January 10, 2017
By Joe Stumpe
Physicians going back to Hippocrates have extolled the virtues of wine. Drs. David and Natalie Sollo, who started their own winery a decade ago, say making the stuff is nearly as pleasurable as consuming it.
"This is where I get away," David Sollo said, surveying the vineyard at Grace Hill Winery. "You need a little peace and beauty in your life."
Members of KU School of Medicine-Wichita's pediatrics interest group got a look at that peace and beauty when the Sollos hosted them earlier this fall. Natalie Sollo is an associate professor of pediatrics at KU.
She and David have transformed a farm 25 miles northeast of Wichita into a full-fledged winery, with presses, tanks and other equipment to make vino, plus a tasting room and event center to enjoy it. David, although happy to show off the place, would never tout a winery as a safe investment to the future physicians who visited. "I call it my money reduction program," he jokes.
As his comment suggests, the Sollos are both proud and self-effacing about their enterprise. David says you have to be a little crazy to grow wine grapes in Kansas.
"It gets too hot, too cold, too windy, too dry," he said.
Maybe so, but the Sollos harvested 25 tons of grapes this year, their most to date and enough to produce over 50,000 bottles of wine. Grace Hill wine is sold in many liquor stores in Wichita, El Dorado and Newton. The winery bottles a dozen different wines, the most popular being its Peckerhead Red (a sweet red wine named for the not-so-sweet winery rooster, since departed) and Dodging Tornadoes.
The Sollos met during their first week of school at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and were married before moving to Cincinnati to complete their residencies. Arriving in Wichita in 1989, they fell in with a group of physicians who are wine enthusiasts, including Drs. Denny Ross, Ray Fisher, Chuck McGuire and Theo Mellion.
"Some of them initially thought it was a lark," David said of his friends' reaction to Grace Hill. "Now that they see how far we've come, they're pretty excited about it, and a lot of them come out, so it's fun."
The Sollos didn't train professionally to become winemakers. Instead, they took what they learned from many years of traveling to wineries around the nation and world and put it to use. David says their educational background - both were chemistry majors as undergrads - probably helped, too.
Of the two, David spends more time in the vineyard - trellising, pruning or spraying, depending on the season - while Natalie handles the extensive bookkeeping connected with producing an alcoholic beverage. But both take part in all aspects of the operation.
Most of the wines are blends made up of juice from two or more kinds of grapes. When it comes time to combine them, the Sollos call in friends with experienced wine palates to help.
"We all sit down at a table and start blending and take extensive notes," David said.
The colorful artwork on most of their bottle labels was created by Janet Fisher, who is married to Ray Fisher. The Sollos' two sons, Jeff and Brian, also work at Grace Hill.
The grapes are harvested with the help of hundreds of volunteers who show up on weekends in the fall. In exchange for picking grapes, they're treated to a free lunch and wine. The winery also holds events like its fall release party, which drew 180 people last month to sample six new vintages. And it's a popular venue for weddings and other private events, thanks to an observation deck and rows of grapes made for postcard-perfect photos.
The Sollos, who live on the property, say its location allows David to reach Wichita within 30 minutes when he's on call.
"As much as we love this," Natalie said, "we're still doctors and don't want to give that up."
Grace Hill winery is located at 6310 S. Grace Hill Rd., just off K-96 about 2.5 miles west of Whitewater. For directions, hours and more information, visit gracehillwinery.com.KU School of Medicine-Wichita