It would be tremendously difficult to overstate the importance of Joe Henke, owner and winemaker at Cincinnati’s own Henke Winery, to the establishment of Bells Up Winery.
Winemaker Dave at Bells Up owes Joe an enormous debt for generously sharing everything he knew about winemaking from 2009-2012. Joe took Dave under his wing as an unpaid cellar rat, allowing him to help with every aspect of his winemaking process — from sourcing and procuring grapes, through crushing, fermenting, barreling, blending, and bottling. When Dave left in 2012, Joe had taken to calling him “Assistant Winemaker.”
Under Joe’s tutelage, Dave improved his own home winemaking as an amateur, leading to him win two national competitions in 2011, and prompting us to finally make the move to Newberg, Oregon, where we started Bells Up. As we enter our 10th harvest for our label in a few weeks, we wanted to take a moment to again acknowledge Joe and how much we appreciate him…
Because Joe retired last weekend.
It’s absolutely well deserved after 26 years as an institution in the Westwood neighborhood of Cincinnati. Joe decided to hang up his winemaking hat (as well as his restauranteur hat — he ran an eponymous restaurant in addition to making wine) after winning countless awards and being named among the Top Urban Wineries in the country multiple times over the years. Joe was one of the very first winemakers in Ohio, and one of only six in Cincinnati when we begged him to take Dave on as a student, asking him to share how to take winemaking out of the basement and become a professional. The local news did a very nice story on him, here.
The value of Joe’s time and mentorship is something we cannot put a price on. Dave learned so much from him, and he uses those lessons and skills routinely in his own professional winemaking career. Dave is often asked by wine writers to share his biggest winemaking influence, and the answer is always Joe. For example…
The Wine Write: Did you have any mentors that helped you along in those early days?
Dave: A gentleman named Joe Henke was my biggest mentor. I worked with him for almost four years. When Sara and I decided that we would try to do this professionally, Joe agreed to take me on as essentially an unpaid intern at Henke Winery. I got to literally see everything there. Joe is a wizard. He pulled from the same grape sources that the vintner’s club did. He has this old Victorian building in a westside neighborhood in Cincinnati. He makes all his wine in the basement. There’s a restaurant on the first floor. He sells almost all of his wine through the restaurant. He’s been doing this for over twenty-five years. He’s a retired machinist and a former wine hobbyist. His path was very similar to the one I took.
What didn’t Joe teach me? He taught me how to do more with less. He taught me the mental part of winemaking. I was coming from a career where I was used to being in control. I micromanaged everything. In winemaking you aren’t in control of anything. At best you are a caretaker and a guide. You’re trying to reach a range of outcomes that are good. You will drive yourself insane by trying to get to an exact endpoint with wine. Joe taught me how to release a little bit.
Of course, we wish Joe only the best in his retirement, and we’re happy to note that we’ve been able to add a few of his final production wines to our cellar (he may have a few bottles left available for order; check his website). AND, now that he’s free, we’re hoping we can coax him out for an in-person visit sometime soon.