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Visitors to Three Lakes Winery shop, sip, and sample wines in the retail storefront. Three Lakes Winery celebrates 40 years of business this year, and offers tours and tastings at their Three Lakes location. (Karla Wotruba/River News)
Visitors to Three Lakes Winery shop, sip, and sample wines in the retail storefront. Three Lakes Winery celebrates 40 years of business this year, and offers tours and tastings at their Three Lakes location. (Karla Wotruba/River News)
10/6/2012 7:30:00 AM
1972 vintage, Three Lakes Winery celebrates 40 years

Karla Wotruba

John McCain was living in California when he decided to make a batch of wine, experimenting with something a little different, a little unusual. As a hobby winemaker, he had previously made wines from fruit, like plums and apricots. He decided to try cranberries, which he knew were grown in abundance in his home state of Wisconsin. His first batch was a hit with all of his friends, and so he made more of it, experimented with it, and refined it.

His son, Mark McCain, told the story of what happened next. "He borrowed a little money, got some investors, and hauled the family to Wisconsin, and managed to, on a shoestring, open up a little winery."

This year, Three Lakes Winery celebrates its 40th anniversary, the second-oldest winery in the state. Anchoring downtown Three Lakes, the winery draws 12,000 visitors, who come from all over the country to tour the winery and sample the wines. During the fall festival season, Three Lakes will host visitors from Eagle River's Cranberry Fest, going on this weekend, and next weekend's Pumpkin Fest in Three Lakes. They'll come for tours and tastings, especially the cranberry wine that started the whole operation.

John, along with wife Maureen, started Three Lakes Winery in 1972. McCain had vacationed in Three Lakes as a child, and had wanted to find a way to live and work in the area. The winery was originally located in the old train depot in Three Lakes, but moved to Eagle River from 1978 to 1988 before returning to its original home. A real estate agent acquired the building and called the McCains, asking if they would consider returning to town.

"He called my parents and said, 'We want the winery back in Three Lakes.' Since he owned the same building that the winery had been in, they moved it back to Three Lakes, which was their home, and it has been here ever since," said McCain.

In 1992, Mark McCain joined the family business, moving back to the area after living in California. He and his brother Scott now own the company along with another partner. McCain's father passed away about three years ago at 82, after a "long, good life," he said. Maureen remains active in the community, but is no longer involved in the business. Mark serves as president and general manager, while Scott is the winemaker. He's been making wine since 1976.

"He makes the wine, and I manage the business," Mark said.

For the first 20 years, the average case production was somewhere around 2,000 and 3,000 cases of wine, or 30,000 bottles a year, said McCain. The company had few permanent employees at that time.

"Except for the summer and fall, it was just my parents and my brother," said McCain. "They would have 5 or 6 people that would work for the summer, and a lot of those were students who would leave or go back to school. Then in the fall, we'd find another group of people that would want to work during the festival season and into the holidays. And then it would just go right down to a couple of people."

When Mark joined the company, he focused on regional distribution. Production grew, and so did the building.

"I came back in 1992 to help my parents develop the business. I focused on regional distribution. The business started to grow in 1992, '93 steadily, and we increased our production. We did a small addition in 1998, and then sales and production continued to increase. In 2003, we broke ground for the building we're in now, a 5,000 square foot addition. In 2003, 2004, we completely renovated the old train depot and brought it up to the look that it has now," he said.

McCain said currently there are about a dozen employees, and the winery is on target to sell about 20,000 cases, or 250,000 bottles of wine. Three Lakes Winery wine can now be found throughout Wisconsin, Northern Illinois, Minneapolis, some areas of the U.P. and in the lower peninsula of Michigan. Soon snowbirds will be able to find it too.

"We just opened a distributorship in Texas, and another one in Florida," he said. "It ultimately comes from people that want to get our product while they're there in the winter."

The building in Three Lakes continues to expand as well. "We're going to be doing a big expansion for the retail, so people have room to enjoy the shopping, and still have a nice wine tasting experience, and then be able to shop around and enjoy the wines."

After all, it's the wine that brings people back.

"It's about the wine. It's about the product, so it's all about sampling it, and making sure that people have an opportunity to get a free sample. They can try the wines and make sure that they find what they want," said McCain.

Along with the original cranberry wine, Three Lakes Winery offers an extensive wine list. The offerings include fruit blend wines like Cran Zen, cranberry blended with zinfandel. The retail shop carries traditional varietals with the Three Lakes label, but the focus is on fruit wines. One unique offering, especially popular this time of year, is the Pumpkin wine.

"Pumpkin wine got its origins with Pumpkin Fest. We decided to make pumpkin wine as kind of a novelty, just to have some fun," said McCain. "Once word got out at the Pumpkin Fest, that we had pumpkin wine, we got rushed. A bunch of people came over, and we sold out! We only made about 200 bottles, and we sold out right away. People were quite upset that we didn't have any. We took names, did a rain check kind of thing, and made another batch, and that sold out right away. Now it's a wine that we carry year round."

That sense of fun and experimentation not only defines the company, it defines the customers.

"I'm proud of our customers, because they're adventurers. They're willing to try things that are different. They don't want to be restrained by what they're supposed to like," said McCain.

The winery's customers appreciate the shopping and tasting experience. It's a an inviting space, with warm red walls, displays set on antiques, and vintage signs on the walls. Tiffany lighting glows against a copper ceiling, and the old archway of the train depot is preserved over the tasting counter.

"They love the store and our products. We have a great staff, we're very focused on customer service, and making people feel welcome and enjoying the experience," Eileen Splitt, Three Lakes Winery's retail manager, said. "It's a relaxing atmosphere, they can sit and sample the wine, and everyone seems to have a good time."

One could say that John McCain's experiment with cranberry wine 40 years ago has come to fruition. The winery has become a thriving, mature business.

"We have been able to concentrate on creating a product that is high quality and consistent. From that starting point, we were able to build a business that is a great place for people to work. We're able to offer a comfortable wage for people that work here; we have benefits for our employees. We're able to direct some of our profits back into the community for various projects," said Mark McCain.

But don't think the experimenting is over. In this business, 40---- is by no means over the hill, and McCain intends to keep pushing the boundaries. He concedes that having a winery in a little town in northern Wisconsin is a little unusual, a little different.

"What we try to do is break the rules a little bit, and try something new," he said.

Karla Wotruba may be reached at

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