Wine company stakes its claim on top-shelf sangria

When cabernet-drinker Jennifer Clearwater discovered Lovino Sangria, she bought the label, tweaked the recipe, started a distribution business

PORT WASHINGTON’S Jennifer Clearwater has two careers, one as director of philanthropy for Discovery World and the other as owner and distributor of Lovino Sangria. The wine is sold at several Port businesses, including Bernie’s Fine Meats. Photo by Sam Arendt
Kristyn Halbig Ziehm
Ozaukee Press staff

Jennifer Clearwater enjoys a glass of wine now and again, usually a California cabernet.

But her palate — and wine collection — has expanded to include a sangria, Lovino Sangria.

“I am not a sangria drinker,” Clearwater said. “I only drink this.”

That’s just one of the reasons it’s so unusual that the Port Washington woman owns a company that produces and distributes just one wine —Lovino Sangria.

“There’s a lot of cheaply made sangrias out there,” Clearwater said. “Ours is not. It’s a high-quality product. When we make ours, the focus is on the cabernet Franc (the wine’s base) first.

“That’s my challenge, to get people to see it’s a higher quality wine.”

Lovino, she said, is 90% cabernet Franc with flavors of ripe summer berries, a little coconut and a little orange, creating a unique taste that seems to appeal to many people.

It’s also a relatively strong beverage, 12.5% alcohol.

“That does pack a punch,” she said.

   And while many people think of a wine like sangria as a summer drink, Clearwater  is working to change that perception.

     “We’re in Wisconsin. We drink cold things all the time,” she said. “We drink cold beer year-round. We drink iced cocktails year-round.”

    The story of Lovino isn’t just her story, Clearwater said. The wine was developed by Erica and Jamie Zdroik of Milwaukee, who started out making the sangria in their kitchen and later had 1,000 cases bottled by the Von Stiehl Winery.

    Clearwater saw the wine on the shelves at a local grocer in 2012 and decided to try it.

    “It was summer and it just sounded refreshing,” she said. “I loved it. I was shocked that I liked it because I don’t like sweet drinks.”

    She persuaded her husband Rob to try it as well, and he loved it too.

    “We just looked at each other like, this is a miracle wine,” she said, noting they have divergent tastes in wine.

    Lovino became a part of their tradition, relaxing on a Sunday night, watching “Game of Thrones” and sharing a bottle.

    Then in 2014, they discovered that the Zdroiks had put their company up for sale after having a baby. Clearwater inquired about the business, but the price was too high and they had other offers on the table.

     “I walked away, but it just kept gnawing at me,” Clearwater said. “It wouldn’t leave my mind.”

    In the summer of 2016, when she couldn’t find Lovino in stores anymore, Clearwater searched for an alternative.

    “I was trying all these other sangrias, and they all stunk,” she said. “I thought, ‘This thing is really good and it should be out there but it isn’t.’”

    So she contacted the Zdroiks to see what had happened to their company. Over coffee, Erica Zdroik told her the other offers had fallen through and there wasn’t much left to buy.

    Through the years, Clearwater had done her research on the wine business and one thing became clear to her — to do it right, she had to become a manufacturer, distributor or retailer. She settled on becoming a distributor.

    “This would in essence become our private label,” she said.

    Clearwater said she garnered invaluable information from a number of sources, including CJ and Jim Wirsching-Neuser of Vines to Cellar in Port.

    The Clearwaters bought Lovino in November 2016, including the recipe, brand name and logo. She set about finding a manufacturer, looking for someone who made a cabernet Franc, the basis for Lovino. 

    Von Stiehl was looking to produce higher volumes for private labels than Lovino needed, Clearwater said, so she searched for another manufacturer. Ultimately she found Mona Rose Winery in Ashwaubenon. Winemaker Craig Fletcher was already working with other private labels, she said, as well as making his own wines.

    “I loved the Franc base,” she said. “It was perfect.”

    They then set about perfecting the recipe, since the one that they purchased wasn’t quite right. 

    “The first batch was tart,” Clearwater said, so they sat down in a back room at the winery and began experimenting.

    “It was like we had a chemistry set. We would add a drop of this, a little of that and taste. Then we’d add a little more, a few more drops. Finally I said, ‘I think we’ve got it because I can’t stop drinking it.’”

    They had their recipe, and Fletcher produced their first 100 cases. Lovino was released in July 2017.

    “Then I had to find some places that wanted to retail it,” Clearwater said. She had filed the paperwork with state and federal agencies to become a distributor, acquiring warehouse space and showing the intent to distribute the wine to at least 10 places.

    She — aided by her husband and father John Tankovitch — began hustling around to find retailers, concentrating first on Port Washington and the surrounding areas, figuring her friends would try it because they know her and would become hooked. 

    Lovino is carried by about 14 retailers, among them Bernie’s Fine Meats, Wicked Grille and Sir James Pub in Port.

    “I’m kind of loving working with family-owned retailers,” Clearwater said. “I like the idea that I’m building a brand and also driving people to these places.”

    Her strategy, she said, is to get people to try Lovino, and if they like it they’ll buy it. To do that, she persuaded a number of the nonprofit groups running Port’s beer garden to carry it, as well as festivals.

    “I told them, if you’re like me and you go to the beer garden but don’t like beer, you look for wine,” she said.

    Clearwater, whose other job is director of philanthropy at Discovery World in Milwaukee, also donated wine to fundraisers to expose people to her brand.

    It seems to be working. Work is progressing on her second 100 cases of Lovino, which should be ready in May.

    It’s been a nerve-wracking experience at times,” Clearwater said.

    “In the beginning, you’re like ‘Is anyone going to like it? Maybe I just like it,’” she said. “But things are going well. The people who like this, really, really like this, and I’m extremely grateful.”

    As Lovino grows, Clearwater said, she wants to bring as much of the business to Port as she can. 

    “It’ll be a nice legacy for a community that was a good place to grow up in and where I raised my family,” she said. “Port’s been very good to us.”

    Lovino is currently available primarily in Wisconsin, although Clearwater wants to make it a national — and someday an international — brand.

    “I would love to see it distributed globally,” she said. “That’s the 30-year goal. But right now, it’s baby steps.”



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