Couple Adds Twist to Winemaking in Kansas

Couple Adds Twist to Winemaking in Kansas
Bryan and Gina Zesiger like to share their personal story along with their wines at Z&M Twister Wines in Kansas.

Bryan and Gina Zesiger like to say that their personal story curls throughout the vines of their business: Z&M Twisted Wines.

“When people ask where I’m from, Gina says ‘Everywhere but nowhere,’” Bryan said. “It’s sorta funny but true as that was my military experience. I wasn’t really in any one place longer than a year or two.”

Bryan and Gina have made Kansas their home, with a vineyard and tasting room in Lawrence and winery in Leavenworth.

“So now, it’s great to say we chose Kansas and are literally rooted down with our vineyard,” said Bryan, who has a legacy of military service in his family. His father was in the Air Force and his grandfather in the Army.
Bryan was born in Fairbanks, Alaska, to Jessi and Anne Zesiger, but moved to Texas at 6 months old and grew up in Deer Park, a town outside Houston. His father was a Deer Park police officer after his service.

After graduating high school, Bryan attended the University of New Mexico and participated in ROTC, but ultimately declined a commission.

Bryan and Gina Zesiger love to welcome visitors to their tasting room.

Bryan and Gina Zesiger love to welcome visitors to their tasting room.

His military journey included service in Fort Polk, Louisiana; Korea; Fort Bragg, North Carolina; Fort Story, Virginia; Fort Rucker, Alabama; Fort Bliss, Texas; Fort Campbell, Kentucky; and Fort Leavenworth in Kansas.

“I served in Haiti and Mali as a senior advisor to the United Nations and completed two combat tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan as an Apache pilot, earning accolades including the Bronze Star,” he said.

Bryan says his roots in agriculture are deep, with grandparents who owned extensive row crops in the Texas panhandle. That cultivated a tradition of cotton farming for generations, he added.

“While I’m the first in my lineage to venture into grape growing, Gina’s heritage boasts thousands of years of grape cultivation in Sicily, adding a rich agricultural dimension to our family history,” he said. “She’s first-generation Sicilian and her family owns vineyards, so her parents have been great wine critics for us on our regional varietals.”

Making Wine in Kansas

While Kansas may not be a place most people envision for vineyards, Bryan said not to sell the state short.

“It has a historical significance as a top-five grape producer prior to Prohibition,” Bryan explained. “Unfortunately, the onset of Prohibition in Kansas had a profound impact, setting back the state’s winemaking industry. Despite this, Kansas boasts an excellent growing climate for grapes, and it has around 88 farm wineries that produce exceptional wines.”

Gina said the concept for Z&M Twisted Wines – the Z for Zesiger and M for Gina’s maiden name of Montalbano – was to be different from the outset.

“We try to tell our story especially with Bryan’s unique military adventures and experiences because that’s what we know,” she said.

They joke that even their initial meeting might be considered a bit twisty as it came through an online dating site.

Gina was an elementary principal whose staff set her up on the dating site to help push her into getting out there.

Bryan, meanwhile, was stationed at Fort Leavenworth and had tried a few dating sites without much luck.

Their joke is that Gina was too picky on her first go-round of candidates, but then ultimately swiped right on Bryan’s profile. They met and found connections in their personalities and interests, like wine.

“Bryan likes to say that when dreaming up our wines he now — after 26 years military — gets to color outside the box. It’s so much fun for us to surprise people, tell our story and help them understand that wine can be for everyone.”

Z&M Twisted Wines has a variety of wines

Z&M Twisted Wines has a variety of wines that appeals to numerous palates.

“We craft both traditional and, of course, Twisted wines,” she added. “We grow about 12 varieties of grapes for our varietals (reds and whites). Then, we created our signature jalapeño red, like Hellfire, all the way to having something for the sweet wine drinker with our Blackhawk Blackberry.

“These innovative blends, like the newest Double Tap series, reaches 20% ABV (alcohol by volume), blending our in-house made brandy with our wine. The winery is playing a crucial role in reviving vineyards and winemaking in Kansas, showcasing the state’s potential as a great wine producer.”

Wine Leadership

Gina and Bryan are active in the Kansas Viticulture and Farm Wineries Association, where Gina serves as president.

