Gunnar Olson, owner of Baroda Founders Wine Cellar in Baroda as well as its secondary tasting room in St. Joseph, was in the third grade when he started working in his dad’s southwestern Michigan winery. Leonard Olson founded Tabor Hill Winery some five decades ago. Gunnar, now 53, can remember when he and his brother worked in the winery as children, putting caps on the bottles. His dad went on to sell Tabor Hill — in fact, he bought and sold other wineries in Kentucky and Michigan until he founded Baroda Founders Wine Cellar in 2009. Not long after, Gunnar, who had pursued a career running a sports bar in Chicago and then his own restaurant in Benton Harbor, decided to join his dad in the winery. After his dad’s passing about seven years ago at age 73, Gunnar took the helm at Baroda Founders. He makes the wines along with assistant winemaker DeVino James — and yes, that’s the name his mama gave him. “She wanted a Vinnie, but she didn’t want a Vincent or Vince, so named him DeVino. I guess with a name like that, he didn’t have an option but to join the wine trade,” Gunnar says.
Q: Did you learn to make wine when you were growing up?
A: My brother and I did all the cellar work with direction from my dad and the assistant winemaker. I did whatever he told me. It was only later, when my dad talked me into joining him (at Baroda Founders) that I found out the reasons behind what I was actually doing. Basically, those first three years, it was a refresher course on why I did everything the way I did it back when I was a kid.
Q: How have you felt about your decision to come into the winery?
A: I love it. It’s a great change. People love coming out to the wineries. The customers are wonderful. Working on trying to make a great wine is fun. It’s very similar to being in the bar and restaurant business, but the cocktail is now 200 cases, not just one glass.
Q: How has the wine industry evolved in Southwest Michigan over the years?
A: I remember when I was a kid, it was just Tabor Hill and Fenn Valley and older wineries like St. Julian and a couple that are gone now, so there were only, like, six wineries back then. My father would say, “One day there will be 50 wineries” and now we have (175-plus) in Michigan. Wow, he was right.
Also back then, the wine industry in Michigan was just really starting in its infancy, so it was guys trying to prove that we could make wine here. Now it’s proof that we can make great wines here. People thought we could only make Concords and stuff like that, but now people know we can grow great Cab Francs and Pinot Noirs and Riesling and wines like that.
Q. And how has Baroda Founders fared over this past year of COVID?
A: We’re getting by. Luckily we had a lot of understanding landlords and people at the beginning, and then we actually had a really good summer even with all the (reduced) capacity rules. We drastically had to reduce the amount of people we could serve and eliminate big tour groups. But all the customers were really understanding and the summer was awesome.
Q: What are your biggest challenges going forward?
A: I like to hope that most people are vaccinated and we can get back to 100 percent capacity and back to normal. Other than that, our challenge is getting our name out there and finding more distribution in Michigan and Illinois and Indiana. For the wine industry in general, the key is marketing. A lot of people have caught on that Michigan makes great wines, but we still have a ways to go to get the mainstream public to know how great our wines are.
Q: What are you most excited about right now?
A: We’re starting on our bottling process of our last vintage, and it was a really nice year, so we’re pretty excited about the wines we have coming out in the short run. It was a pretty good fall where the grapes were able to ripen. Everything went right. And in general, the big excitement is watching everything grow, our business grow, the wine industry in general growing and all the other fun aspects of that.