Entrepreneur with Duluth ties owns Croatian winery for funLee R. Anderson took his father’s small plumbing supply business and built a multibillion dollar corporation with about 40 businesses and more than 10,000 employees. But for fun, he has a vineyard in Croatia.
By: Candace Renalls, Duluth News Tribune
Lee R. Anderson took his father’s small plumbing supply business and built a multibillion dollar corporation with about 40 businesses and more than 10,000 employees.
But for fun, he has a vineyard in Croatia.
A couple of years ago, Anderson’s Korta Katarina wines began being served at Bellisio’s Italian Restaurant where special wine dinners are held occasionally, hosted by the winery owners themselves.
So when Anderson — owner and chairman of Twin Cities-based APi Group Inc. — was the keynote speaker at the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce annual dinner in October, Grandma’s Restaurants President Brian Daugherty asked Anderson if he’d do a wine dinner at Bellisio’s featuring his Croatian wines. Grandma’s Restaurants owns Bellisio’s in Duluth’s Canal Park.
“To my surprise, he said he’d love to,” Daugherty said.
Anderson said he’d be back in town the second week in December, so a date was set. But with all the planning and product research that goes into these wine dinners, that didn’t leave a lot of time. Still, Daugherty vowed to make it work.
“We slam dunked this one in six weeks,” Daugherty said last week. “That’s about as tight as you want to get.”
Anderson, reached at his Naples, Fla., home, said he agreed to do the event because Bellisio’s features his wines and is a good customer.
“Besides, we know a lot of people in Duluth,” he said. “And we’re interested in getting more exposure for our wine.”
Anderson has strong ties to Duluth. He owns two mansions on London Road. He bought the Jamar Co. in 1985 and several other specialty contracting firms in the Twin Ports. With businessman Rob Link, Anderson formed A&L Properties, which has restored historic buildings and helped transform areas of Duluth. A&L was behind the development of the Duluth Technology Village, Wieland Block, Bridgeman-Russell Building, the Duluth Athletic Club reconstruction, Oneota Industrial Park and more.
Anderson, 74, and his wife, Penny, will be featured at the four-course wine dinner at Bellisio’s on Dec. 11 with each course designed to complement one of Korta Katarina’s four wines — a white wine, a bold red, a robust rose and a premium red wine. The event’s 70 seats, which cost $99 each, are expected to sell out.
The wine dinners that have been held twice a year for about five years at Bellisio’s aren’t necessarily moneymakers. Rather, they’re held to promote the appreciation of fine wines teamed with gourmet courses. They’re made more memorable when the winemakers themselves walk guests through the wine pairings, pointing out flavors and nuances, Daugherty said.
But Bellisio’s is making extra efforts on this one, Daugherty said, with a menu that includes wild pheasant, oysters Rockefeller and mascarpone flan.
“We’re looking at producing an over-the-top menu and not necessarily minding our dollars and cents,” he said. “We want to step up to his offerings. We want to make him proud.”
That’s because Korta Katarina wines are unique, he said.
“His wines are so different from anything you’ve ever had,” Daugherty said. “And they have such complexity, with many layers of flavors. They’re really wonderful.”
A winery is born
The vineyard is a dramatic departure for Anderson, since most of the APi Group’s firms are industrial and specialty contractors.
“It really has nothing to do with the other businesses,” Anderson said. “We collect wine. We have always been interested in wine.”
For Anderson and his wife, their winery venture began while they were on a humanitarian mission to war-ravaged Croatia in 2001 to help rebuild schools and infrastructure. While there, they were introduced to the local wines.
Once the couple sampled Croatian wines, they took an interest in the locally grown grapes that gave the wines their unique flavors. Inspired, they looked for a small winery to buy in Croatia. After two years of unsuccessful searching, they decided to start their own vineyard and winery. They bought an abandoned hotel on the edge of Orebic, a town on the Adriatic coast in southern Croatia. The white stone building had been used to house Soviet troops when they controlled the area.
On 12 acres of nearby parcels, they had various varieties of grape vines planted that are only found in Western Europe. They had planned on using the old hotel as the winery. But when they found it wasn’t big enough to produce enough wine to someday break even, they built a new winery next door to the hotel. Korta Katarina Winery opened for business in 2005.
“It was never part of my business plan at all,” Anderson said of owning a winery. “We’re in the wine business because we enjoy it and want to have fun with it.”
The winery allows for the production of 120,000 bottles a year. But it currently produces 40,000 bottles because the effects of the recession are lingering in Europe, and demand there is soft, Anderson said.
They named the winery Korta Katarina, after their daughter and her business, which handles the wines’ importation to the United States and its distribution. Translated from Croatian, Korta Katarina means “Katharine’s Garden,” the name of the business.
Twenty percent of the wines — or 8,000 bottles a year — are exported to the United States and distributed in Florida, Minnesota, New York and Illinois.
In Duluth, the Korta Katarina’s wines are available at Bellisio’s, ranging from $38 to $90 a bottle, while the white wine also is available for $10.75 per glass. Other places in Duluth offering the wine include Northland Country Club, Kitchi Gammi Club, Black Woods and Cash Wise Liquor, Anderson said.
Anderson wants to reopen the hotel and see it become a draw for wine enthusiasts. For in Croatia, Anderson said, the only useful purpose for seaside properties is in the hospitality industry. Winery tours already are being offered on the property.
Restoration of the four-story structure into spacious hotel suites has begun, with completion of the first of four floors coming next year, he said.
“So we can have a wine bar in the summer on the patio,” he said.
“We are right off the beach. It’s a popular spot in the summer, and people will be able to walk right up.”
With a team running the winery and vineyard year-round, Anderson and his wife visit two or three times a year.
“We don’t just spend it at the winery,” Anderson said. “We travel around. We love the area and the activities there. At my age, I’m interested in doing things that interest me and in having fun doing it.”