“We have really worked to help Kansas vineyards and wineries collaborate and elevate Kansas,” she said. “In fact, the first American Viticulture Area (AVA) is underway for Kansas because of our organization. The Kaw Valley AVA will be a huge win to celebrate our area in Northeast Kansas. It’s huge to showcase Kansas for the first time and be a part of that legacy moving forward.”

Bryan said the wine name reflects not only the initials of their last names, but their story.

“It symbolizes a true love story – twisted in life, love, and now wine,” he said. “This concept seamlessly extends into our marketing and branding. As Gina and I collaborate daily, whether outdoors, indoors, or while traveling, the name encapsulates our shared journey as we engage with people about viticulture, winemaking, and life post-military retirement.”

Bryan said a great team of dedicated individuals makes their operation thrive.

“Like in farming and the military, I believe teamwork is crucial,” he said. “Our employees play a vital role, handling daily tasks, deliveries, social media, and all aspects of running a full-time vineyard and winery. Their dedication allows us to grow, share the Twisted story, and extend our reach throughout Kansas and beyond.”

Gina added, “It’s not easy keeping the staff we need, but hard work and tenacity, especially going through Covid, just made us stronger. Bryan is the guy who, no matter what comes his way, stays positive and can work through it, so the two of us are a great balance in our farm business.

“He’s the guy that when someone asks ‘glass half-full or glass half-empty’ … I say Bryan is the guy who is just fine having the glass and he’ll make it work.”

The Joy of Winemaking

Winemaking brings them a particular joy.

“Winemaking, for both of us, is an experience of creating something that reflects who we are and what we enjoy drinking,” Bryan said.

Gina replied, “It’s us in bottles … our story.

“Unlike the structured environment of the military, winemaking allows us to color outside the lines and be a bit more twisted, providing a therapeutic outlet. Developing wines, labels, and the stories behind them, is a fulfilling process.

“The true joy comes when we present the wine, its story, and label to customers, friends, and family. Sharing a tasting with someone genuinely brings us joy to see our wine being appreciated along with the story.”

Homegrown by Heroes

The FVC Homegrown By Heroes label on their wines helps to share that story, they said.

“The Homegrown By Heroes label has been a pivotal factor not only for our business but also for the transition from 26 years of military service to civilian life,” Bryan said. “Shifting from a military career to civilian life while venturing into farming and starting a vineyard is a challenging journey. Homegrown By Heroes has played a crucial role in connecting, supporting, and guiding us through this agricultural and business experience. 

“The organization has been instrumental in helping us establish a network and connect with other Veterans, facilitating a smoother transition into civilian life.

“We are proud to have the logo on every bottle of our wine!”

Gina concurs.

“Utilizing the nationally recognized Homegrown By Heroes brand allows us to proudly signify that our wine is grown and produced by a Veteran,” she said. “There is a deep respect for Veterans transitioning into communities and becoming vital contributors, especially in the agricultural sector. 

“Homegrown By Heroes has significantly contributed to our growth, the establishment of our network, and our success as a winery and vineyard.”

Other Products

Z&M Twisted Wines partners with local businesses to showcase additional products. Twisted works with Alma Creamery to make and co-brand two kinds of cheese that has its wines marbled through the blocks: Hellfire White Cheddar and Blacked Out Cherry Coffee White Cheddar.

The winery’s byproducts are made into products sold under the Bello Vino name, offering soaps, lip balms and jellies.

“We believe in sustainability, using everything we can with little waste,” Bryan said. “We just added Southdown Babydoll sheep to our vineyard for grazing.”

Southdown Babydoll sheep have been added to the vineyards for grazing.

Southdown Babydoll sheep have been added to the vineyards for grazing.

Gina and Bryan said they hope visitors come for the wine and stay for the experience at the family-friendly and pet-friendly (on a leash, please!) vineyard and tasting room in Lawrence.

Gina said Bryan could spend the entire day talking with customers and sharing their wines.

“It brings a lasting smile to him as he meets new people, connecting to our community,” she said. “I love watching him; he’s so excited and proud.

“Winemaking, for us, is essentially storytelling through a delightful glass of wine.”


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