Steve Zeller loves to travel. He’s visited 42 countries, made numerous trips to Asia and lived abroad in Germany. Yet his experiences around the world have only made him more passionate about his local community—and even helped put him on the path to becoming the winemaker at Parley Lake Winery in Waconia.
Zeller and his wife Deb moved to Victoria 26 years ago, after designing and building their home in the Deer Run neighborhood. The Zellers personalized their home with an art studio for Deb and a wine cellar for their collection. But their love of travel persuaded them to move to Germany for work in 1993. They stayed for three years, renting out their home in Victoria.
It was there, in a small town outside of Munich, that Zeller became a locavore—shopping at local markets and seeking out regional breweries—before it was trendy. When he and Deb returned to the United States, they were both craving that sort of connection with local agriculture and food.
Zeller formed a friendship with Lin Deardorff, owner of Deardorff Orchards in Waconia, and when he learned that Deardorff was interested in expanding his apple orchard with a vineyard and winery, Steve and Deb decided to invest in Deardorff’s winery.
They began planting the grape vines in 2005, adding to the vineyard over a four year period. When the vines began bearing fruit, they started selling grapes to local wineries. Since Deardorff Orchards already had a successful retail business, Zeller and Deardorff envisioned adding to it with a winery and tasting room. “We needed a winemaker, so I went around and looked for a winemaker in the Midwest and there were none 10 years ago,” Zeller says.
He met Nicholas Smith, who was an enologist for the grape breeding program at the University of Minnesota at the time, and Zeller decided to try his hand at winemaking, with Smith as his “wine coach.”
Zeller, who has a full time job as the director of global real estate and construction for Donaldson Company, is a mechanical engineer with a background in chemistry, so figuring out the science of wine came pretty easily to him. But he quickly learned that there’s no recipe for winemaking. After years of making wine, he’s come to realize that winemaking is about 80 percent art and 20 percent science.
Luckily Zeller has an appreciation for the art in addition to a head for the science. He keeps detailed log books, noting everything he’s done with the wines, but lets himself be guided by his palate—and those of trusted advisors—over any scientific formula when it comes to finishing the wine.
Although Zeller had never made wine before planning to open Parley Lake, he had a deep appreciation for it. “Like a lot of paths in life, you don’t just sort of wake up and say you’re going to be a winemaker for a Minnesota winery,” Zeller says. “So mine really started with an awareness of small wineries, but not in Minnesota.”
About 35 years ago, when he and Deb were still dating, the couple traveled to California, seeking out small wineries in Northern Sonoma and Dry Creek Valley. “To this day we’re still members of four wine clubs and know the families closely,” Zeller says. “My wife’s from a small family farm in Hutchinson, so we identified with that personal small scale.”
It also inspired a lifelong appreciation of wine. Zeller has a collection of nearly 1,000 wine bottles from around the world. “I like different styles of wine,” he says. “I’m not a Cabernet and Chardonnay drinker… I think that’s important because our wines are not like Cabernet and Merlot, so we need to relate to other global grapes.”
He also seeks out other Minnesota wines, so he can understand what other wineries are doing well. Since the wine industry in Minnesota is still young, there’s a collaborative spirit among local winemakers as everyone experiments with cold-hardy grapes, Zeller says.
For his part, Zeller credits the grapes he uses and the viticulture practices of his grape growers for his success with making the wine. He’s also dedicated to sourcing the best quality French Oak and Minnesota Oak barrels he can find to age his Marquette wine. He says there is a low amount of residual sugar in Parley Lake white wines and no residual sugars in the red wines, describing them as “balanced and food-friendly.”
His approach has been successful by all standards. Not only does Parley Lake Winery have an avid bunch of loyal followers, it also regularly wins awards. Over the past five years, Parley Lake has earned 120 medals, including 31 gold medals. “We’ve won gold medals with 12 different types of wine from our lightest dry rosés to a port-style wine,” Zeller says, adding that Parley Lake’s Marquette was the only double gold medal red wine from a Minnesota winery at the International Cold Climate Wine Competition for two years in a row.
Zeller says he regularly enters these competitions to get feedback on the wine and how to improve it. “We’re really quite proud of our quality of wine,” Zeller says. “And that comes with a lot of focus. Sometimes we will dump a wine down the drain if we don’t think it’s quality enough… or we might have it made into brandy because that takes away any of the impurities in it.”
While a visit to Parley Lake Winery might be agritourism at its finest—visitors can experience everything from the vineyard to the wine—Zeller wants to grow his business by making wine that consumers put at their table because it’s good—not just because it came from the winery down the road. “At the end of the day, people will come to a local brewery or winery or distillery because it’s local and they like it,” he says, “…but they’re not going to make it a part of their regular food at the table with wine or the beer that they drink with their friends unless it’s good quality stuff.”
Wine & Art
The wine isn’t the only fine art at Parley Lake; the Zellers seek ways to support art at the winery as much as possible. Deb Zeller, a well-known artist, draws free portraits of guests. Her bronze sculpture, “Goddess of the Grapes,” is also prominent at the winery.
Each year, Parley Lake Winery features the work of a different artist on its Artisan Series label, and the winery serves as a venue for the Carver County Arts Consortium’s annual Artstock Festival in July. There’s also a permanent sculpture walk with more than a dozen sculptures at the vineyard and winery, which shares its home with Deardorff Orchards and Vineyards. Visit parleylakewinery.com to find events, information and tasting room hours.
(Parley Lake winemaker Steve Zeller and his wife, Deb, pose with "Goddess of the Grapes," a sculpture that Deb created.)