, if you enter into something, you have to know how you are going to exit.”
Terri said she hopes to be working with the vineyard and winery for many years, as the two of them have never been the type to punch a time clock in order to get paid for the work they do.
And, unlike many couples their age, Chris and Terri do not count the days to retirement — by doing what they love, they said they never feel like they are actually going to work.
“People think we are doing this for the money, and I think that is the furthest thing from our minds,” Chris said. “We do it because we like it.”