When Steve Johnson and Maria Milano honeymooned in Napa Valley in the mid-90s, the experience led to a life-altering career change.
“It was a beautiful, sunny day,” Johnson said. “We were at Coppola Winery and grabbed a bottle of red and a baguette, ventured into the vineyard and said, why not Wisconsin?” He was thinking of the relative absence of Midwest wine culture at the time.
Although they lacked a background in viticulture, they had confidence in their understanding of agriculture, manufacturing and marketing – which is required to create a world of wine.
“We had both been in law, but I am a farm boy at heart, and this, in a sense, was a way to go back to that,” Johnson said. Milano, too, had some ingrained interest in winemaking, growing up with an Italian father who had made wine with friends and neighbors for special occasions.
They forged ahead with the idea, attending wine seminars in their spare time, and finally planting their first vines in 2005. They opened Parallel 44, their Kewaunee location, in 2007. Several expansions and remodels later, they were ready to open a sister winery in Door County, where tourism was focusing more attention on the budding wine industry. Door 44 opened in 2013, and this past week, it relocated to a new, 11,000-square-foot facility on 22 acres off Highway 42 just north of Sturgeon Bay.
The new building has a spacious tasting room and patio and will be able to process, barrel and bottle 150,000 bottles of wine on-site. Right now, the majority of wine production happens at the Kewaunee facility, but the new location will eventually outpace it. The six acres of vineyards next to the building, a short walk from the patio, are growing Marquette and Louise Swenson grapes – varieties that have been specifically developed for the region. At harvest time, the vineyard produces about 25 tons of grapes.
“At our old space, we really didn’t have the room to add to the experience,” Johnson said. “Here we can give tours of the production, walk the vineyards and include more of the education and entertainment components.” The prior Door 44 tasting room was just two miles south on Highway 42 and has officially closed with the opening of the new space on May 9.
The new location’s design has a contemporary feel, with neutral colors and giant windows on three sides. An abundance of natural light and local stone helps to bring the outside in. A circular tasting bar sits in the center of the room, and the surrounding areas offer large tables and benches for group seating. On warm days, wall sections can be drawn up like garage doors to allow guests to wander out to the shaded patio that overlooks the vines.
Johnson believes that in order to keep moving the wine culture forward in Wisconsin, vintners need to find more ways to connect the wine to its terroir, or location. Door 44 does this by using only Wisconsin-grown grapes and educating guests about why these grapes and wine varieties are distinctive.
“Just as you can order a Cab from Napa, you could order a wine from Wisconsin Ledge,” Johnson said. However, that poster-child Wisconsin wine has yet to be determined. “It could be rosé,” he said. “The cool summers here lead to high-acid wines.”
One thing is certain: this region of Wisconsin is on the 44th north latitude – the same parallel as the great wine regions of Bordeaux in France and Tuscany in Italy. This means our climate shares many similarities with these regions that are known for producing fantastic wine.
“Those climates create some of the best wines in the world, which is why I believe there’s a great future potential for our region,” Johnson said. “To keep building that reputation, we need more winemakers and more education. Wine is all about sharing information, and there’s always more to learn.”
The new Door 44 location is open year-round, with tours and tastings daily. Visit 44wineries.com to learn more about tours, events and its available wines. Representatives from Door 44 will also be at the Door County Wine Fest on June 22, along with staff from seven other Door County wineries.
Listen to Aleah Kidd and Andrew Kleidon talk with Door 44’s owner Steve Johnson on the Door County Pulse Podcast, here.