BY LORI ACKEN | PHOTOS BY DAVID SZYMANSKI
On a brisk December day, passersby at the busy intersection of Lincoln and Kinnickinnic Avenues can’t help but notice a wall-sized, televised “fireplace” blazing in the former home of Bay View’s Refuge Café. Those curious enough to further investigate the signage-free spot find themselves inside Voyager, Milwaukee’s newest wine experience. One deliberately unlike others around the metro area.
Behind the bar stands Voyager’s trio of owners — elegant blond Kathryn “Katy” Lochmann (a Froedtert nurse by day), her bearded gentle giant of a husband Micah Buck, and their partner Jordan Burich, who counters his friends’ collective calm with an effervescence that makes it patently clear that he’s happy to be here. Their customers — including a klatch of rock stars from Milwaukee’s bar and restaurant scene seated at the far end of the bar — seem pretty pleased to be here too.
Pick your reasons why. Voyager’s bustling location invites irresistible people watching and a colorful clientele. And Bay View, long an enclave of funky-cool bars and restaurants, never really had a spot to indulge in the grape. Plus, Burich, Buck and Lochmann have a simple, agreeable take on what that pastime should look like: fun, unfussy and explorer-friendly. Glasses (plus a selection of beer and cocktails) here are both intriguing and surprisingly affordable. And the group encourages patrons to bring in food from neighboring establishments to make the evening last.
Burich says he launched his career as “a back-of-house guy, and migrated to the front,” while Buck honed his skills in Chicago and beyond. Eventually, both found themselves working for well-known Milwaukee restaurateurs Dan Van Rite and Dan Jacobs, becoming part of a tightknit industry family and enjoying a front row seat to each other’s expanding talents. When Burich turned an eye toward opening a place of his own, Buck and Lochmann realized they had similar ambitions — and a stash of money to make them a reality.
“Between the three of us, we all have bigger dreams and goals and plans for different aspects of this sort of thing,” says Burich. “But we wanted to have a nice, simple first step … a great spot to get affordable wine in Bay View.” Not to mention a home base for their hardworking comrades in the restaurant industry, many of who call Bay View home and are wary of the influx of hyper-modern condos and skyrocketing property values.
“Gentrification is hard to live through, especially if you’re someone who works in the service industry here and isn’t making a ton of money,” says Burich, who only recently moved his growing family out of the neighborhood (Buck and Lochmann lost their own Bay View home to a devastating fire, rallying the Voyager family on both sides of the bar). “But a bunch of our friends own really cool businesses down here. For us it’s a badge of honor to be Bay View business owners and support the community.”
“We want people to be able to afford to drink here,” Buck stresses. “That’s a big thing for us. I’ve worked in kitchens my entire adult life, and you could be making some of the best food in the city, being nominated for a James Beard Award, and you can’t afford to go and have a nice glass of wine. … So we have unique, interesting labels, from unique, interesting growers.”
And some single, special bottles that the trio say they’re willing to “take a bit of a bath on” to parse out in economical tasting sizes and onto the palates of eager
“I don’t know this as fact, but I would argue that half of the wines that we have on our shelf aren’t being poured by the glass in the city,” Burich says. “You can only get them by the bottle. … You can come here and have a glass for $14 or have a half a glass for $7, and you’re not making that kind of commitment to something that you don’t know anything about.
“We want people who are wine nerds to find adventurous bottles, and we want people who are new to wine or less adventurous to have something comforting and familiar on the list,” Burich continues. “For us it’s really about just celebrating wine and camaraderie.”
“There’s no need for pretension or arrogance,” Buck says. “The fact of the matter is these are grapes that were grown by a farmer. Then they were put into a tank and fermented. Then they were put into a bottle, and we bought the farmer’s juice. It’s just juice that’s been well taken care of.” MKE