• Army couple turns wine interest into business

  • When Maj. Bryan Zesiger met his now-wife Gina Montalbano while he was deployed to Rome in 2016, it wasn’t long before they discovered their shared love of wine.

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  • Katie Peterson | Staff Writer
    When Maj. Bryan Zesiger met his now-wife Gina Montalbano while he was deployed to Rome in 2016, it wasn’t long before they discovered their shared love of wine.
    Having been in the military for more than 20 years, Zesiger’s love of wine formed while traveling around the world with the Army, and Montalbano, a first-generation Sicilian-American, got her love from her heritage. It only made sense that when they were looking for things to do for date nights, they joined a wine group in Kansas City, Mo., to learn how to make wine, and they were soon tossing around ideas of different wines they could make. Two years later, they opened the doors of Z&M Twisted Vines Wines and Winery on Oct. 26, 2018, in Leavenworth.
    Z&M was a featured stop on the third and final session of the Kansas Farm Union Summer Fun Farm Tour Series Aug. 19. The tour, which is sponsored by the KFU, Farmer Veterans Coalition of Kansas and other agricultural entities, also included Schwinn Produce Farm and Oregon Trail Farm.
    “I was introduced to Bryan and Gina and, seeing that they were veterans and getting into agriculture vineyard operations, I began to talk to them about what the FVC could do for them,” said retired Col. Ken DeVan, FVC of Kansas president and Oregon Trail Farm proprietor. “FVC is focused on helping service members make the transition to agriculture easier. I’m always looking at different agricultural sectors. Wine is unique and could help others identify their next career.”
    When Z&M first opened, Zesiger, who is currently assigned to Operations Group X-ray of the Mission Command Training Program, said he and Montalbano didn’t expect it to grow as quickly as it has, but contributes that to their diversely flavored wines.
    “One of our tag lines is there is a wine for a palate and there is a palate for a wine,” he said.
    “There is a lot of these you’ll like. There is some of these you’ll go, ‘no way,’” Montalbano added. “I think that is what makes us unique … That’s part of our niche. We want to appeal to everyone.”
    Some of the diverse flavors of their wines include lemonade, watermelon, blackberry, coffee, pumpkin, jalapeño and tomato. All of the ingredients come from their property in Lawrence, Kan., where they grow five varietals of grapes on six acres, the Leavenworth Farmers Market, local farms such as Schwinn Produce Farm, and friends.
    “The intent of our wine is to deliver some very, very unique flavors,” Zesiger said. “I can make Chardonnay, but there are 5,000 different Chardonnays on the shelf. How do you differentiate?
    Page 2 of 2 - “Business-wise, how can you compete against something like that? You’ve got to make your own niche in life and in business,” he said. “Secondly, why would I want to try to go after the holy grail of Chardonnay? For me, let me show you what I can do with a coffee or a fennel.”
    Zesiger said the flavors are about creating a unique scent, too.
    “Part of our uniqueness is developing an emotional response to what you’re drinking,” he said. “If you can do that with any food or beverage, you’ve won an entire crowd.”
    For example, the blackberry coffee wine has a tobacco flavor to it, which Montalbano said reminds her of her grandfather who rolled his own cigarettes and often smoked a pipe.
    “We ask people to give it a good sniff because that is near and dear to my heart,” she said.
    The flavors and scents of the wines are not the only things that make Z&M wines unique.
    “Each one of our wines and the label tells a story about us, where we’ve been, what we’ve done, and I think that appeals to customers when we share the experience of the wine itself but also through the label,” Montalbano said.
    Z&M wines are made by hand in the cellar of the storefront including punching the grapes, bottling the wine, corking, putting on a metallic cap and labeling each bottle. Eventually, Montalbano said they hope to build a processing facility at their vineyard, a primary goal now that she has retired from more than 20 years in education and Zesiger will retire from active duty on Oct. 31.
    “This is our chapter two,” Montalbano said. “We’ll have more time to devote to this now.
    “We’re a team,” she said. “We can play off each other’s strengths, and I think that is what is so fun about it. Our career paths sometimes, the fun gets sucked out and this has been an amazing outlet for both of us to be able to be creative … It is like a constant conversation with your best friend.”
    Z&M Twisted Vines Wines and Winery, 620 Cherokee St., Leavenworth, is open 3-9 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 3-10 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday.
    Z&M will launch a sister company, Bella Vino Twisted, a line of soaps, lip balms, body scrubs and candles made from leftover wine ingredients, from 2-5 p.m. Aug. 25 at the winery.
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