You can lead a horse to water, but you can not make it drink merlot.
That’s not quite how the saying goes, but the stunning vision that Rob Lewis created in his new winery blends the past with the present in an old livery stable overlooking the Rock River in downtown Jefferson.
Lewis reflected on a year’s journey where at times completion looked far away.
There was the extensive remodeling, a journey to find the perfect food and wine and, oh yes, a pandemic.
“I kept telling my wife I just needed to get to the finish line,” he recalled.
A year ago, when he first saw the place, Lewis had an idea for a winery on two levels of the three-story building.
The structure was close to being demolished, but Lewis found an opportunity to create — something he has done when he makes wine, trying to coax the perfect flavors that only the most patient and nurturing makers can do.
After putting ideas on paper, he came up with Stable Rock Winery and Distillery, which celebrated its grand opening Saturday.
“This spot on the river has a long history of being a livery,” he said, looking out a large window that showcases the river.
Lewis, who also owns Lewis Station Winery in Lake Mills, captured the German heritage of the community in his interior design and wines.
“Some of the wines will be German influence,” he said.
Walking along the main level of the structure, Lewis showed the changes he made from when the building was a sports bar and brewery. There is a saddle and pictures of the original livery along the front wall of the winery, and plenty of steins showing off the brewing heritage of the city.
There’s even a true story of a horse thief decorating the wall.
But what makes this bar special is the wine rack. When he bought the place, Lewis found a piece of the top of the building wrapped in canvas. It reads: “Boll’s Livery.” The original name in 1903.
The main tasting area has a long bar and there are plenty of tables at which to sit. But what makes this cozy is the leather furniture in front of the window that captures the beauty of the area.
“There were only two windows in the building,” Lewis said of when he purchased the building.
The new window, Lewis said, was one of the missing pieces to create a look for the property.
Lewis got into wine himself the same way most people do — through a friend who introduced him to a big, bold red.
“Like everyone, I started off with sweet varietals,” he said. “Then I had my ‘ah-ha’ moment.”
That was in 2004 when his friend gave him a Zinfandel.
“I remember my first taste was dry,” he said of his reaction. “I can’t drink this.”
But his friend paired that with some amazing pizza.
“I had such and out-of-body experience.”
Getting a winemaking kit from his wife, Lewis started off on an adventure, and became a sommelier.
But that didn’t stop there for him. He then went to the University of California-Davis to study how to make wine. Not far from Napa, it is considered to be a top school for studying viticulture and horticulture.
At UC-Davis, he learned the chemistry behind wine. And found out what that made him think about.
“I was absorbed into the wine business at this point,” he said.
Lewis started to teach wine appreciation classes in Lake Mills and opened a wine tasting shop. Then, in 2011, he opened Lewis Station Winery.
As last year rolled around, the City of Jefferson approached him about the old livery building.
“I always thought Jefferson was a hidden gem,” he said, adding that he is glad to be part of the city’s redevelopment.
When he saw the condition of the building, he thought: “What did I get myself into?”
The entire first level where the horse stalls used to be had a drop ceiling covered in mold. Now it features a bar with a fireplace for an event space.
On a tour of the building, he pointed out the details along every spot in the place, including restrooms that resemble horse stalls.
“I want people to feel a sense of place,” he said.
“That’s why I did it this way. It creates an experience.”
Lewis also gave a glimpse of the next step in the process — a distillery. He is looking at making bourbon.
For wine lovers, the place is a chance to journey over two floors of wide-open space, tasting a selection of wine with names like the Jeffersonian.
Lewis sources the grapes from Lodi, Calif., not far from Napa.
The goal, he says, is not to make you switch from a sweet to a dry wine drinker with pinots and syrahs. But he wants you to experience something new on your wine journey.
And part of that journey is food. At Stable Rock, Lewis has a chef who studied at the Culinary Institute of America near Napa.
From sandwiches to wood-fired pizza, the flavors blend with the wines, letting people taste what a pairing can do.
“Here. Try this wine with this piece of cheese,” he said.
Lewis also travels to the Bavarian House in Madison to get meat for a charcuterie board that also features a 10-year-old cheddar.
Last Saturday, Lewis was in his element greeting customers that included Bernie Brewer. Bernie and the Racing Sausages were visiting “Goat Fest” at Rotary Waterfront Park next door.
The goal for the winery is to surprise people with an experience, he said.
“I’m finally here,” he said of the feeling he is trying to create.
While he might be a winemaker, Lewis also loves his own search for the next best thing. He quotes the movie “Sideways” often and has a signed poster. If that movie taught wine lovers anything, it is that the search for wine leads to so much more in life — if only for a weekend.
And if they want to drink merlot, we are drinking merlot.
Just leave the horse at home.